Beating about the Bush

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf Chatto and Windus $255 AUSTRALIAN David Malouf has published eight novels, five books of poetry, an autobiography and some opera libretti. His most recent book Remembering Babylon is up for the Booker Prize this year.

The story deals with the settling of Australia in the 19th century and the effort by some settlers to overcome the perverse racism that prevents immigrants from the crowded tenements of Great Britain from sharing this huge continent with the aborigines.

Mr Malouf pursues this theme with a curious double focus which never comes quite clear, an effect doomed from the outset to be ineffective.

The first focal point concerns a young man who emerges from the bush and is ''rescued'' by a family of white settlers. He represents the dangers the whites fear from the aborigines though he is himself a white man thrown overboard from a passing ship several years earlier.

The second focal point concerns the McIvor family who take the waif in, care for him, and try to protect him and themselves from the increasing malevolence and violence of their neighbours.

The premise might be persuasive but it is surely stacked against the native Australians. That Gemmy is in fact a white man never stalls the neighbours for a second, even though Gemmy, who inhabits a mental world full of aboriginal spirits, does little more than teach the local minister how to find and use local plant life.

In one episode, two aborigines do visit Gemmy in his white outpost. They are seen by whites who then try to murder Gemmy. But no full-scale confrontation between whites and blacks takes place in the novel, so Gemmy's presence produces no real danger except in the thick minds of the white settlers.

Given the failure to explore the collision of two worlds, the book might have devoted far more attention to the mind of Gemmy, to the psychology of a man who has lived in both worlds.

But on this score too the book side-steps the issue. Gemmy's past life in England where he worked as a rat-catcher's assistant returns to him only in nightmares. He has forgotten almost all his first language, and he knows nothing of substance about his homeland or himself. So Mr Malouf need not delve too deeply into a mind divided against itself. He can dwell instead on Gemmy's aboriginal mind.

But aside from some inchoate impressions about superstition, spirits, customs and the native knowledge of living off the land, Gemmy has nothing to add. The white settlers think him an idiot and perhaps he is. He is certainly barely conscious of the world around him except as it preys on fundamental emotions like fear and gratitude. Of his life in the wild he speaks nothing. Of his life in England, he can make no sense.

The white family who rescue Gemmy from the settlers' fury are horrified by their neighbours' racism. They seem possessed by a kind of missionary goodness which is not well-developed or explained. Why should they be so different from the other whites? They seem 20th century liberals transplanted into 19th century Australia. The result is with so little evidence of the rich psychological lives these experiences could reveal, the book has no compelling emotional force.

The structure of the whole demonstrates the absence of such a psychological core. Near the end, Gemmy threatened by the white community merely drifts off into the bush and we never hear from him again.

The chapter ends, we turn the page, and suddenly 40 or 50 years have passed. The senior McIvors are dead and gone. The boy and girl who had shared their childhoods with Gemmy are now a minister of state and a nun. Both their lives have been touched by Gemmy but that's long ago now and they are involved in other lives.

These last 20 pages are the most interesting, the most vital. But they are the opening of a different and far better novel. Gemmy's story never adds up to much. The racism of the settlers is hardly distinguishable from stupid racism anywhere.

The last episode gives promise of interesting writing to come. Placed here, as a last gesture it betrays a promise unkept. Perhaps the Booker should go elsewhere.