Strangeness and Nature in David Malouf

Jörg Heinke, University of Kiel, Germany

Apart from moments in which humans and nature interact in a way that provides an initiation for the characters, the natural environment in Malouf's works presents itself as the enemy to man. Ovid, the settlers and the characters in The Conversations at Curlow Creek have their origins in "civilized" countries and literally have to survive against the harsh and unknown place. Nature with all its mysteries is later personified through Gemmy, the child and Jonas. As they carry more animal-like or Aborigine-like features they are the immediate contact to the hostile land and are therefore seen by most of the figures of the novels as enemies. The prejudices which derive from misinformation and the inability to understand what Gemmy, the Aborigine and the child are and why they are there, lead to fear and to verbal and physical violence against them.

But it is not only they who are the target of objection but also those who protect them. In Ovid's case his situation does not alter much because he is seen as weird anyway. The McIvors on the other hand have to face the difficult task of protecting Gemmy and at the same time - and equally important for them - simply to survive in the new environment where help from others is crucial. Sociologically the most interesting part of Remembering Babylon is the change of attitude, first of the settlers towards Jock McIvor and later his more critical view towards them. Their suspicions are mostly fed by rumours and exaggerations of members from their own inside-group, namely Andy McKillop. He does not (yet) belong to the core of the group but to the peripheral. He is the only one who has seen Gemmy being visited by Aborigines from his tribe and thus holds the monopoly of information about this event. He tries to use his knowledge and adds some invented facts to get recognition in the group firstly and secondly be accepted as a full member of the group. He convinces most of the others of his version with a mixture of causing fear, a loud and persistent voice and his insistence. The inability of Jock McIvor to fight these accusations weakens his position and he is somehow confronted with strange opinions about himself and Gemmy in the group.

After the attack on Gemmy, Jock agrees to remove him from his land and accommodate him at Mrs. Hutchence's. In return he has suspicions about his friends and is unable to regard them without traces of doubt in the future.

What is important in all of the novels is that through experience of strangeness in different areas (with nature, with unknown and known people, with language, with ways of seeing the world and way of seeing the self) the characters either advance towards a more careful and differentiated perception of environment and the self or totally retreat to known and safe ground. This retreat, however, bears the danger that in moments of crises when they might be outnumbered by strangers, their way of handling problems will lead to a breakdown and/or an overthrow of their system. For a time traditional values and accustomed behaviour might provide security. In the long run change is inevitable if one wants to survive.

At the end of Remembering Babylon, fifty years after Gemmy disappeared, Janet McIvor, now a nun and a beekeeper in a convent, looks back on her life and sees the importance of change in her life. Looking at the incoming tide the water has the metaphorical function of knowledge, the moonlight which is reflected by the water serves as a metaphor for understanding and the land symbolises man who is always and for ever in the process of being confronted with fresh and sometimes strange ideas and new mixtures of information. Only in the process of continuing and changing perception we can get close to wisdom and to ourselves.

This document has been adapted by kind permission of the author from the English summary of "The Phenomenon of the Stranger in David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon and The Conversations at Curlow Creek," his University of Kiel Master's thesis. You can contact Jörg Heinke at or visit his personal home page.

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