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Tones of Colonialism (The Poisonwood Bible and Remembering Babylon)

June 3, 2008

Neustadt PrizeFirst, I’m going to talk about the one I can wholeheartedly recommend: David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. It’s my first read for the Neustadt Award challenge; I’ve never done an award challenge before, because they just aren’t that important to me, but this one had a ton of international authors I’d never heard of before. Malouf is an Australian of Lebanese descent, and Remembering Babylon is an incredibly well-written novel exploring aspects of colonisation. First off, it has one of those apocryphal opening lines:

One day in the middle of the nineteenth century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.

I always admire an author who can craft a great first sentence. After that, though, it took me about twenty-five pages to adjust to the book: Malouf has a very lyrical writing style, and I had to slow down before I could begin appreciating it. Then, though, I was hooked! The story takes place in a settlement of Scottish immigrants, and Malouf writes in dialect, which I usually can’t stand but which worked in this instance. I’m not sure how he did it, but I could see all of the characters, and the settlement itself, in perfect detail. Take this passage:

It was the fearful loneliness of the place that most affected her-the absence of ghosts. Till they arrived no other lives had lived here. It made the air that much thinner, harder to breathe. She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with their breath-a threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years, and the names even further; most of all, the names on headstones, which were their names, under which lay the bones that had made their bones and given them breath. They would be the first dead here. It made death that much lonlier, and life lonelier too.

David MaloufIt takes my breath away: not only did Malouf capture what I imagine to be an immigrant’s homesickness, but also this caring, intelligent woman’s utter obliviousness to the Aborigines, who had been dying there for millenia. So exquisite! Anyway, there’s this settlement, and one day Gemmy appears. Gemmy was a white boy who was washed up on the shore of Australia, and he’s been living with the Aborigines for years. Now, he decides to go find out what these new white people are all about. The book blurb said a lot more than that, but Gemmy’s history is revealed slowly in the actual story, and I feel a bit cheated that I knew so much in advance, so I’d recommend avoiding the blurbs. Anyway, the family whose children first ‘found’ Gemmy take him on as a field hand (but more as a charity case):

There was, from the beginning, a bond between him and the three children that went back to their meeting at the fence. They felt a proprietary right to him, having seem him first, and he, with his old instinct for self-preservation, for making the most of a weak position, saw the advantage of placing himself in their protection.

As someone who isn’t white, but isn’t black, Gemmy brings many of the dilemmas and prejudices inherent in colonialism to the forefront.

He had started out white. No question. When he fell in with the blacks-at thirteen, was it?- he had been like any other child, one of their own for instance. (That was hard to swallow.) But had he remained white?
They looked at their children, even the smallest of them chattering away, entirely at home in their tongue, then heard the mere half-dozen words of English this fellow could cough up, and even those so mismanaged and distorted you could barely guess what he was on about, and you had to put to yourself the harder question. Could you lose it? Not just language, but it. It.

Here’s another related passage that really struck me:

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings [with the natives], but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace.

This leads to changes in both themselves and the community. As the father sees his friends’ ugly sides come out, he begins to feel distanced from them:

None of what followed was new, though it wounded him just the same; they were not original, these fellows. What surprised Jock was that not so long ago he would not have seen it, and if he had would have found reassurance in their being so easily predictable. He had begun lately to be critical, even of Jim Sweetman, and he did not want to be. He did not like the experience, which was new, of seein his friends from a distance, of finding them on one side and himself on the other, and the knowledge that if he was seeing them with new eyes, he too, since the distance must work both ways, had become an object of scrutiny.

Isn't this a cool cover?  It wasn't the one of the edition I read, but I don't care.Isn’t that so universal? I think we’ve all been in a similar situation, and Malouf just captures it perfectly. But Remembering Babylon doesn’t stop at an exploration of race; it also tackles gender issues. One of the daughters, Janet, is a main character who doesn’t like her lot in life:

She resented bitterly the provision his being a boy had made for him to exert himself and act. He had no need to fret or bother himself; only to be patient and let himself grow and fill out th elines of what had been laid up for him. …The vision of what lay before him would square his shoulders, deepen his voice, give him room. She had no such vision of her own future. All she saw laid up for herself was what her mother prsented, a tough pride in competence, in being unflagging and making no fuss. She admired her mother but the narrowness of it was terrible to her.

How she ends up escaping this fate just makes the reader think even more! Malouf is a master story-teller: he slips between characters with ease, and brings them completely to life while always moving the plot forward. And there are light-hearted moments too:

He had several favourite retreats. There, the book on his knee and his boots in the dust, he would sit-always alert for ants-in the peppery scent and dull balze of a tropic afternoon; but his head would be in another place altogether (call it Paris) where the words his soul danced to, sensibilite, coeur, paradis, relieved him of his bear-like heaviness and rough colonial boots, and all around, the scrubt, as the word paysage lit it, assumed new but familiar colours, then opened in avenues, at the end of which, among drooping foliage, a columned temple glowed, where the crude needs he was assailed by fell away…

Reading is definitely a kind of magic, isn’t it? The last chapter took me aback at first, because it’s set many years later, and I was disoriented, but after a couple pages I thought it worked. It was nice to have closure about a few characters, anyway. This is one of those books where the theme feels like the most important part, the author’s driving aspect. I love books that make me think, and for such a short one (two hundred pages), this one managed to do that, and get me involved in all of the characters, and sweep me off to distant lands. You can’t ask for much more, now can you? I’ll definitely be reading more Malouf in the future.

The Poisonwood BibleNow, for the other colonial-ish book I’ve read recently, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. This was a 1% Well Read pick, and I’m glad I’ve read it, but I wasn’t all that impressed. I’m sure there are lots of great blog reviews about it, and I know a lot of people love it, so I don’t plan on going into a lot of detail. Here’s what I will say: the first part of the book, with the alternating points of view of all four daughters and the mother, with the terrible foreshadowing and ability to make me imagine what a white Southern missionary must have felt like in the Congo in the 60s was incredible. The 1% ChallengeWhen the inevitable, terrible thing happened, I was mad, horribly enraged at the author, wishing I had never picked up the book. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes, like in The Book Thief stories need terrible things for the author to get his/her message across. But then, after all of that emotion, everything peetered out and the book just kept going. I could barely bring myself to care, and I thought it was all just way too detailed. Plus, it somehow cheapened the terrible event; even though it was all about the characters’ reactions to the event, somehow the post-event story made it seem as if Kingsolver didn’t need to go quite that far. So I ended up feeling as if my emotions had been played for nothing, which made me upset. If she had kept it to around four hundred pages, I would have given it four stars. As it was, the extra hundred and fifty pages dragged it down to three, and that’s with me feeling generous. If you’re interested in the Congo, I highly recommend the non-fiction book King Leopold’s Ghost.

Have y’all read any great fiction with a colonialism flavour? It’s something I’d like to explore more!

Favourite Passages (The Poisonwood Bible)
Once Leah and I were gifted, though, everything changed. Mother seemed sobered by this news from our teachers, as if she had earned a special punishment from God. She became secretive and efficient. She reined in our nature walks and settled down to business with a library card.

…Our Father merely looked at us all and heaved the great sigh of the put-upon male. Oh, such a sigh. It was so deep it could have drawn water from a well, right up from beneath the floor to our nitwit household. He was merely trying, that sigh suggested, to drag us all toward enlightenment throught he marrow of our own poor female bones.

But Father wasn’t done with the doctor yet. He was hopping from one foot to the other and cried, “Up to me to make amens? I see no amens to make! The Belgians and American business brought civilization to the Congo! American aid will be the Congo’s salvation. You’ll see!”
The doctor held my white broken arm like a big bone in his two hands, feeling how my fingers bent. He raised his yellow eyebrows without looking up at Father, and said, “Now, Reverend, this civilization the Belgians and Americans brought, where owuld that be?”
Father said, “Why, the roads! Railroads…”
The doctor said, “Oh. I see.” Then he bent down in his big white coat and looked at my face. He asked me, “Did your father bring you here by automobile? Or did you take the passenger railway?”
He was just being a smart aleck and Father and I didn’t answer him. They don’t have any cars in the Congo and he knew it. He stood up then and clapped the white stuff off his hands, and I could see he was all done with my arm, even if Father wanted to argue till he wentblue in the face. The doctor held open the door for us.

“What’s he really saying?” she asked Mrs. Underdown. “That there’s going to be no transition at all? No interim period for-I don’t know-a provisional government-in-training? Just wham, the Belgians are gone and the Congolese have to run everything on their own?” …She pulled on her hair for a while and then tried out a new, improved Let’s Get This All Straight voice. “Frank. Janna. Not a soul among these people has even gone to college or teaveled abroad to study government. That’s what Anatole tells us. And now you’re saying they’ll be left overnight to run every single school, every service, every government office? And the army? What about the army, Frank?”

“Do you know the name Moise Tshombe?”
I might have heard it, but wasn’t sure. I started to nod, but then admitted, “No.” I decided right then to stop pretending I knew more than I did. I would be myself, Leah Price, eager to learn all there is to know. Watching my father, I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.

For the first time in my life I doubted his judgment. He’d made use stay here, when everybody from Melson to the King of Belgium was saying white missionaries ought to go home. For us to be here now, each day, was Father’s decision and his alone. Yet he wasn’t providing for us, but only lashing out at us more and more. He wasn’t able to protect Mother and Ruth May from getting sick. If it’s all up to him to decide our fate, shouldn’t protection be part of the bargain?

I may be a preacher’s daughter, but I know a thing or two. And one of them is, when men want to kiss you they act like they are just on the brink of doing something that’s going to change the whole wide world.

We started to get scared about what he’d do when he finally came in, for there was really no telling. Our doors didn’t lock, but Mother came in our room with us and helped us push the beds around so the door was blocked. We went to bed early, with emtal pod lids and knives and things from the kitchen to protect ourselves with, because we couldn’t think of anything else. It was likethe armor they had in the nights of old. Ruth May put an aluminum saucepan on her head and slid two comic books down the seat of her jeans in case of a whipping. Mother slept in Leah’s bed. Or lay there quiet, rather, for really none of us slept a wink.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Evie permalink
    June 3, 2008 11:10 pm

    I’m glad to see that you’ve discovered David Malouf, he’s one of the Australian authors that I always wish was better known outside of his own country :). As often seems to be case with Australian authors, he appears to be better known in the UK than in the US. Malouf is most appreciated in Australia for his talents as a short-story writer, if you ever get to read Dreamstuff or Every Move You Make you’ll see why :).

  2. Myrthe permalink
    June 4, 2008 12:54 am

    Recently, I’ve seen Malouf’s name pop up here and there. You’ve made me very interested in reading his work. I am trying to read more Middle-Eastern authors, as it’s a part of the world I am very interested in. I guess him being of Lebanese descent does help a bit: I have had a soft spot for Lebanon since I visited the country with my Lebanese boyfriend a couple of years ago.

  3. June 4, 2008 2:17 am

    I likewise was frustrated with The Poisonwood Bible when I read it years ago. The first half, to me, was excellent and engaging. And I just lost interest in the second half. Too bad, I thought. I haven’t read the others. I’ll have to check them out.

  4. Sarah permalink
    June 4, 2008 2:28 am

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Remembering Babylon as David Malouf is a favourite of mine. I can second the recommendation for Dream stuff and Every move you make.

    Juts letting Myrthe know though, that David Malouf doesn’t seem to have preserved his cultural link with Lebanon- his dad was apparently a banker who immigrated from Lebanon, married an Englishwoman and “assimilated” into white Australia., something he sort of had to do given the time.

  5. June 4, 2008 6:37 am

    Your review made me want to finish Remembering Babylon even more!

  6. June 4, 2008 7:48 am

    Evie, I think it was your discussion of him waaay back when I asked for Australian authors that helped make me pick him up. I’ll definitely look into his short story collections next. :D

    Myrthe, I’m going to second Sarah: this book at least didn’t have any Lebanese flavour in it. Have you read any non-fic Lebanon books you could recommend? I’m having a devil of a time finding a good, accesible, general book on Lebanon. And I’m so jealous of your vacation!

    Rebecca, ohhh-I’m sooo glad someone else feels that way. I was a bit worried, because it seems like everyone loves it.

    Sarah, his ss collections are definitely, definitely on my list with two recs. :) Thanks for letting Myrthe (and me) know he doesn’t write about Lebanon!

    Beast Momma, can’t wait to see your thoughts on it. :)

  7. June 4, 2008 8:56 am

    The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace is a good one to check out

  8. June 4, 2008 9:29 am

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who didn’t fall in love with The Poisonwood Bible. I actually have picked it up several times and haven’t been able to finish it, which has left me with a little pang of guilt. So, thank you for making me feel better. :)

  9. June 5, 2008 7:52 am

    I felt the opposite as you on these two books. I really loved The Poisonwood Bible, but I just couldn’t get into David Malouf’s book- although I feel I ought to give it another try. I did really like another one of his, An Imaginary Life.

  10. June 8, 2008 1:25 pm

    RE: Colonial Fiction – Have you read English Passengers by Matthew Kneale? It’s been years since I read The Poisonwood Bible and I remember that it took me a couple chapters to get into it but from then on I loved it, but the plot details are fuzzy to me. Perhaps someday I’ll give it another read.

  11. June 9, 2008 6:58 pm

    Although I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible start to finish, I always enjoy reading your thoughts on different books, and I’m always encouraged when you tell your true opinion, even if it isn’t the popular buzz. I’ll have to check out the other book you mentioned!

  12. June 14, 2008 8:22 am

    Katrina, thanks for the rec! I’ll be looking it up. :)

    Lisa, you made me feel better too. :) I probably wouldn’t have finished it if it wasn’t a challenge read!

    Jeane, isn’t that funny? I’ll check out An Imaginary Life!

    Lesley, I haven’t even heard of that one, but I’ll definitely look into it now. Thanks for the rec!

    Kim, aww-thanks.

  13. June 26, 2008 1:38 pm

    I finally finished reading Remembering Babylon. Here is my review:

  14. June 29, 2008 5:38 am

    What a great review! I’m glad you enjoyed Malouf, I’m really looking forward to reading him!

  15. February 28, 2009 7:37 pm

    Now I understand what you mean about not liking the second half. I think the reason why I didn’t hate it was because I thought that was essential to the message she wanted to give out. That the first part, being a bit magical, was a form of some significant event that happens in a life, while the second part was a disillusionment which so often occurs in life, in almost everyone’s life in fact.

    Great review, though. I always like to hear different opinions about a book. I’ll be linking to this.

  16. January 11, 2012 4:56 pm

    Just collecting reviews of The Poisonwood Bible, and I so very much agree with you that she should have cut off the novel about p.430!


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