Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Remembering Babylon: COVERED IN BEES

A dust-jacket synopsis of David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) would probably misrepresent the novel as a hoarse note in an exhausted refrain of Western literature: that of the settlers and the savage.

Scene: an isolated community of European homesteaders in Queensland, circa 1860. The settlement's toilsome and sweaty business as usual is disrupted by the arrival of Gemmy, a "white black:" in his former life as a cabin boy, Gemmy was pitched overboard, washed up on the Australian shore, and taken in by an aboriginal tribe. By the time he stumbles upon the settlers' village, he is well into adulthood and has lost his ability to speak coherent English from years of disuse. The villagers regard Gemmy with a mixture of disdain, paranoia, and wonder.

You've heard it before: a story of the commerce, conflict, lessons learned between European settlers and an indigenous representative of their host continent. But Remembering Babylon explodes through the rhytidome of this old theme, propelled by Malouf's talent for diagramming the obscurities and profundities of social relationships and the elan he brings to transcriptions of adolescent frisson (which we'll see presently). Moreover, the focus here isn't so much on the social relations and bad blood between the European and aboriginal contingents, but rather on the pristine Australian landscape and the varying modes of living in and/or with it.

In several respects, Remembering Babylon recalls Heart of Darkness—although the former is much less capital-P problematic and certainly more lowercase-P postmodern. Here the primeval "Absolute Dark" represents not brute savagery and the danger of regression, but the existence of (and opportunity for) an alternate mode of being. As Malouf's narrative lens flits across the village, the most significant and persistent characters tend to be the ones who are compelled to cross the boundary, as Mr. Kurtz did—although what they discover on the other side could not be further removed from The Horror, The Horror.

An excerpt, with some context. After living about a year with the McIvor family, Gemmy now dwells at the abode of one Mrs Hutchence, a relatively wealthy, cultured, and sensible old woman. The McIvor's eldest daughter Janet (age fourteenish?) regularly visits the Hutchence household. Her hostess is an avid beekeeper, and has been instructing Janet in tending the hives. And then one day—the frisson, the epiphany:
It was on a day not long after Gemmy had moved into the little room there, so [Janet] was no longer a beginner. They had finished their work with the bees. She had put off her bonnet and veil.

The day had been unusually oppressive, steamy, and for the last hour a dull sky had been glowering, bronze with a greenish edge to it, that bruised the sight. Suddenly there was the sound of a wind getting up in the grove, though she did not feel the touch of it, and before she could complete the breath she had taken, or expel it in a cry, the swarm was on her, thickening so fast about her that it was as if night had fallen, just like that, in a single cloud. She had just time to see her hands covered with plushy, alive fur gloves before her whole body crusted over and she was blazingly gathered into the single sound they made, the single mind.

Her own mind closed in her. She lost all sense of where her feet might be, or her dreamy wrists, or whether she was still standing, as she had been a moment before, in the shadowy grove, or had been lifted from the face of the earth.

The bees have their stomachs full, her mind told her, they will not sting. Stand still, stand still. It was her old mind that told her this.

She stood still as still and did not breathe. She surrendered herself.

You are our bride, her new and separate mind told her as it drummed and swayed above the earth. Ah, so that is it! They have smelled the sticky blood-flow. They think it is honey. It is.

Mrs. Hutchence was only feet away. So was Gemmy. She could hear their voices calling to her through the din her body was making. But it made no difference, now, the distance, three feet or a thousand years, no difference at all; or whether she was a girl (a woman), or a tree. She stood sleeping. Upright. A bride. Then the bitterness of smoke came to her throat, and the cloud began to lift; and there, through the gaps in herself, was Mrs Hutchence with the coils of smoke pouring out of her sleeves, and Gemmy, open-mouthed with a frame in his arms, and the bees, one by one, then in fistfuls, rolling off her, peeling away like a crust, till she stood in her own skin again, which was fresh where the air touched it, and only a few dozen foolish creatures were left that had got themselves caught and were butting with their furry heads and kicking, in a panic at being alone.

She felt Mrs Hutchence's hands on her skin now, which was quite clear and unharmed but seemed new to her, and all through Mrs Hutchence's fearful ministrations and Gemmy's whimpering cries, she remained a little out of herself——half-sleeping, regretful, her two feet planted square on the earth.

Years later she would become expert beyond anything Mrs Hutchence might have dreamed of at the bee business. She would know all the breeds and crossbreeds, and create one or two new ones——actually bring them into being, whole swarms that the earth had never known till she called them. She would devote her life to these creatures, bringing to the daily practical study of their habits and all the facts and lore that is the long history of their interaction with men, a bodily excitement that went back to this moment, under the trees, when her mind had for a moment been their unbodied one and she had been drawn into the process and mystery of things.

For it was not the bees themselves that had claimed her; they had been only the little winged agents of it, the little furry-headed, armed angels that might, if she had panicked, have stung her to death, martyred her on the spot, a solid, silly giant that had stumbled in among them.

All that was still to come. For the moment, still numbed by the shock of what had struck her, she moved to comfort Mrs Hutchence, who had sunk to the ground, and sat like a rock gone suddenly soft, and sobbed and took a good while to get her breath.

'Don't be upset Mrs Hutchence,' she said, feeling the older by years, though her voice was unchanged. 'The bees didn't hurt me, I knew they wouldn't. I remembered what you told me and it was true. They didn't sting.'

She saw then, from the look on Mrs Hutchence's face, that though her own faith had been absolute, Mrs Hutchence's had not.

So it had been that that had saved her, the power of her own belief, which could change mere circumstances and make miracles.

She went, half-dreaming, and looked at the hive, all sealed now, a squared-off cloud, still drumming, that had once been clamped to her skin, a living darkness, so that the only light came from inside her, from the open space she had become inside the skin they made of living particles, little flames.
To be continued after your correspondent sleeps off the rest of a minor case of jet lag.

(Side note: I suppose I should mention the phrase "covered in bees" is practically copyrighted by west coast trickster and bard Ian M.)

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