OUTSIDERS bring change.
And when a community is fragile and clinging to the fringes of civilization, an alien can bring dramatic changes.
In Australian author David Malouf's latest novel, ``Remembering Babylon,'' the outsider is a strange stick of a man who hurtles out of the Australian bush into an isolated Queensland settlement in the 1840s.
Children see him first, teetering on top of a fence, the swamp and forest behind him and cleared ground in front of him. Overbalancing, he falls forward. A fierce young boy takes aim at him with a stick and the outsider blurts out, ``Do not shoot! I am a B-b-british object!''
The stranger, whose name they decipher as Jimmy or Gemmy, appears to be an Aborigine but is, in fact, white. Or was. He's so gawky, inarticulate, and strange that the townsfolk are repelled by him. That first sentence is the only clear thing he can say about his life for awhile.
Gemmy, it turns out, was transported from England at the age of 13 for petty crime and was cast overboard. Washing ashore, he tagged along with the Aborigines who found him. After 16 years, he acts and even looks like an Aborigine. And that's how he's treated by the distrustful residents.
The parents of the children who found him reluctantly put him up in a lean-to. If forgetful, he is eager to please, and they put him to work.
There's little plot; Malouf roams from mind to mind of the various town residents as they react to Gemmy or try to make sense of him. Malouf generously lets us see as much of other residents as of this gibberish-spouting character whose other, British, self slowly reemerges.
Lachlan, the boy who finds Gemmy and marches him to the grownups as a sort of hostage, is filled with self-importance by his find and by his ability to understand him. Lachlan is a cousin sent from Scotland and needs something to help give him status in this resistant group.
Janet, the elder daughter of the family that takes him in, makes Gemmy uncomfortable, because her somewhat mystical beliefs give her an insight into him that others don't share. She has a kind of second sense that sets her apart from the others.
How people relate to the visitor reveals something about their characters and about the group dynamics of the settlement. Two Aborigines peaceably come to see Gemmy. Their visit, seen as a threat to the settlement, sets in motion events that culminate in an off-stage tragedy.
Malouf draws parallels between the Aboriginal view of creation, in which ancestral beings sang everything into existence, and the white view. There's more in common than the whites understand.
``Remembering Babylon'' is timely, coming at a period when white Australia is in the process of reviewing its treatment of Aborigines and trying to decide how to handle the issue of land rights.
But the book is more reflective than polemic. Without excusing the actions of the townsfolk, Malouf's judgment of even the worst of them is not harsh. In that sense, ``Remembering Babylon'' is a traditional tragedy, where evil actions occur more out of fear and ignorance than malice. Malouf shows how difficult original thought is for members of a community that perceives itself as surrounded by danger.
The book is a joy to read: richly layered, complex, and dense. A finalist for the soon to be announced British Booker Prize, ``Remembering Babylon,'' Malouf's seventh novel, reinforces his reputation as one of Australia's most respected contemporary authors.