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A mountain in the passage of time

‘The Mountain’ byDrusilla Modjeska

  • First published 2012, Vintage Books
  • 432 pp. Fiction

A book review by Nickson Piakal

'The Mountain' by Drusilla Modjeska

Good literary novels set in Papua New Guinea come few and far between. Pretty much like trees on those khaki flavoured semi-barren hills rolling down into Waigani. In fact, this is an imagery anyone familiar with the surrounds of Port Moresby are likely to conjure up in one of the opening scenes of Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain.

Based on her previous work, Modjeska is often known to explore the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. The Mountain is a first attempt at proper fiction from this multiple award winning author.

This book is a mosaic of rich and intricately drawn array of characters finely woven into play while celebrating the love of art and photography, much like the elaborate design and artistry of the bark-cloth which is at the centre of this story.

It is divided into two sections, each marking an epoch in the lives of the central characters of this book, which, in turn are all connected to the mountain – the mountain of the title.

The first section of the book is set in 1968 and leads up to the days of self-government in 1973. Central to the story is Rika, a Dutch woman, whose husband Leonard, an ethnographer has been invited to Papua New Guinea by the new university to capture on film the culture of the people of the mountain and their bark cloth artists.

It sees the struggles of people from opposing ends of the cultural divide grapple with issues of identity, adapting to new climes, and self-discovery in finding their feet to stand upon. In a way, it is almost a crude allegorical representation of the emerging nation of Papua New Guinea at that time.

Like a dance that goes from one generation to the next. The feet change and the steps continue.”

And so a generation later, it is Jericho, the gift child from the mountain who carries the story forward in the second part of this book. After 30 years as an Englishman, he returns to rediscover his roots by going back up the mountain.

The climb he undertakes will be an arduous battle for him physically, but more so for his soul as his spirit is put to the test to see if his feet can feel the “pulse of the mountain” and if they can beat in tandem to it; if he can face and meet the expectations of the mountain. Jericho however, is more troubled by the past and the questions that have been haunting him for much of his life now seem ready to rise to the surface.

The landscape varies from a dry but politically charged Port Moresby to the lush and mystical canopy covered vegetation and cool clear streams and rivers of the mountain in the clouds over the Owen Stanley Ranges, and down to the serene fjords of Tufi (although the name Tufi is never mentioned. The place is simply referred to as “the fjords” to facilitate the process of fictionalisation).

My knowledge of Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea of the pre-independence era is pretty flimsy, and as such, it was a refreshing read to see a work that vividly paints the life and times of that era. There is even more realism in the more recent depiction of Port Moresby too.

Modjeska’s knowledge and understanding of Papua New Guinea language and culture is quite apparent in the way the dialogue is carried forward.  This greatly helps in moving the story along, especially in covering its cultural aspects. Even the broken English come out sounding the way they should and that is a big plus.

The only peculiarity I found was the rather weak closure. The explanations given to Jericho’s questions – which also happen to be the reader’s questions, sit uneasily off the mark, hardly fulfilling their purpose.  But then again, this perception may be different for the next reader.

In saying that, this novel commands respect with its strong historical and geographical grounding, buoyed on by a rich narrative. The Mountain has achieved a lot for itself, its author and for the country in which it is set in.

***

  • This book is on sale at The UPNG Bookshop at its Waigani campus and at the Star News Link bookshop
  • It’s on sale online for $27.50 at Booktopia
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