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A mountain in the passage of time

October 22, 2012 1 comment

‘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

White prestige in a colonial ‘Port’ town

August 15, 2012 6 comments

Not a White Woman Safe – Sexual Anxiety and Politics in Port Moresby 1920-1934

By Amirah Inglis

  • First published 1974, ANU Press
  • Reprinted 2009, UPNG Press,
  • 168 pp. Non-fiction

A book review by Nickson Piakal

 

Originally published in 1974, ‘Not a White Woman Safe’ is a thoroughly researched book by Amirah Inglis that brings into focus the White Women’s Protection Ordinance of 1926 by the Australian colonial administration in Port Moresby.

Passed into law under the watch of Sir Hubert Murray as the Administrator of Papua then, this discriminatory piece of legislation was put into effect with penalties that were deemed draconian, even by the standards of that time.

This book clearly depicts Port Moresby of that era; an ultra-repressive “white man’s town” where the social castes were distinctively defined. It is set in a time when “Natives (and dogs) are not allowed” access to public amenities.

It chiefly explores the underlying myths surrounding the white man’s perception of the Papuan’s sexual mores leading towards their resentment and paranoia that gave rise to the “Black Peril”: the unnatural fear of sexual attacks on white women and girls by black men, even when there was not even a single recorded case of rape.

Two cases of convictions under this law, one of which saw the first public hanging, are further highlighted to illustrate the outrageous double standards practised by the colonialists, and their incapacity in telling the truth about these incidents because of their guilt in the knowledge that these were clear cases of mistrials.

A brief review of the literature of that era on Papua is also thrown in for a good measure to give the reader a better handle on the colonialists’ school of thought.

The book’s title drew a lot of frowns from peers, but it remains true to the adage that one should not judge a book by its cover.  Having completed it, I am left with a lot more to mull over, especially as a Papua New Guinean.

Its use of documented case studies in relating key facts is quite insightful, and this alone lends more weight to its objectivity as a historical review. This also makes it a compelling book to read, and to have as a reference guide for anyone who wants to look into Port Moresby’s more forgetful past.

This book is a must read if one wants to get a better understanding, not only of this prejudicial piece of legislation but to get a better glimpse of the socio-political climes of Port Moresby in its formative years, and to see a more impartial view of Sir Hubert Murray and the type of leadership he yielded.

  • This book is on sale at The UPNG Bookshop at the Waigani campus of the University of PNG
  • It’s on sale online for $39.99 at Amazon

Invite: A Book A Week

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Just the other day I happened upon a story from USATODAY.com that found that in 2007, one in four people read no books. Given this figure from the US, imagine what it is like for us here in Papua New Guinea. (Sorry folks, we have no statistics for PNG to work with here now since our government in its hallowed wisdom saw it fit to scratch the 2010 Census.)

I would dare to safely guess that an even lesser percentage of us do read. An additional statistic shows that it is more likely that university and college graduates often never (!) get to read a book again after leaving school thinking that they know everything that they need to know. So where does this leave us?

Now Hope Trek as you know, is fundamentally about promoting books to children and young adults, with the aim to cultivate a reading culture in PNG, focusing first on schools in rural to remote areas.

Piksa piing nii

But this does not mean that this idea has to be confined to the space within the walls of the classroom nor the library. My one desire is to ultimately see this reading culture spread out like an infection to the masses out there who can take the time to pause for a breath to pick up a book to read.

The human mind, being a vital organ of this living organism – you and me – needs to have new information and ideas put into it to continue to develop and grow or it will sink into a state of lethargy and become stagnant. As someone once said, reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

We cannot deny the fact that books are a repository of untold wealth in knowledge and adventure. Books provide the means by which one can get to broaden their horizons as far as they can allow their minds’ eyes to see. Books are portals into worlds beyond our five senses; into the fourth dimension, transcending cultural barriers, taboos, gender divides and even beyond the unknown and into forbidden realms. Books take us into the maze of great minds and into the corridors of time as only an H.G. Wells contraption could achieve.

So to spur this idea on, I take this opportunity to invite you to come read a book with me. Let us say one each week or at least 2 each month. Even one book every month would be just as good. So at year’s end, we are talking 20 to 40 books at the most. Mind you, this is not a strict regime. It is only a suggestion.

So while reading, why not share ideas and information on what you are reading about.

Here I further invite you to write a book review and post it onto our Facebook page. And if you are not on FB, then just email them to me and I can post it there. The outstanding ones will get a spot to feature as a post on this blog each month. I don’t care if it is a 500 word essay or a 5 word sentence. I just want you to read and just tell me about it.

So come pick up a book and let us get reading today. 🙂

::end::

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