The Chemistry of Tears: Peter Carey

Chemistry of TearsPeter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears made me think I should have called this blog Bewildered by Books, not Bewitched. While I could (mostly) follow the plot quite easily there were times when I had no idea what the characters thought they were doing and especially what was the point of the whole book and story.

The book has two story lines, one historical and one modern-day, interlinked by a complex piece of aesthetic machinery, an automaton in the shape and character of a swan.

The modern story concerns Catherine (aka Cat) who is an horologist who works for Swinburne Museum. Catherine discovers by chance that her long-term lover had just died and much of her behaviour through the book is supposedly dictated by her grief. Catherine is a self-obsessed, selfish and personally indulgent character who I didn’t find at all likeable. Her alcohol and drug abuse, breach of museum protocols and boundless disregard for the safety of the pieces entrusted to her seem completely unjustifiable in terms of grief, which the average reader will have coped with without Catherine’s level of self-indulgence.

The other characters in the modern world are no more endearing: her “kindly” yet manipulative boss, her manic assistant, her lover’s children. None of these characters rang true for me and the only bit of the story which stood up was the need to please the “loots and suits” in terms of the income-generating capacity of the swan automaton.

As part of her boss’s grief therapy for Cat, he assigns her the task of bringing back to life a large automaton of a swan, crafted in the mid-19th century. Among the assets are a pile of books written by the man, Henry Brandling who had commissioned the swan (well a duck actually). Henry’s story seems no more surreal than Catherine’s despite his presence in the Black Forest among a small group of enormously skilled, English-speaking German craftsmen and a child genius.

Henry’s motivation for contracting the automaton is to find something which will keep his child alive against the odds of illness, and his hope that this might also restore him in his wife’s credit. As bizarre as the craftsman Sumper appears, he is no less so than much of the rest of the story.

If the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is supposed to link to the theme of machinery, then I also found that self-indulgent. As shocking as it undoubtedly was, to place that as the rationale for Cat’s assistant’s behaviour again seems self-indulgent. Placed against the human horrors of war, death and genocide that has characterised the past 160 years since the automaton was hypothetically constructed, this seems utterly disproportionate.

Ultimately we are left with the conclusion that Henry did manage to get his amazing automaton (how else would it have come to the Swinburne), but without any idea of whether he succeeded in his goal of saving his son, for me the crux of the story.

It may well be that I prefer a simple, logical story line but either way this book was a flop from my point of view. I wanted to tell them all to just “get a grip” and grow up. I honestly felt this book had been a waste of my time reading it.

Magic carpet factor: 2½

Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Travelling to infinityWhile at the library recently I picked up Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. I often borrow books from the library that I might not otherwise read and this is one of them.

Synopsis: This is the biography/memoir of Jane Hawking, wife for 25 years of Stephen Hawking the famed physicist. It traces not only their lives but that of their families as well as his remarkable scientific discoveries and the impact of his degenerative illness, motor neuron disease, on himself, his wife, family and colleagues.

 My thoughts:

I was intrigued by this story and astonished that a woman as young as Jane married and took on the responsibilities associated with a brilliant but increasingly ill man. The rigours of their lives and the physical and emotional hardships were perhaps made more difficult, rather than less, with a husband who was a scientific genius. Everyday people would have most of the same strains but presumably not the added pressure of a brain which far outstripped anyone else’s. Jane’s persistence and determination and her family’s support are remarkable. The sheer generosity of Stephen Hawking’s students and colleagues is also amazing.

Throughout the story, I was increasingly annoyed with Stephen Hawking’s selfish disregard of his wife’s needs and lack of recognition of her academic ability which is evident throughout the memoir. While not reaching Stephen’s standard of genius, it’s plain that Jane is no slouch intellectually. However she sacrifices a great deal for her husband’s well-being both physically and intellectually. He appears not to have reciprocated her generosity or regard.

While the details of the science, and sometimes her own linguistic endeavours, were often lost on me (or I didn’t bother to try to keep on top of them), the life story was intriguing.

While it could be argued that she has “puffed herself up” this is not how it strikes me, rather the opposite if anything. As the book neared its conclusion I was increasingly irritated with Stephen Hawking’s lack of respect and regard for his wife and her significant contributions to his achievements. His fame seems to reflect this grandiose view of himself, which is perhaps the real reason why he becomes besotted by his nurse. After all, in traditional terms nurses are accustomed to deferring to the supposed greater intellect of the medicos, a phenomenon which is perhaps less common today. And yes, Jane does have a relationship with a “family friend”, initially platonic and later physical, who continues to help the whole family, at great sacrifice to himself. Who could blame her struggling with the depths of despair.

Frankly I wondered why Jane Hawking continued to denigrate her own abilities and remain in the marriage. Stephen Hawking’s elitist perspectives were increasingly infuriating to me as he appeared to intimidate, if not bully, his wife and family. As the famed scientist his needs were held to be greater than those of the rest of the family. Personally I agreed with the local minister who assured Jane that irrespective of intelligence or genius, each member of a family has equal rights if not always equal needs.

Magic carpet factor: 3.75 

Aggravation factor (with him!) 4.75

 

Mosaic by Diane Armstrong

mosiac_USYesterday, 27th January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day.  It’s not a day that’s marked officially in Australia being overtaken by Australia Day or as Australia’s Indigenous people refer to it, Survival Day on 26th January.

Despite the lack of official recognition here it’s likely there are many people who remember this day with great sadness. Last week my blog post on The Voyage of Their Life talked about how some of the refugees and displaced people made their way to Australia in the aftermath of World War II. Among them were many Jewish people who had experienced the horrors and privation of the war.

I tend to read every book by authors I like, so this week I downloaded the e-book of another of Diane Armstrong’s books, one called Mosaic. Then yesterday Armstrong was featured in this weekend’s Weekend Australian magazine. Strange how these things run in cycles.

Synopsis: Mosaic is the story of Diane Armstrong’s Polish Jewish family back to the late 19th century and her great-grandparents and up to her life in Australia. It is essentially a family history of five generations told against the backdrop of war and terror. As a child Diane was called Denusia Baldinger but as the dogs of war came closer with their snapping teeth, her father moved them further east in Poland preferring to take his chances with the Russians than the Germany SS. In a wild throw of the dice he changed their names to the more Polish-sounding name of Boguslawski and their small nuclear family pretended to be Catholic. Although the villagers were suspicious, the family were saved from being denounced to the Gestapo by the support of the local Catholic parish priest who had “known” they were Jewish but continued to support them. Diane tells ultimately how over 60 of their immediate family were shot or gassed during the war.

 My thoughts:  Those of us who live in the safety and sometimes tolerant society of Australia, can not have the slightest real idea of what anyone experienced during the war, let alone what the persecuted Jewish people suffered. It’s one thing to know the facts, read about it and see vision on TV or movies or photographs. It’s quite another to get one’s head around how anyone could do any of these things to other human beings. Nor are these actions the sole preserve of the military but rather also ordinary people, sometimes former neighbours and friends. Mind boggling! We are a horribly flawed species who seem to find it reasonable to persecute those who we perceive as different for religious or economic reasons.

The author talks honestly (as far as I can tell) about her various family members, warts and all, including her own parents. If you believe it’s inappropriate to speak ill of the dead then you may not like this book but what she reveals of her family are people who have their own human frailties and quirks. It’s quite obvious she doesn’t have a lot of time for one of her more selfish aunts who did survive the holocaust yet seems to have learnt little from it. Armstrong also reflects in a very insightful way on the impact of these horrors on family dynamics: the secrets never mentioned, the non-verbal fears of living in hiding for years, the conflict between family members. These psychological scars continue to the present day and generations.

awwbadge_2013I think this is an excellent book which transforms the wartime horrors for the Jewish people from a scale that most of us can barely imagine, to a personalised family story which enable us to see at a micro level how these events impacted families and individuals. Some survived because of foresight, courage, or just plain luck, depending on where they lived and worked. Others died because they were geographically trapped or sold out, often from sheer greed and envy.

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a chilled-out evening curled up on your lounge. Do read it if you want to learn more about the lives of one set of Australian Jewish immigrants and what they and their families experienced prior to arriving on our shores.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 3 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

The Voyage of Their Life by Diane Armstrong

P1190434The Voyage of Their Life is a fascinating book written by Australian author Diane Armstrong who was a passenger on this voyage. It is predominantly a memoir but one drawing on the experiences of many of the hundreds of post-war emigrants on this traumatic voyage of the SS Derna to Australia in 1948. Having grown up with quite a number of “New Australians”, as we called them then, I’ve had a great interest in migration ever since. However this is not just a book about the actual voyage, rather Armstrong tells what brought them to make the momentous decision to migrate to a far corner of the earth, the randomness of getting a passage, and also what happened to them in the decades following.

Inevitably with so many passengers there are times when the cast of characters becomes bewildering but this doesn’t detract greatly from the book. Armstrong segues neatly from one person’s story to another for a connected person.  Virtually all of the passengers had suffered great traumas during the war years and I have no wish to get into the relative merits of each. Armstrong herself mostly manages to remain objective throughout though her own Jewish perspective is clearly stated and occasionally her sympathies are more obvious than at other points in the book.  The horror stories told by so many of the passengers were shocking but those relating to the younger children are particularly horrendous. My father’s oft-quoted phrase of “man’s inhumanity to man” remained in mind from beginning to end.

The voyage itself was a nightmare and a scandal. Greed and irresponsibility would be my synopsis of the effects and consequences of the journey, especially the greed of the Derna’s owner who cut corners and left people with disgusting daily living conditions. The irresponsibility of a doctor who paid minimal if any attention to the sick patients. The greed of not providing sufficient food or water for an old semi-derelict boat tottering its way across vast oceans. The irresponsibility of the man given charge over the migrants to ensure they were looked after. The greed of those who stole the passengers’ precious belongings either during the voyage or on arrival is just mind-boggling. If you have lost family and loved ones do your possessions mean less, or are they more important because they are the only physical memories you have? The greed and emotional betrayal by family who had sponsored their relatives often just to work as slave labour on their farms or in businesses. The sheer courage of the passengers in working beyond all these betrayals is remarkable.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the huge difference between the way these immigrants were treated in comparison with the government assisted passengers to Australia in the 19th century, when their well-being was pivotal and the process was generally well-managed with an emphasis on health.

Armstrong manages to trace many of the passengers in the current day to get their stories, as one link leads to another. It was a strange experience to recognise the name of one of the people I used to work with, who had been a passenger on this voyage. I wondered how successful Armstrong’s quest would have been without the added advantage of Australia’s ethnic broadcaster SBS to “spread the word”.

awwbadge_2013Most of the voyagers settled in Australia but for some their destination was New Zealand. Some worked hard to reacquire their professional qualifications so they could establish themselves and their families in their new country. Others worked incredibly hard at jobs that took no account of their prior experience and training. Some enthusiastically took on their new loyalty and citizenship while others seemed to feel lost between two worlds – the old and the new. The heaviest burden fell on the children to bridge that gap and fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The main flaw in the book is that it is mostly anecdotal, almost inevitably. The pre-migration lives of the emigrants would have been nigh impossible to check in primary records or documents, though Armstrong has had assistance from one of the agencies sending out the emigrants. The Australian government’s records are available, but mostly not online, and it’s not clear to what extent these were used in the research for the book, apart from one rather contentious character. (if you wish to find what’s available you can search http://www.naa.gov.au and use the search term “Derna”)

This is not the first time I’ve read this book and it certainly won’t be the last. Armstrong has provided an invaluable insight into the experiences of some of our post-war immigrants, a lasting legacy to an important part of her own life. Without them we’d likely still be living in an homogenous Anglo-Celtic Australia – just think of all the wonderful varieties of food we’d have missed out on, apart from anything else. Not to mention their contribution to the nation’s economy, culture and history.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 2 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

Fifties Fun and Frivolity

P1190432In My Day, subtitled You and Me before TV,[i]  could be easily dismissed as a bit of reading fluff. It isn’t full of beautifully crafted phrases and concepts. Nonetheless it is a magic carpet ride, taking Aussies of a certain age, back to life as it was, not just before TV, but somewhat after that as well.

The book was gestated during a sudden power outage, reminding the author and her friend of just how much their lives had changed over the decades. (I did smile at that because with Darwin’s lightning season, we get a fairly regular reminder of life-without-power).

If you want to know how your parents or grandparents lived in those ancient days of the 1950s, or even the 1960s, a quick dabble in this book will reveal new and astonishing realities. If you lived in those decades, or even earlier (heaven forfend!) you will enjoy a walk down memory lane, bringing back events and experiences long vanished into the recesses of your mental hard drive.

Hands up who remembers Mum’s washing copper and the rituals of Monday washing day (it was always Monday!)…as a child there always seemed to be jobs for you to help with on a Monday. How about the ice man, dunny man, butcher’s and baker’s vans? The corner store with its large glass jars of lollies. Saturday afternoon (arvo) at the movies (flicks) and maybe rolling Jaffas down the aisles.

TThat warm milk each day at school. Getting the cuts (cane) if you misbehaved in class. Boys dipping the girls plaits in the ink well. Scratchy slates, then pencils, pens with nibs (when you’d grown up), chalk on the blackboard. Remember when a biro was a novelty? Pounds, shillings and pence in the pre-decimal currency days of the “14th of February 1966”.

And then there are the stories of children being set free first thing in the morning on weekends or holidays to roam all day, only returning as dusk fell. This always mystifies me, because never in a million years would that have happened in our home, and yet we lived in a safe neighbourhood.

One thing I remember that isn’t in the book is the rat catcher. Did other cities have these, or only sub-tropical Brisbane? A Council worker would tour the street, eager fox terrier at his side, on the hunt for rats in the neighbourhood. This always induced a sense of anxiety because you really wouldn’t want to have him find a rat in your yard, even if he never had before.

The book has one or two page aides memoir with space at the bottom for you, the co-author, to add your reminiscences. I’ve had my copy for a long time so it may not be readily available but if you can find it in a library, why not borrow it and see how much you remember. Or read in astonishment.


[i] In My Day, You and Me before TV. Whitcomb, N. Adelaide 1996

My thoughts on The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska: Book Two

DSC_0379I talked in my previous post about the “gravel under my feet” while reading Book One of The Mountain. It’s only fair to say how much more I enjoyed Part Two. Which is paradoxical given I never lived in a village and had limited indirect experience of them, and even less understanding in the 1970s, of much of what I was seeing despite Anthropology 101 classes. My own experience prior to living in PNG had been confined to a very white, working-class life in suburban Brisbane. Landing in Port Moresby then living in Milne Bay and later the Highlands was a revelation.

To my husband it was home, a place where everything was familiar and second nature, his own “place”. Like the PNG nationals in Modjeska’s book he and his peers, lived a cross-cultural life, for all they appeared to function within a totally white environment, a life not understood by their Australian-based relatives and school mates. Returning to PNG was returning home, not just to family, but in a deep-rooted way, with “a glimpse of its power for him; the redemptive power of place and home”.  For the truth is, it’s hard to live in Papua New Guinea without it getting under your psychological skin wherever you were born.

Photo © Pauleen Cass 2012 taken in Alotau, Milne Bay Province. This feathered headdress is not dissimilar to the ones described in The Mountain.

Photo © Pauleen Cass 2012 taken in Alotau, Milne Bay Province. This feathered headdress is not dissimilar to the ones described in The Mountain.

Part Two of The Mountain is about the pull of place, the way it invades our very selves. Now the pivotal characters become Jericho, the hapkas (mixed race) son of Leonard (Rika’s first husband) and Janape a woman of the Mountain village; Bili, Laedi’s feisty daughter; Laedi herself now a Minister in one of Somare’s governments (Prime Minister at Independence and twice subsequently) and Milton, the intellectual who has meanwhile lost his anger and found himself. Aaron and Rika become background characters in this part of the book and it must be said that Rika reveals more of herself as a flawed woman, while Leonard retains a sense of quiet dignity, authority and integrity that is belied by his passive personality. In fact Leonard’s reticence and respect, although mixed with obsessiveness about his enthnographic filming, is probably precisely why the village clan leaders trust and revere him even though in a white world he might be seen as intellectually strong but personally weak.

The new oil palm plantation on the old Gili  Gili plantation, site of WWII battles.

The new oil palm plantation on the old Gili Gili plantation, site of WWII battles.

The challenges faced by people trying to bridge two cultures, education and experiences are clearly brought forward. Similarly Bili’s fights against the invasion of money-obsessed entrepreneurs goes to the heart of PNG’s economic challenges. The impact of corruption, crime and personal disenfranchisement are convincingly wrought. Our recent trip to Milne Bay revealed an aerial view of Gili Gili’s former coconut plantation being killed off to make way for the palm oil which Bili fights so vehemently on behalf of the land owner clans.

On a lighter note I was interested to read of Jericho’s visit to wantoks in the distant suburb of Gerehu, the very one where we lived for four years, out beyond the university of Part One. Jericho’s talk of people walking seemingly-aimlessly in the night is a clear memory from my first few days in Port Moresby.

Paradoxically perhaps it was my very lack of village experience which made this part of the book my magic carpet ride. I could build on what I do know, either from reading or indirectly, to learn more about life in remote places of PNG. I loved seeing cultural obligations, the relationships of kin and the connection to place in action as well as how they affected the characters, in both constructive and destructive ways. I also admired Leonard and Rika’s willingness to engage so intimately with village and clan life.

Gift exchange between villages is discussed in The Mountain. Photo taken Alotau © Pauleen Cass 2012

Gift exchange between villages is discussed in The Mountain. The men are wearing tapa cloth laplaps/rami. Photo taken Alotau © Pauleen Cass 2012

With the expectations of the clan leaders on his shoulders to bring self-sufficiency to the village, Jericho eventually develops a business plan in company with his cousin-brother Hector. Jericho’s expertise lies in the realm of art and he suddenly recognises the enormous potential for The Mountain villager’s amazing bark-paintings, unique to their village. The threat comes with the envy and sabotage of those from other villages who haven’t held tight to their culture. [Interested readers might like to look at this website for the bark paintings of the Ömie women of Oro Province, and the story of their images, essentially the area where The Mountain is situated. It remains somewhat unclear to me whether bark paintings are essentially the same as tapa cloth or if there is a subtle distinction. I’ve now learned that some of their art is on display at various Australian galleries which will be something I hope to visit when I’m next interstate.]

Perhaps the greater sense of authenticity in Part Two also derives from Modjeska’s understanding of The Mountain women’s art.

Reading of visitors being danced into the village and of the cross-clan and cross-village exchanges, and the inherent competitiveness, also brought to mind many of the things we saw at the recent National Kenu and Kundu festival in Alotau.  The generosity of The Mountain’s villagers is also evident in Milne Bay, an area renowned for its friendliness.

awwbadge_2013While Part Two of the book answers some of the questions about the impact of events on the protagonists’ lives, it leaves many questions unanswered and doesn’t attempt to reach conclusions about the future for Papua New Guinea and its people. This is a sensible approach given the many challenges facing a country which has over 800 different language groups and many vastly different cultural regions. It would be a mistake to read this book assuming it speaks for all of Papua New Guinea as one focused on a Highlands mountain, would for example, be quite different.

My posts on The Mountain form one of my reviews as part of the Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

And can anyone please tell me why it is so difficult for people to recognise that the name of the country has been Papua New Guinea for 37 years. Even Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, lapses in this regard on a regular basis. It is not New Guinea even though it is the eastern half of an island called New Guinea, the other half of which are provinces under the jurisdiction of Indonesia.


 

My thoughts on The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska: Book 1

This is my inaugural post on my new blog, Bewitched by Books, and no doubt it exceeds the bounds of a book commentary or review. It’s certainly something of a marathon effort, largely because for me there is so much of this book in which I feel a personal involvement or interest. There’s also a certain synchronicity that this first post on my bewitched blog is about a book with many references to magic, spirits and sorcery.

DSC_0379Over the past week I’ve been carefully re-reading The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska, a British-born Australian author. My first reading of the book had been just before Christmas when it was lent to me by a friend who knew I’d lived in Papua New Guinea and had recently returned for a visit.

In that first magic carpet ride, I had enjoyed the sensation of being back in a place where I’d lived for nearly nine years, though there were some dissonances and aggravations, a little like a stone in the shoe on a long walk. At the second more-considered reading the stone became more like a cluster of gravel and significantly diminished my assessment of the book.

The Mountain is essentially in two parts, bookmarked by a short prologue and epilogue. The first part is set in the pre-Independence years in Port Moresby in the then Territory of Papua New Guinea. The second part returns to Moresby but also to the geographical centre of the book, The Mountain, which is near Popondetta, Mt Lamington (Huvaemo, the local name in the book) and the Kokoda Track. Part Two is more or less modern day, some thirty years post-Independence.

The book has multiple emotional strands:

Betrayal runs through this book: lovers, family, friends, place, culture, place and country.

Loyalty is also evident in the consistent commitment of some characters despite time or other’s actions; as well as loyalty to clan, place and culture.

Cross-cultural and cross-racial challenges are of course a key component especially across this time frame of a nation coming to independence.

Exoticism: the amazing difference of a place unlike any other and its ability to get under one’s skin, change one’s life.

Modjeska declares in her acknowledgements that “The Mountain is a novel. It is not a work of history, ethnography or anthropology”.[i] In this context my thoughts turned to the debates around Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, set in a distant time frame, beyond the knowing (and to some extent the knowledge) of people today. In my view Modjeska is disingenuous to suggest that her work is fictional. It is set in a very critical period for our near neighbour, now Papua New Guinea. The ordinary reader will almost inevitably take her story of those years as being true which would be very unfortunate as it represents only one select sample of viewpoints. Many Australians have lived and worked there for a long time across that time frame, and knew and understood its issues with their own sense of familiarity. Conversely there are also biases in our points of view.

Let me set the scene for Book 1: The same characters appear in both key stories with different levels of emphasis. They are Rika, a Dutch-born woman, a photographer, married to a former Oxford-based ethnographer Leonard.  They arrive at the university (UPNG though never stated) at Waigani and there Rika meets a group of women who will become her friendship group: Australian Martha, Laedi, a mixed-race/hapkas or half-caste woman of Highlander and Australian ancestry, and peripherally Gina, the Museum curator. She of course also meets their husbands, anthropologists Pete and Don (both Australian) as well as three Papua New Guinean men, who in the vernacular of the time would inevitably have been called “locals” or nationals: Aaron and Jacob, clan-brothers who had been educated in Australia and angry radical writer and student, Milton.

Speer, Albert (1951). The cone build up in the crater of Mt Lamington from the observation plane.Libraries Australia ID 27899319. No identified copyright restrictions.

Speer, Albert (1951). The cone build up in the crater of Mt Lamington from the observation plane.
Libraries Australia ID 27899319. No identified copyright restrictions.

Rika is a psychologically flawed young woman due to the impact of the war in Europe, the recent painful death of her mother and her father’s grieving, and her own sense of loss. She is looking for the exotic, something vastly different to fill her need. Rika’s dependency brings on many of the consequences within the book and arguably she never acknowledges her contribution to the emotional and personal consequences for others.  Her initial dependency on husband Leonard shifts as she falls passionately in love with charismatic and intelligent Aaron. She finally tells Leonard this in a visit to The Mountain, where he is on an extensive ethnographic fieldtrip. Thanks in no small part to Leonard’s credibility and inclusion with the villagers on The Mountain, Rika is accepted and entrusted with very special bark paintings and the opportunity to photograph the people.

Eventually Aaron and Rika move from campus accommodation, where they are alienated and punished for being together in a black man-white woman relationship and refused married accommodation, to Hohola, a suburb nearer to the city centre.  Before long their friends Laedi and Don (the philandering and ego-centric anthropologist) and daughter Bili, and Martha and her stoic, hard-working husband Pete join them there.

Modjeska shares a view of a blissful paradise in Hohola where various races come together in harmony and share their lives. Whether there are real-life precedents of this I’m not able to say as in the years she is writing about we were living in rural PNG – both on the coast and in the Highlands. In those years inter-racial relationships between white women and Papua New Guinean men remained very rare and were not generally accepted so I have no trouble believing her stories of them being watched and Aaron’s beating.

Life in university circles can so often be different irrespective of location. Port Moresby was always a case of “things are different there”, and I think probably still is. It was a place where government employees often went, somewhat reluctantly, when they were posted there from elsewhere in the country (like the Army there was no choice in your posting unless you requested something specific). In short, there are at least three points of difference which make it difficult to challenge aspects of this story’s accuracy: inter-racial relationships, university life, and life in Port Moresby. I’ll be very interested to hear what my sister-in-law has to say based on her time studying and living at UPNG in those years.

However there are also subtle undercurrents in this book which I found irritating and untrustworthy. It is the minor details that were that initial stone under my foot: rack my brain as I might I can think of no instance pre-Independence where any group of white women wore slacks, let alone “all” of them as on the day of Rika’s arrival. Dresses were de rigeur except for sport or outings to the beach.

On the second reading the gravel in the story was revealed more clearly –the errors and prejudiced points of view which could be accepted as truth by those who’ve never visited the country. Throughout the book there is a nuanced insult to all Australians working in the country at the time, or before. They are routinely described in subtly insulting ways the “ruddy kiap”, the “balding Australian”, “a white man in a tight tie”, the kiap with his gin and tonic rather than perhaps a rum or beer,  the women in frumpy slacks, the bureaucrats (such an insidious word!) wearing their shorts and long socks to an evening event (I think not). This is reinforced by either a deliberate, post-modern, or ill-informed lack of capitalisation of proper nouns, especially where they relate to non-nationals eg the administrator (the most senior person in the government) or chief minister. Small things but insidious. Similarly the role of the kiap, or government patrol officer (the meaning never defined), is not touched on other than to imply all were dismissive of the local people, ignorant of culture and perhaps wilfully destructive, although some gave their lives and certainly required courage as they ventured into previously unexplored territory.

It is left to a Highlands woman, Simbaikan, Laedi’s mother, to defend the Australians “She’d rather white men as kiaps and teachers and doctors and pilots than a black munka with his tall hair and angry vanity”.[ii] Or Martha’s “a rugged Australian just old enough to have been born and schooled there before independence, one of the few who renounced Australian citizenship in order to become a Papua New Guinean”. In fact there was no shortage of young Australians who had lived and been educated there even if they weren’t born there, though it’s true enough that few rescinded their Australian citizenship, something other expatriates can probably empathise with.

Meanwhile on the reverse side of the cultural ledger, there is no Tok Pisin (Pidgin) name given to betel nut (buai) and only once or twice does Modjeska elliptically refer to the red-mouths and blood-like spit that results from chewing buai mixed with lime – something that most expatriates I knew particularly noticed on arrival in PNG. The term hapkas is scattered through the book, and perhaps that’s how people defined themselves, but in the general vernacular mixed race was a far more common description – not better, perhaps worse, but different.

There are also insults to the hard-working nationals who were trying to gain experience and education to take the country into self-government, as well as those who taught them. Modjeska talks of the Administrative College (where university students also had lectures) as a place where the attendees were not much better than bois on the labour line. My husband worked at AdCol for four years in the years covering Independence and this was certainly not his experience: they were intelligent, hard working, generous and inclusive. His departure was marked by celebration and local gifts which we treasured.

Like the author my comments are given from a very specific personal and historical context. There were many challenges and many rewards as the colonial administration, with its own flaws, worked to bring about a peaceful Independence. No small achievement given the bloodshed that accompanied the coming of national autonomy to so many African nations just a short ten to fifteen years prior. It was our task to “do ourselves out of jobs” and ensure there were sufficient nationals with the skills to take on responsibility for administering the public service.

To quote Martha “the fact that we rewrapped our deams as gifts and offered them in the spirit of service doesn’t make them any less potent, or greedy, or blind”.[iii] All we can say is that we served as well as we could and only the long view of history can assess whether that was good enough. As always it’s difficult to judge past times without looking at the cultural context of the era, irrespective of its modern-day appropriateness.

LAs we stood in the grounds of Hubert Murray Stadium, Port Moresby on 15 September 1975, amidst a crowd of Papua New Guineans, white specks in a sea of dark faces, we felt no antipathy towards us while the Australian flag was lowered not torn down: Sir John Guise’s words were not just hollow nods to protocol. The next morning as the new national flag was raised on Independence Hill we were once again just part of the crowd as we watched with muted excitement at this historic event. When we left PNG a few years later it was not due to being shunted out, but for family priorities and a belief that we might otherwise never leave.

awwbadge_2013This has been not so much a review as a critique, or perhaps a monologue, I suppose. Still it’s also been a pleasure to read about a country that’s very dear to my heart despite its flaws and weaknesses (the place, not just the book). This commentary on Book One has gone on long enough and so I may make a separate shorter commentary on Book Two another time, less critique, more a geographic love affair.

Like Martha, towards the end of the book, I’ve sought “to give words to a time and place that had changed the course of her life.”[iv]

My posts on The Mountain form one of my reviews as part of the Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge. Future reviews of other books are unlikely to be as intense, or lengthy, as this one.

Enthusiastic readers might wish to read this story about the responsibilities of kiaps (the weakness is the ubiquitous PNG habit of acronyms) http://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2013/01/days-of-the-kiap-how-papua-new-guinea-was-built.html

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[i] The Mountain.  Modjeska, D, Random House Australia,  Sydney , 2012, page 427.

[ii] Ibid, page 78

[iii] The Mountain.  Modjeska, D, Random House Australia,  Sydney , 2012, page 427.

[iv] Martha talking about her attempt to convey the importance of her PNG experiences to her life.