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.