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)


[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.