Drusilla Modjeska is well known to Australian readers for her award-winning explorations of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Although all three of her books won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, they are in a category of their own: the ground-breaking Poppy (1990) is fictional biography; The Orchard (1997) is part memoir, part essay, and part fiction; and her study of Australian artists Stella Bowen (1893-1947) and Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) in Stravinsky’s Lunch (1999) is a feminist reappraisal that goes beyond the historical record to flesh out the lives of these artists and their artistic reputations. I first discovered Modjeska’s work when I read Secrets, a collection of musings that she co-wrote with Robert Dessaix and Amanda Lohrey in 1997; her piece seems rather like a novella but - as she reveals herself at the end – it’s a tale deriving from facts, albeit distorted ones. The Mountain is her first novel, and though it is many years since I read these earlier works, it seems quite different in style to its predecessors.
The novel is in two parts, the first set in the heady days when Papua New Guinea (PNG) was experiencing its political coming-of-age, on the verge of achieving its independence after long years of colonialism; Part II takes place in 2005 when a younger generation is dealing with the fallout of rapid development and personal questions of identity.
The Mountain captures the ferment of change in all sorts of contexts. The book is full of fascinating insights about this country so close to Australia, and yet most of us have never been there and know nothing about its history or its culture. It’s a safe bet that most Australians have no idea that Australia ever had a colony of its own, though those of us of a certain age may remember that Gough Whitlam’s Labor government granted PNG its independence in September 1975, not long before the infamous Dismissal. Aficionados of military history know about the Kokoda Track in the Owen Stanley Ranges because it was the site of the first defeat of the Japanese in WW2, and some Australians regard it as a form of homage to the dead to trek it, a feat that is now de rigueur with a certain type of male politician.
(There is some local concern that a current Australian-backed proposal to establish the Track as a heritage area will hamper economic development, because PNG is one of the poorest countries on earth. On the other hand ecotourism is a form of development less likely to harm the environment. A tricky issue, and one that burns through Part 2 of this book.)
After a prologue which invites the reader to speculate about an enigmatic betrayal, the story begins with the coming-of-age of Rika, a young Dutch bride who accompanies her anthropologist husband from Oxford to Port Moresby. I would dearly love to quote some Sensational Snippets where Modjeska describes Rika’s droll reaction to the Australians she meets at the academic reception for Leonard, especially her contemptuous dismissal of The Wives, but alas, the price you pay for receiving an advance proof copy is that you’re not allowed to quote from it. Trust me, this is very engaging writing!
Considering that the Dutch in Indonesia were among the very worst of colonists, it is perhaps ironic that Modjeska has chosen a Dutch girl to represent The Good Colonist, one whose ignorance about everything makes her open to the wisdom of the indigenous people, alert to injustices and sensitive to racism. An outsider in all contexts, Rika serves the function of a naïve but intelligent observer in the novel, learning about PNG’s history and culture, sifting her experiences and making judgements about what she sees. It is her observations – even her misunderstandings – that bring PNG to life. Modjeska’s setting is not just an exotic backdrop of great beauty. It is peopled with a realistic milieu.
Rika is soon abandoned by her husband who takes off into the highlands for his research, and she busies herself with new friendships both indigenous and Australian. A talented photographer, she volunteers to help Gina, the librarian at the fledgling university, who is overwhelmed by a wealth of anthropological materials and a paucity of staff to catalogue the photos. In the fledgling days of feminism, in 1968, Gina the professional woman is a rarity. It is she who tells Rika to think about her own future rather than define herself through the men in her life. In time, Gina’s darkroom becomes a refuge where Rika can hide from the torment of her emotions…
Rika’s guides to the social mores of a country in transition are young women of her own age in short skirts (not the ubiquitous ‘slacks’ of the older, more conservative women). There is Martha from Sydney who had to marry her boyfriend Pete to get a permit to enter PNG and join him there, but like her Biblical namesake she’s not much enjoying her role and she feels as if she is being used. There is also a young mother, mixed-race Laedi whose Australian father stayed on after the war. Laedi is married to Don, an ambitious, belligerent anthropologist, and colleague of Leonard. (Rika doesn’t like him at all – and her instincts turn out to be right). There is also Wana, a student from the Trobriand Islands, a gentle friend who sees through Rika’s exterior to the emotions within.
And then there are the two very sexy young students and clan-brothers to each other, Jacob and Aaron. Many of the indigenous characters have Biblical or classical names that signpost some element of their character or the plot. The Biblical Jacob is the one who usurps his brother’s birthright, and the Biblical Aaron is the one who yields to the clamour of his people and in defiance of his spiritual beliefs makes an icon – a Golden Calf. In the novel, Aaron is the Chosen One, who was able to study overseas and is destined for a career in politics when independence comes. Like his biblical counterpart, he is subject to competing demands: he is spokesman for his people but his people are divided.
Jacob’s future is less golden. He’s come down from the highlands to study law at the local university, and it’s expected that he will represent his people’s interests. There is a suspicion, however, amongst educated indigenous people that local education standards are low and that the local university is second-rate at best, though that is all that most of them can aspire to (if they are lucky). The sense that Australia is making a belated, penny-pinching effort to take responsibility for its colony is palpable. Jacob gets his law degree but his values are distorted by bitterness. The effect of differing opportunities on these two, who cannot afford to be rivals in anything because they are both the future of PNG, is emblematic of the problems that beset any developing country.
The locals are a proud people and they are keenly alert to manifestations of cultural appropriation such as local place names being replaced by European ones, or assumptions that ignore local knowledge and expertise. Eremiah from Bougainville is a hot-head who’s had to bide his time in the colonial administration office till the university was established; he’s outraged at the idea of independence being granted as if it were a gift. He wants his people to take it, as of right. Simbaikan, Laedi’s formidable mother, is wary of all interlopers unless they have a spiritual kinship with dark-skinned people just as her long-dead Australian husband had. She is especially critical of a young Australian party-girl called Tessa biding her time in PNG. Tessa’s flirtation with the young playwright Milton evokes crude disapproval.
The 17th century John Milton wrote the great epic poem Paradise Lost, but in Part Two Milton the character has, in despair, stopped writing. Thirty years have passed, and excitement and hope have given way to melancholy and bitterness, for questions of identity and purpose plague both the nation and the characters of this novel. Bili, Leida’s daughter is an environmental lawyer trying to rescue traditional lands from loggers, while mixed-race Jericho, another character whose name is a Biblical allusion, has returned from England to work through his existential angst. Born in the mountain that looms over everything in this tale, he has to deal with competing identities arising from his mixed parentage, to manage the expectations of others, to try to help his people in realistic ways, and to sort out his love life. And he cannot do any of these until he solves the mystery of the betrayal with which the story began.
This is an excellent book. Modjeska writes beautifully with striking images and and the plot lines are captivating. I expect to see this one on many shortlists in the forthcoming year.
PS: I stumbled across an old ABC interview that features Drusilla Modjeska talking about the genesis of this book on the now defunct program Elsewhere, and from there I found this exhibition of the bark paintings that feature prominently in the story. Do check it out, they are beautiful.
Author: Drusilla Modjeska
Title: The Mountain
Publisher: Random House Australia
Source: Proof copy courtesy of Random House
Availability: The Mountain