Monday, September 3, 2012

A View from The Mountain


This year I went to Airways Motel in time to meet Drusilla Modjeska before her departure to the fjords of Korafe in the Oro Province. Whether Drusilla comes up here from Sydney on her way to Tufi or on her way back to Sydney I usually catch up with her for breakfast at the Airways.
On her way from Sydney she usually brings me books that I could not get hold of here. In turn I would bother her with my manuscripts. Drusilla is always patient with me, which I appreciate and acknowledged in my book The Unpainted Mask, presented to her in her recent trip to Papua New Guinea.
This year I received her first novel The Mountain set in Papua New Guinea. She had worked on this book for a number of years. There were occassional mentions about the book in some of our conversations.
I was honored to have received a signed copy of The Mountain (2012). The book is a wonderful book that is spellbinding, gripping, and yet entertaining to read. I was thrilled to read the book on the weekend before the National Book Week. It took me three days to read this 432 pages long book. It was the way the book was written and Drusilla’s prose style that is affective the first time I openned the book to read. From the backcover we get a sense of what the book is all about.
In 1968 Papua New Guinea is on the brink of independence and everything is about to change. Amidst the turmoil filmmaker Leonard arrives from England with his Dutch wife, Rika, to study and film an isolated village high in the mountains. The villagers’ customs and art have been passed down through generations, and Rika is immediately struck by their paintings on a cloth made of bark.
Rika and Leonard are also confronted with a new university in Moresby, where intellectual ambition and the idealism of youth are creating friction among locals such as Milton-a hot-headed young playwright – and visiting westerners, such as Martha, to whom Rika becomes close. But it is when Rika meets brothers Jacob and Aaron that all their lives are changed forever.
Drusilla Modjeska’s sweeping novel takes us deep into this fascinating, complex country, whose culture and people cannot escape the march of modernity that threatens to overwhelm them. It is a riveting story of love, loss, grief, and betrayal.
The Mountain is an interesting work that deals with the early years of the University of Papua New Guinea, the kinds of intellectuals, artists, and fellow travellers on this incredible journey, without knowing where they were heading to. Yet the students who entered the higher education in those days knew where they were heading to—self-government and Independence. It was also a moment of self-evaluation and reassessment of values to see whether some of them are worth keeping or dropping, in order to match the changing times in Papua New Guinea. I particularly like the relationships that emerged in those years as one of coincidences along the road to Independence. It was not my generation, but I have heard discussions about it from the remnants of that generation.
One other aspect of the book I admire is the genuine and honest perception of the writer on the cultures and people of the Tufi area. The witer’s passion and respect form the Omie culture is reflected in her careful description and sensitivity towards the people whom she befriended. Only few writers like Drusilla Modjeska and Trevor Shearston can write like that. I have so much respect for them for their bringing to our discussions about sensitivity and respect for people we write about.
To get back to the book we are discussing now, it is a spellbinding book. Anna Funder describes the book “as a wonderful achievement. It is moving and panoramic. It takes us into the heat of our near neighbour Papua New Guinea in a way that’s never been done before, through the point of view of the founders of independence, their friends, and loves. At the same time, it’s a sweeping story of love and friendship, of hope and regret and of the generational loyalties we inherit, as well as the ones we create for ourselves. The Mountain is a novel as intricate and powerful as the bark-cloth paintings at its heart.”
Colleagues such as Russell Soaba and the late Regis Stella, among others, are some of the names, apart from others that I know from a recent past, who have been acknowledged in the book.
This is a work of fiction: “While the fjords of The Mountain could not have been imagined without the fjords of Korafe, they remain a place of fiction peopled by fictional characters.”
Indeed, it is a novel that also binds different generations in Papua New Guinea. In my view Drusilla has demonstrated in a powerful way her deep sense of respect and humility to the people of Tufi and Papua New Guinea. The Mountain is a testment of that respect. It is that sense I get from reading this passage: “When the time was right and Nanaji gave the signal, the gates opened and the clans from the high villeges burst into the amorire, singing their arrival. Feet stamped the ground, kundu drums kept the rhythm, each with its own voice, plumes mimicked the birds of the sun. Young men set the pace with a high step and perfect timing. Behind them came the women singing the cloth that moved against their skin. Nogi, in her soft white headdress and with the ground-spider cloth with its sunray hanging from her back, led the women. Beside her was Kimame in her plain bark-cloth and red parrot features.”
The Mountain is Drusilla’s recent book. Other titles include: Exiles at Home, the NSW Premier’s Award winner Poppy; Sisters, and the Nita B. Kibble NSW Premier’s Award and Australian Book of the Year Award winner The Orchard; Times, and Secrets.
Well done, Drusilla!

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