BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
It was surrounded by lots of those glossy novels about feisty (mostly beautiful blonde) ladies tackling the rough and tumble of the outback, showing the blokes a thing or two and ending up finding true love.
There were also a couple of the latest doomsday titles for the guys and the usual vampire / fantasy for the teens. All of them heavily discounted because of the buying power of the chain store.
For a literary novel I thought it was an odd place for it to be displayed; normally you have to go to a real bookshop and rummage through the shelves for such things and then pay a premium price to boot. That, or buy it on the Internet.
It is a sad fact, for men at least, that most general readers in the developed world are women and a lot of the people who write for them are also women.
So why would a complex novel set in an obscure place like Papua New Guinea be sitting on that shelf? Did the store buyers see the cover and make an incorrect assumption?
Having read the book it dawned on me that the reason it was there is because it operates at two levels. On the one hand it can be read as a straight novel about “love, loss, grief and betrayal” as the blurb proclaims, but on another level, especially to those in the know, it is a complex analysis of the grappling relationship between two vastly different cultures brought together in a crucial moment of time in Papua New Guinea.
It is here that the novel excels and demonstrates that fiction leaves anthropology and history well in its wake when it comes to understanding what really happens in people’s lives.
The book is written in two sections, pre and post-independence. It concerns the people, both black and white, involved in the halcyon and ideologically driven days of the University of Papua New Guinea and then, years later, the spillages involving them and their children.
I think this might be the first time that anyone has written about those sandal-shod, Hawaiian-shirted, mini-skirted, kaftan-clad and bearded and beaded, convention defying black and white denizens of outer-Waigani in anything other than derogatory terms.
In that sense it is a refreshing change; the novel paints a wonderful picture of those days, especially around Hohola, including all the colour and angst.
At the beginning of the book two of the pivotal characters are standing on a hill overlooking the new university under construction and the student asks the newly arrived wife of one of the lecturers whether what they can see is, in fact, real.
The question of reality seems to be at the heart of the novel. As the narrative progresses you begin to realise that in such circumstances what might be reality to one person may not necessarily be reality to another.
When a white academic and a kiap, for instance, look at something they see different things, just as an educated Papua New Guinean and a bush kanaka might have done and, unfortunately, still do.
It is the student who asked the question on the hill that turns out to have the firmest fix on reality. He becomes a smooth-talking and rich lawyer representing developers, miners and loggers and the reason he’s successful is because he’s worked out what’s going on in Papua New Guinean minds. Whether he likes it is another matter; he can’t fix it, he’s already tried, and anyway, it butters his bread.
He knows that Papua New Guinea is a mess and was always going to be a mess and there is nothing that can be done about it. The plunderers will continue to plunder and the locals will continue to be their own worst enemies.
One of the hapkas offspring of those early days comes back to Papua New Guinea from Europe to solve the puzzle of his identity and travels to the isolated mountain village to which the title of the novel refers.
He is the mystical prodigal son but even those untouched people see him as a bisnis opportunity. In a vain attempt at integrity he tries to help but as the novel ends the jealousy has begun and the scheme is falling apart even before it really begins.
One of the characters in the novel (with a vague resemblance to someone familiar to PNG Attitude readers) is puzzled by white people always needing a reason for why things happen.
And that, I guess is the enigma of Papua New Guinea.