Recluse of regret
State takes control of PNG airwaves as new media body meets

'Man of Calibre' – A Papua New Guinean classic is born


‘Man of Calibre’ is an entry in the Crocodile Prize
Ok Tedi Mining Book of the Year Award

Man of Calibre by Baka Barakove Bina, CreateSpace, 2015, ISBN-10: 1499751842, ISBN-13: 978-1499751840. 248 pages. Kindle $3.27, Paperback $16

THERE are two men, one in his thirties and the other in his sixties.  They get drunk together and, as they have done so many times before, begin to argue and then start fighting.

The noise they make on the road next to the village wakes everyone up and a crowd gathers.  The men say things they wouldn’t say if they were sober.

As the spectacle increases, the man bearing the brunt of their animosity cracks and creeps out of his house and, to his own surprise, lays both of them flat on their backs.

Come the dawn and the bruised and battered antagonists must face a village moot and, to everyone’s surprise, a ‘killing of the fire’ ceremony.

The term ‘moot’ is not one that I am familiar with and I had to resort to my battered old Pocket Oxford Dictionary for elucidation. 

It is a “meeting, especially of a legislative or judicial kind” according to that venerable tome.  How it got into the Papua New Guinean vernacular I don’t know.

In practice what it means is an informal village meeting set up to adjudicate on issues and disputes in a sort of sub-village court setting. 

More importantly it is also a way of keeping village matters in the village and avoiding the shame and ridicule that might occur in a formal village court hearing.

‘Killing of the fire’ is, I think, a local Eastern Highlands custom.  The fire is symbolic of an issue or complaint and the act of killing (extinguishing) the fire involves the payment of compensation.

In this case, the aggrieved are neighbouring villages who had always looked up to the subject village but feel seriously let down by the antics of the two fighting men.

The subsequent moot and fire killing ceremony take up most of the novel, which is set over one night and the morning of the following day.

Baka Bina, Sogeri 2014It is a clever literary device that allows the author to range over and explore the rich idiosyncrasies of a modern Eastern Highlands village.

These idiosyncrasies essentially involve a society grappling with the slow death of traditional culture and a confusing modern derivative full of unexpected surprises. 

It is the rich soup of these contradictions and inconsistencies that make this new novel by Baka Bina (left) so compelling.  Some of the meaty pieces that he fishes out of the soup are fascinating and irresistible.

These pieces range over a wide spectrum but feature the changing roles of men and women in the new society. 

The discussions about men washing their kid’s nappies and their wives’ underwear are hilarious, as much so as the descriptions of men left without land and gardens hassling to get by any way they can are sad. 

Also interesting are the breaking of taboos, like using men’s ‘big names’ in public and the confusing snakes and ladders of kinship that even the villagers find hard to understand.

Another central theme is the changing language and concepts and the introduction of new words and ideas into local usage.  In this case it is the concept of ‘calibre’ (kalibaris), which is little understood and misconstrued by many of the villagers – just what is a man of calibre they wonder?

I was also intrigued by the way traditional exchange and obligation has been monetised, somehow replacing pigs and kina shell (although the former are still important) with money seems terribly crass. 

Even respect and prestige has a kina value these days.  Unfortunately there is too much more in this glorious soup that the author serves up to the reader to describe here.

It is wickedly funny and earthy book which is thankfully devoid of the preaching and religious platitudes that spoil so much of Papua New Guinea’s better writing.

In some ways the novel reminds me of James Joyce, the author of the brilliant Ulysses.  However I’m not thinking about that work so much as his other novel Finnegan’s WakeMan of Calibre has the same impetus and also crams much richness into such a short space in time.

The novel is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – how many novels can make that claim anyway? 

There are typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that can’t be put down to poetic licence.  There is also a confusing mix of English, Tok Ples and Tok Pisin

Thankfully there is a glossary but it is annoying having to consult it every few pages.  The English writer Martin Amis’ observation that good fiction should have universal appeal is salient here.

That aside, I would have no trouble in calling this a landmark novel.  I haven’t read anything this good since Russell Soaba’s Tinpis.

In as much as it is possible, given Papua New Guinea’s cultural diversity, I would even go as far as describing Man of Calibre as an instant classic.

It should immediately go onto the curriculums of Papua New Guinea’s high schools and tertiary institutions.

I think it marks a significant turning point in the maturity of Papua New Guinean literature, and, indeed, the wider world.  That hasn’t happened since the 1970s.


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Andrew Inglis

For me, Man of Calibre provided an excellent insight into the complexity of PNG Goroka village life and relationships that are intertwined with characters we all can identify in our own families and lives.

As an Australian, my life experiences have been quite different but the story line and moral messages throughout really resonated.

I found myself going back and forwards for meaning of tok pisin and top ples words but it helped me understand the narrative.

It is funny in parts, deeper in others and left me thinking about aspiring to be a true man of calibre much like the author Baka Bina.

Great book! Well done

Baka Bina

Phil, thank you. I will take on your suggestions and relook at what I have in the next one, tasol, how do we capture the richness of our language.

The next four titles I intend to publish have these same problems: trying to get local words Anglicised.

I'll give an example from the next title, like when a young girl has her first period, it is called mernache in scientific English but the loose Pidgin is 'seeing her first moon' and, in my local terminology, 'she has injured her foot' and 'needs to stay in the house'.

Put all three together and there is no linkage in English, it loses its meaning as it is devoid of the situation in which it is stated. There is a jumble of different thoughts and ideas.

My simple answer is to put them all together and try to dialogue them through. Maybe it will work but I fear for the diversity that we have in our language.

Trying to stick to rules of English will make will make us not record and capture these many small things about our languages.

In 'Man of Calibre', I have rewritten the Pidgin word for man. It must be spelled the way it is sounded. Em ol man mipela mas kolim ol mahn. I have put in an 'h' so as to suggest a change to the spelling of mahn in Pidgin.

I am thinking I want to write for the international audience and that is hard work, but I'll try to follow the rules.

And I was hoping to publish 'Sweet Garaiina Apo', however I am reflecting on your review to see if I can improve on it so it goes to the back burner for a time.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Thanks for pointing out the distinction Baka. A very interesting custom.

Ed is a good editor, especially in resisting the urge to fiddle with someone else's text. I must admit I'm not as strong as him.

The whole problem of tok ples, tok pisin and glossaries seems to be beyond solution. I guess a lot depends on who your intended audience is, local or international.

Ed tells me your next book is a ripper too. I'm looking forward to reading it.

I think you've set the bar pretty high already.

Baka Bina

Thank you Phil for the raving review.

I however note you have one -f- in of when it was intended to be two -ff-s in killing off the fire.

It is killing off the fire and never intended to be killing of the fire. These two have different meanings. When it is two ff's in the -of- it means the particular fire but not smothering the actual fire but doing another thing which then symbolically smothers out the burning flame. The latter implies an act to smother a flame like covering it with earth etc.

'The man does no work' is an intended grammatical error so is the many tok pisin and tok ples inclusions. I only hope that the readers will not be bored by it all. I agree that the glossary is lacking.

I pass on my thanks Mr Brumby who had to mind my writing and to ensure that he did not rewrite it for me.

Francis Nii

Congratulation, Apo!

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Congratulations, Mr. Bina on this one.

arthur williams

Sounds like good read.
Liked the little bit about outside words being used.
In news yet again yesterday was mention of the Konebada Petroleum 'Park'
Most of normal people would wonder what on earth petroleum and park have in common!
Arthur Williams

David Gonol

Congratulation Mr Bina on the successful publication of your book, The Man of Calibre.

Hazel Kutkue

I would very much like to read a copy of this book. :-)

Robin Lillicrapp

Kudos to Baka for such a significant contribution to PNG's literature.

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