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Vincent Eri – should his novel grace PNG’s literature contest?

Vincent Eri
Vincent Eri


TUMBY BAY - Vincent Eri wrote and published the first novel by a Papua New Guinean. It was called ‘The Crocodile’ and is the book after which Papua New Guinea’s national literature competition is named.

The novel was the only book Eri ever wrote. Despite being a ground-breaking author, he was never an enthusiastic one.

He was an educator officer, had visited Australia a couple of times and had attended a conference in Tehran.

In 1966 he was sent to a writers’ conference in Malaysia as a representative of Papua New Guinea.

In recalling this conference he described how he said to himself, “If I am supposed to go to a writers’ conference I better write something first.”

The ‘something’ he wrote was about life in his home village of Moveave in Gulf Province.

He had a vague idea that this piece could be expanded and might become the first chapter in a novel but, being busy with his work and rather lazy, he never took the idea any further.

In 1967, when he was 31, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the newly established University of Papua New Guinea. Unsure about what to study he decided to enrol in Ulli Beier’s literature course.

At some point in the course, he showed Beier the piece he had written about Moveave.

Beier was impressed by the sophistication of the story and by Eri’s descriptive skills and command of English and encouraged him to develop it into a longer novel.

The subsequent chapters came slowly but were always entertaining. As Beier said, “There was nothing sentimental about his account; no attempt to glorify the good old days, but a precise description often spiced with a slightly detached sense of humour”.

The CrocodileBeier worked with him on the book but by the time Eri was due to graduate in 1970 it was still not finished.

To extract the final chapter Beier had to threaten to withhold Eri’s degree until it was written.

As history tells us, the book was published to great acclaim and not a little controversy.

Eri, whether he knew it or not, had carved a place in Papua New Guinea’s history for himself.

He never wrote anything again.

He went on to a significant career as an educational administrator, Papua New Guinea’s high commissioner to Australia and then as Governor-General.

When questioned about the novel and why he had not written anything else, Eri shrugged and said that the novel had served its purpose and helped him find himself. It had made him a better ambassador and governor.

It is difficult to read the novel without bearing in mind the politics and influence that Beier had on it.

Beier was an avowed anti-colonialist who had come to the University of Papua New Guinea from Nigeria.

No doubt he found the sentiments expressed in Eri’s novel attractive, especially the portrayal of the hapless patrol officer, John Smith.

These sentiments were echoed by many other academics at the university, particularly those interested in the local sport of kiap bashing.

So, while the novel helped Eri find his footing in the diplomatic world, it probably also played into and influenced the more radical politics building up around the independence movement.

Whether this was a good thing or not is debatable, given the view held by many people that Australia might have granted independence to Papua New Guinea too early.

Which raises the interesting question of whether the novel, given its political connotations and the author’s fleeting romance with literature, makes it an appropriate symbol for a national literature competition.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Over the 5 or 6 years of editing and publishing the Crocodile Prize anthologies I was often jolted by the forms of writing coming out of PNG.

Of all those I think Leonard Fong Roka's work struck me as being really original but there were others too.

It was very difficult not to constrain some of these writings to the accepted Western styles, even the most radical ones.

To make matters worse some of the PNG writers were self-constraining and trying to produce accepted forms of literature. Experimentation was a rare commodity.

I've got an idea in my head of what constitutes true PNG literature but like many of these things struggle to articulate it.

I know it when I see it however and it's a joy to read.

Rashmii Bell

Hi Phil - I've just finished read both 'Wanpis' and 'The Crocodile', both for the first time.

To your question - my initial reaction is to nominate 'Wanpis'. There is an individuality in Soaba's style that I admired despite really struggling with section 3 'Wanpis'.

I found it to be at the extremes of disjointed - in comparison to what I am used to reading. Of course that means I'm going to return to read that section for a second, third time..

But maybe that's what the Crocodile Prize ought to focus on encouraging? Breaking away from the established 'rules' of writing, and encouraging PNGns to write as they feel most comfortable expressing themselves, thereby encouraging other PNGns to play closer attention to the writing style

Of course 'Wanpis' encompasses the question of 'the role of the writer' and so it is another reason for it to be considered for a writing competition title.

(Next, I would like to read 'Maiba'.)

'The Crocodile' I found to to be more fluid in storytelling. On that note, I have a copy of Ulli Bier's 'Decolonizing the Mind' that, going on the comments below will be interesting to reflect on as I read, and think back to Sir Vincent Eri's novel.

Although, I will admit I had some suspicions in different spots throughout the novel as to whose 'voice' was narrating.

I've also just read Sir Albert Maori Kiki's 'Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime'. That was a read a a follow-up to Prof John Waiko's ' A Short History of Papua New Guinea'.

Reading the autobiographical account alongside the academic text, I can only appreciate and respect the efforts of both authors in capturing PNGs pre/ early post-independence history.

I appreciate and admire all four publications, and there are reviews in here - if I can find the time to write them.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was just prodding with this article to stir up a bit of debate about the Crocodile Prize but my bait seems to have landed in fishless waters.

There is no alternative, the competition is well and truly enshrined under its present title and it would be silly to try to change its name (if it was changed I'd be inclined to nominate Russell Soaba's 'Wanpis' as PNG's pioneering novel but the One Fish Literary Prize just doesn't seem to have the same ring to it).

That said, it's useful for the Crocodile Prize to have a touch of controversy about it, despite the fact that that controversy feeds into the hands of those who like to diminish success in PNG.

Michael Dom

What are the alternatives?

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's true Paul but Hosea's book wasn't a novel, it was an autobiographical book.

The book, ‘The Erstwhile Savage’ is sub-titled ‘An Account of the Life of Ligeremaluoga (Osea)’.

Vincent Eri's book was the first novel.

‘The Erstwhile Savage’, sometimes dismissed as missionary propaganda with no real literary merit, was originally written in the Kuanua language but was translated and published in English in 1932.

It was republished under a different title, 'An Offering Fit for a King', in 1978.

There was some controversy about the Hosea book too, with claims that it was greatly enhanced by the translator, Ella Collins.

Paul Oates

Wikipedia maintains the country's first Methodist Priest, Hosea Linge actually published PNG's first book in 1932.

Husat isave?

Joe Herman

At a dinner party in Port Moresby I sat next to Sir Vincent Eri. At the time he was working in the private sector and we had a lighthearted conversation for over an hour. I did not feel it was appropriate to ask him about his novel. Maybe I should have. I said good bye to him abound 10:00 PM as he was heading to his car. The next morning I was surprised and sad to learn of his passing through the Post Courier Newspaper.

Philip Fitzpatrick

One of the curious things Ulli Beier did was to write Papua New Guinean plays himself using the pseudonym M Lovori. He hoped his students would read the plays and model their own work on them.

When four Papua New Guinea plays were produced in Sydney in 1970 it was ironic that Beier’s play, 'Alive', was lauded by Australian critics as the most ‘authentic’ while the genuine Papua New Guinean plays were labelled ‘awkward’ and ‘moralising’.

Ulli wasn't the only one pretending to be a Papua New Guinean. Australian writers like John Kolia (Collier) wrote novels and short stories. Kolia's 'Victims of Independence' is an example.

Ed Brumby

The rumour doing the rounds when I was one of Ulli's students at UPNG was that Ulli had, in fact, written much of Vincent's book. It was reasonably well-known, too, that Ulli wrote and published several works under a PNG pseudonym during his time at UPNG.

Lindsay F Bond

Of an edifice, each lower-most brick enables surmounting by those later and seemingly higher-most.

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