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”.
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.