The Mountain, Drusilla Modjeska

The Mountain is a novel set in Papua New Guinea in the years before and after Independence (from Australia) on 16 Sept., 1975. Modjeska, born in England in 1946, went to PNG with her husband (I think) in the late 1960s, briefly attending the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, before settling in Sydney in 1971. ‘In 2006 Modjeska was a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, “investigating the interplay of race, gender and the arts in post-colonial Papua New Guinea”‘ (wiki) all of which accords with the scenes and action in this book.

I started listening to an audiobook of The Mountain a couple of months ago, and found the beginning entrancing. But the cds – as is often the case with the Queensland Narrating Service – proved unlistenable and so I was prevented from finishing until I could source a paper version, which of course I now have.

There is a brief Prologue. Jericho, 36, lunching overlooking Sydney Harbour, with Martha who must be mid-50 ish. Martha remembers Jericho, then 5, being brought down the Mountain to her and Rika. Like most opening chapters, you file it away and hope subsequent chapters will make it make sense, though in this case, if you remember it at all, it has no context until much later in the book.

Martha is essentially the author character, but she often takes a back seat, and when the narration is from the point of view of her friends Rika or Laedi, who each have very different backgrounds, it is often difficult to tell them apart.

The core of the novel is that Rika, a young Dutch woman, marries Leonard, a stodgy Oxford anthropologist who accepts a position at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. There she becomes friends with Martha – a young woman from Sydney who had given up her own studies and married her boyfriend, Peter, because he had been offered a job at UPNG “too good to refuse” – and with Laedi, a young, Australian private school educated, coffee coloured ‘hapkas‘ woman, married to another white ademic, Don. And they all live in houses in the university compound, and have a duty to employ locals as servants.

By the time the I gave up on the audiobook, the three young women were engaging in long, personal discussions; were getting to know all the university staff and senior students, in standard university town fashion; and Rika whose view was taking over, was being introduced to Port Moresby and to PNG. All very much, I’m sure, in accord with Modjeska’s own life at that time.

What bothers me, and it bothers me more because Modjeska is now, has long been, a distinguished (Australian) literary academic, is that as more and more Papuan characters are introduced, she purports to write from their point of view. Which is ironic, given that many of them are academic and/or literary, but also unnecessary, patronizing. In a word, it’s appropriation. I wonder what her reasoning is. This is an otherwise excellent novel; written largely out of Modjeska’s own experience; perhaps she feels PNG needs/needed a hurry on to produce its own literature.

Leonard finds Rika, a fine photographer, a job curating old photos in the university library; Martha enrols to complete her BA in English Lit. They get to know, the novel is expanded to include, Papuan men – Jacob, an ambitious law student; Milton, an English student finding his way writing anti-colonial drama; Aaron back from studying overseas. Jacob and Milton are roomies. Aaron and Jacob, both from Fjord country, have ‘history’. Michael Somare, leader of the new Pangu Party, floats in and out of the university. Gough is still in Opposition in Canberra, but Independence is coming.

Leonard goes up ‘the Mountain’ to live there for some months and to get local life and ceremonies down on film. Don is foisted on him by the university, and causes problems. Rika stays behind, is expected to come up later, falls into a relationship with Aaron.

Bark paintings recur throughout – these two are unnamed, just “PNG bark paintings sold at auction” – created by women, given as gifts, used as wall hangings. With no great importance, but symbolizing, I think, links between women on the Mountain and women in Port Moresby.

Rika can’t bear to tell Leonard. Laedi is unhappy with Don, but gets pregnant again. Martha observes. Eventually Rika goes up the Mountain herself, makes important connections with the women there. Don takes a young local as wife, she has a child.

Rika was angry. She was angry with Leonard. She was angry at his patience when she could not let him touch her. She was angry with herself for the night she had given in to him, and to herself, and for the dark pleasure of her double betrayal as Leonard sweated above her. She was angry at the kindness of the hand Leonard rested on her back when she turned from him on their hard sleeping mats. Most of all, she was angry that he had not told her about Don.

A page later, their marriage is over. Rika goes back down the Mountain. Aaron gets a beating from the white men who have been tailing him, observing him. A warning that white women are not for Black men. Leonard eventually goes home to Oxford.

Rika and Aaron get a house, outside the university compound, in the new suburb of Hohola. Soon, and for many years, they are surrounded by friends. Their house has a “shaded verandah where people gathered, crowding around table, or sleeping on the old bed against the wall. Aaron’s kin came from the fjords – no one was turned away. Rika sang as she cooked coconut rice and banana bread, food for many.”

And so begin the middle years, Aaron now working for Somare; Martha and Laedi also living in Hohola, Martha and Peter living largely separate lives; Laedi eventually a single mother with daughters Bili and Daisy.

In the sixth year a hapkas boy is brought down from the Mountain for his education and he effectively becomes if not Bili’s brother then her constant playmate. This is Jericho (not that I remembered the Prologue at the time), and much of the rest of the novel is his story.

For someone who in a lifetime in literature has produced only three novels, Modjeska is a very fine writer. I’m sorry that she did not find a way to tell this story just through Martha’s eyes, or even through Martha and Rika’s, because accounts of PNG life are rare, but they deserve to be told by the Miltons and Laedis and Jerichos who lived them.

And yes, despite myself, I enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it.

.

Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain, Vintage, Sydney, 2012. 426pp. The map, presumably hand-drawn by Modjeska, is taken from the book.

see also my reviews of:
Modjeska’s first novel (set in England), Poppy (1990)
and, from her PhD at UNSW, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 (1981).

18 thoughts on “The Mountain, Drusilla Modjeska

  1. I read this one a while ago, see anzlitlovers.com/2012/05/01/the-mountain-by-drusilla-modjeska/
    I believe she is writing Part 2 of her memoirs, following Second Half First (which I reviewed too). But it’s been a while. She’s now in her mid70s, which is not that old, but from her website it looks as if she hasn’t published anything since 2016.

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  2. This sounds great (and a stunning cover picture as well)! I know very little about PNG and am always drawn to books set in schools or universities.

    I’m not sure I agree about people writing only from their own perspective, though – I like what Bernadine Evaristo has to say about it here: https://www.research-live.com/article/news/bernardine-evaristo-i-write-the-stories-i-feel-need-to-be-out-there/id/5066482 . Honestly the idea that one person can accurately represent a whole demographic strikes me as reductive, anyway. To pick an easy example, growing up working class in a council estate turned me into a social democrat and my brother into a conservative, even though we would both say that it was our (similar) experiences that gave us those perspectives. Similarly, I know a lot of British Nigerians were irritated by the British and American Nigerian academics claiming to speak for them after the death of the queen – even if they had very similar family histories or experiences – so I don’t really think that people writing only about their own demographic solves that problem. (Also some of my very favourite female point-of-view characters are written by men, and some of the most stereotyped and irritating are written by women!)

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    • Because the Japanese were in PNG ‘on our doorstep’ during WWII I grew up with stories of Australian soldiers battling in the mud and jungle of the Owen Stanley Ranges. And then they were on our radar for a while when we ‘granted’ them independence (in 1975). But since, Australians have paid them far less attention than they deserve.

      Modjeska depicts a vibrant arts scene and cultural life, and I am sure someone there is writing books, so I’m a bit disappointed that we have to turn to an expat. – however knowledgeable – to get a view of our nearest neighbour.

      I don’t expect any one person to write for anyone but themself, I just disagree with how often white people purport to write on behalf of Black people.

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    • Well said Lou … I like all of what you’ve said here. Bill and I regularly discuss this. I take his point but I think he can be too hard line at times. However, l’m glad Bill, that you recommend this book anyhow. It’s one that I’ve been interested to read. (BTW My little PNG claim to fame is that I have a book signed by Michael Somare – given to me as a gift, though I didn’t actually meet him.)

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      • WG, I enjoy Modjeska’s writing, it’s a shame she hasn’t done more. But I really don’t understand how a literary academic could purport to write from the POV of someone so remote from her own lived experience, a Papuan man. I am sure university culture in Port Moresby is complex and interesting, but Modjeska could easily have found a better way of telling us that.

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  3. We had a very similar conversation with one of my peers in my MFA program. She had spent time (I think in the Peace Corps) in Lesotho, Africa. We were all quite suspicious of her writing stories about and from the POV of African people. Stupidly, I never realized that she could — and likely should — have written the story from the POV of a white woman experiencing the culture from the outside, because no matter how long she spent in Lesotho, she was always an outsider. Even my interpreting professor, who has been using ASL for over 30 years, understands that it is “her” language in the sense that she uses it fluently, but that it will never be HER language.

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    • Melanie, you and I agree and Sue doesn’t. I’m not sure where to go from there. It must be to do with “why do I read?” – I read to learn what other people are thinking. I think a lot of people read because they enjoy stories, which they don’t tie back to the real world. Because as soon as you tie them back to the real world you need the author to be authentic. Sorry Sue, I’m trying to understand the difference between us, not put words in your mouth (or pen).

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    • Thanks for the link to Modjeska’s essay Bron. It’s very interesting but as far as I can see boils down to Australians are not interested in PNG writers, so I will stand in for them. Tacking on the spurious argument that if she wrote a fictional biography (part II) as she originally planned, she would be centering the experience of a white woman in a Black country. So she appropriated the experiences of her Black friends instead.

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  4. I have not read anything by Drusilla Modjeska – her husband Nick Modjeska was one of my anthropology lecturers at Macquarie, a charming and interesting man & the toughest marker of student essays I have known!

    My brother lived in Papua New Guinea for a year and stayed with a coastal tribe which then had had very little contact with people from outside the region. He apparently caused a sensation when taken out spear fishing from a canoe, capsizing hopelessly! He told me he was a huge hit with the women watching, who found this young fit man who couldn’t paddle a canoe or spear a fish not only comic but also utterly useless – they asked him to repeat the show for them over and over while they all laughed. I gather my brother put up with the humiliation with good grace! The tribe’s headman came to stay with us as a thanks for his assistance by my brother’s university – I was about 13 at the time – a wonderful, highly intelligent man with a wonderful sense of humour.

    Your review brought back the memory, thanks Bill!

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      • He was in an area relatively untouched by the missionaries Bill – he said they had wrecked many communities in PNG. Knowing how vain my brother can be I was amused he managed to take with good humour the women’s laughter at his uselessness as a food provider! He did get hell about it from our family for some time afterwards.

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