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).