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The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska.

January 16, 2015

The Mountain, by Drusilla Modjeska.  Random House Australia (2014), Paperback, 432 pages.



A sensitive and insightful novel about two generations of people, European and Indigenous, trying to work together and to love each other in Papua New Guinea.

Drusilla Modjeska has written an important book that probes what it means to actually live where cultures meet and overlap. A fine storyteller, she also pushes us to question our assumptions. She does not let us settle for vague statements of harmony and respect. Her new book is thoughtful, but never didactic. She claims no perfect answers.  While never giving up on dreams, she reveals why we must think about the fundamental conflicts between differing cultures and face the complex difficulty of making dreams realities.

Although The Mountain is not autobiographical, Modjeska draws on her own experience to write about the dilemma of individuals trying to bridge the racial and cultural gaps of the late twentieth century. A major Australian author, she was born in England. At the age of 20, she went to New Guinea with her new husband, an anthropologist. In the sixties, she studied at the newly founded University of New Guinea and knew some of those who would become leaders of the nation’s government.   Then she went to Australia where she continued her education and has lived ever since, pursuing her career as a writer. In the early 2000s, she returned to New Guinea to become involved in the introduction to the art world of the bark cloth painting made by the Omie women in isolated mountain communities. She participated in the exhibition of this work in Australia and the USA and in the publication of a book about it called, The Wisdom of the Mountain. She remains closely in touch with the people on the mountain and with those on the fjords who appear in her book. Out of her own experience, she asks well-intentioned outsiders to question their own motives and what they have brought to traditional Indigenous people.

Like her own immersion in the culture of Papua, the novel is set in two time periods. The first leads up to the independence of Papua New Guinea from Australian governance in 1975, a time of openness and hope for a truly interracial society. Rika,a  young wife from the Netherlands, comes to the University of New Guinea with her husband, Leonard, an English anthropologist. Modjeska takes us inside the cluster of blacks and whites in the university community, a turbulent place in the 1960s and 1970s where alternative paths to the future were argued and hope was widespread. In this atmosphere, Rika loves her husband and is grateful for the new sense of herself that she has gained from him. She is also attracted to Aaron, an Indigenous man, whom she never fully understands. Leonard and Rika visit the Papua village on “The Mountain,” a place of power with its own conflicts. Both Europeans record what they see on film, but later Rika realizes that the difference between their work. She offers apt advice for those of us interested in cultures unlike our own.

Leonard had not made the mountain people familiar to a western audience, as she had done, or tried to do; he didn’t bring the comfort of a familiar way of seeing this other world and turning them into friends like us. . . . Nor did he let the Mountain and its people be strange, a spectacle for the eye, something to gap at and wonder. He’d taken his viewers into Auden’s “land of unlikeness.”

The first section ends with Aaron’s death.

The second half of the book takes place about thirty years later and deals with those who had been close friends in the first section and with their children. Jericho, the son of parents of both European and Papuan descent, is the central figure. He is considered a hapka, not only biracial but “adrift between cultures, an existential misfit.” Educated in England, he returns home to the island, looking for his own roots. Going to the Mountain he realizes how much he has lost.

This was the land he was born to, alive in his dreams, and here he is, returning as a stranger who cannot find the path to bring himself home.

In addition, the people on the Mountain view him as a “gift from the gods” who will enable them to prosper in the new commercial world they see around them. Jericho stays on the Mountain for a time and eventually he finds himself by losing himself in a traditional ritual dance. He also figures out a way for the people to earn a living while preserving their culture. As Jericho struggles to live in both cultures, those around him engage in the hard political work of reconciliation between opposing views of the world.  One character states their problem:

Easy enough to say that all these cultural manifestations are equally valid, equally important. It’s another form of racism to say it is fine if a young man dies for a cultural belief that wilfully prefers witchcraft over medical science. . . . For us to say, fine, you go on believing that the world is flat and the stars are made from the souls of dead ancestors and we’ll say you’re just as right as anyone else, and in the meantime those who have good hospitals will reap the rewards of your ignorance and make off with your resources.

Despite her own European childhood, Modjeska’s long experience in Papua New Guinea allows her to write about its people as something of an insider. Her Papua characters are richly described and quite varied. They never fall into stereotypes. Modjeska writes with love and admiration of the Papua, but she explicitly writes as a white woman questioning whether or not the dreams of racial harmony that her characters expected in the 1970s are possible. The characters she describes most fully are those with deep links to the European world. They raise questions for themselves and for readers about what it means to live at the edges of two cultures. She questions our real motivations for intervention.

The fact we rewrapped our dreams as gifts and offered them in the spirit of service, or dressed them up as Research, or Art, or Film, doesn’t make them less potent, or greedy, or blind. Weren’t our dreams also driven by some hidden something in ourselves? Our own covetousness. Our own lack of ground, our dissatisfactions with where we come from. Our emptiness, perhaps.

Modjeska has no easy answer for this dilemma, but she offers hope that if we are honest we can find passage through it.

I strongly urge others to read The Mountain for its beauty and grace and for the questions it raises.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2015 4:13 am

    Good review. I’ve had this on the shelf for ages but you’ve made me want to pick it up.

    • January 18, 2015 11:59 am

      Thanks. I was glad to discover your blog. Always good to find someone who shares my interest.

  2. January 17, 2015 9:00 am

    Reading your review let me relive the memory of how much I enjoyed this book. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

  3. January 18, 2015 8:54 am

    This is definitely going on the tbr list! Thanks for another wonderful review. 🙂

    • January 18, 2015 11:58 am

      This is your kind of book! Excellent writing and lots to think about.

  4. January 20, 2015 12:38 am

    This sounds like a fascinating book and life work, brilliant review.


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