Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Mountain

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Mountain

Article excerpt

Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain (Vintage Books, 2011)

In his 1956 poem titled 'New Guinea', James McCauley wrote about a

Bird-shaped island, with secretive bird voices,

Land of apocalypse where the earth descends,

The mountains speak, the doors of the spirit open,

And men are shaken by obscure trances.

Drusilla Modjeska's first work of fiction has a New Guinean mountain speaking to its characters, both the indigenous peoples, who live under its majestic shape, and the Western characters, who are enchanted by its beauty and the mystique of the rich culture of those indigenous peoples whose lands they visit.

Papua-New Guinea is our closest neighbour to the north, yet for most Australians (yours truly included) it remains a mystery, a mostly unknown land that was a colonial dominion until its independence in 1975. While the Kokoda trail keeps drawing thousands of Australian trekkers every year, mainstream Australia is largely uninformed about the rest of the country and its peoples.

The Mountain begins with a brief prologue that brings the reader to a restaurant opposite the Sydney Opera House in the year 2005. Jericho, who 'first came down from the mountain to Rika, barely five years old', is meeting Martha, his 'other mother', for lunch. We are told that Rika and Martha, who used to be best friends, 'like sisters', haven't spoken to each other for thirty years (2). Thus, the omniscient narrator introduces the history of the conflict between the two women. This is one of the subplots of the novel, and it is certainly a gripping one.

Jericho wants to know what happened thirty years before, but Martha appears to be evasive: 'Her heart feels tight. There's a part of her that wants to say to Jericho, Let us bear the burden of the past, it should not be yours' (4). Thus, the mystery of what caused the conflict between the two Western women is from the beginning interspersed with another (unavoidable?) conflict, that between the Western view of the world and the indigenous view embodied by the Mountain people.

Photographer Rika arrives in Port Moresby, the young wife of British anthropologist Leonard, somewhat older than her. Something she may not have been aware she had is almost immediately awoken by the place and its peoples, and that something is further stirred after she meets Aaron, a brilliant local academic recently returned from Australia. When Leonard goes to the highlands to film the tribes, Rika stays in Port Moresby, where she befriends Aaron and his 'clan-brother', Jacob (22). As Leonard remains in the highlands, a powerful and meaningful relationship develops between Aaron and her, which is tested when Aaron is bashed by racist bigots.

Modjeska's novel connects many complex issues in a free-flowing narrative around the lives of a group of people who witnessed the end of colonial rule and the beginning of a country's struggles to become truly independent. The background is solidly portrayed: the reader can feel the many tensions that characterise postcolonial societies, like the friction between the resistance (and the reluctance) of the traditional to give up its preponderance on the one hand, and the observable need for modernisation demanded by the younger generations on the other.

This tug-of-war between the needs of the collective and the individual aspirations becomes a major focus in Modjeska's narrative in the central part of the novel. These tensions, the ebbing and flowing of Rika's personal expectations against the exigencies that the birth of the young nation will demand from Aaron are successfully reflected not only in the two central characters, Aaron and Rika, but also in their interactions with the numerous secondary ones. …

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