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Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain

March 24, 2013

Drusilla Modjeska. The Mountain. Book cover.Milton, a young Papuan writer and actor, watches Dutch photographer Rika at work in her dark room. Photography was like writing, he thinks. “A small move here, a little more, a little less, a slide this way or that, and the image changed. Or if not the image, then its meaning, its emphasis. You didn’t just look through the lens and press, any more than you tell a story, full stop.”

Drusilla Modjeska continually moves viewpoints and slides between different ways of looking throughout The Mountain, building up multiple layers that represent a complex reality in which two groups with very different assumptions about the world interact.

When Rika moves to Port Moresby in 1968 with her husband Leonard, an anthropologist, she has to learn her camera all over again to accommodate the shimmer of light on the water, the textures and patterns of vegetation. She has to learn how to see the people and their society.

Later she mounts an exhibition in Europe of photographs taken in the mountain village where Leonard carries out his fieldwork. In an interview she says that in art school she’d “learned that the task of art was to make the familiar strange. On the mountain, she’d understood that her task was to reverse that maxim. She wanted to let something that is familiar, common to us all, show through the strangeness.”

But this is not the final slide of the lens.

By this time she has left Leonard for a Papuan, Aaron. Several years later, when Leonard returns to Port Moresby to show his ethnographic film, Rika is shaken by both Leonard and the film. She had been very certain of her capacity to see, but now she begins to doubt it. In his film, Leonard had not tried to make the strange familiar to Westerners, as she had done. His film “didn’t let his audience assume it knew what it was looking at. Nor did he let the mountain and its people be strange, a spectacle for the eye, something to gasp at and wonder.”

Drusilla Modjeska

Drusilla Modjeska (Random House Website)

This is but one example among many of how Modjeska’s characters evolve. Related to the nature of looking is the capacity for empathy. Another character calls Rika a vegu, a grasshopper creature with long empathetic feelers. “But Milton said no, Rika imagined what other people thought or felt; she imagined what she wanted them to feel, or would have felt if she were them, but her thinking was always tied to herself. … She put her feelers out into the world, touched other people and then let her own heart beat out the message that came vibrating back to her.” Milton, the writer and actor, is the vegu: he does have the capacity to get inside other people, to become another person.

In the clash of different ways of being in the world, the role of the hapkas, half-caste, is especially difficult – not only those of mixed parentage, but also the “existential misfits” who are adrift between cultures, like Milton and Rika. At one point, “[Rika says,] ‘I can’t go back to Europe, not now. There’s no life there for me. I’m a Papuan now.’ She smiled, and her eyes filled with tears. ‘Only I’m not.’”

The second protagonist of the book is Jericho, Rika’s adopted hapkas child who, thirty years later, returns to the mountain where he was born. There he negotiates with the elders who are trying to satisfy their community’s new needs while safeguarding the old values.

Running through the novel is the concept of ground, the place you come from, but also the sense of being grounded. An Australian character wonders whether what she and other expatriates seek to do in the country is due to “our own lack of ground, our dissatisfactions with where we came from. Our emptiness, perhaps.”

I have barely skimmed the surface of this rich novel, only touching on a tiny sample of the themes and strands threading through it. It is a book to read slowly, savouring the story and the people, stopping to think about how the characters are changing, or to feel what it was like in PNG in the days before independence, or what it is like now. As with Red Dirt Talking, care is needed in keeping track of the many characters, but the effort is well worthwhile.

Reading this book helps us feel both the tragedy and possibilities of Papua New Guinea. It shows how the clash between different ways of looking at the world has resulted in terrible mistakes. Could this richness of perspective also become a source of strength?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013 4:42 pm

    I thought it was wonderful too, and am keeping my fingers crossed for the Miles Franklin longlist when it comes out next week…

    • Bryce permalink*
      March 24, 2013 8:40 pm

      Yes, I hope her achievement is recognised. I am surprised she was not a Stella contender – an indication of how blessed we are to have so much good writing by women.

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