I violated a bit of an unwritten rule for myself by counting this book for my book-from-every-country project. The Mountain is a novel about Papua New Guinea whose author, Drusilla Modjeska is not from Papua New Guinea. That’s something I’ve tried to avoid. And there are definitely novels by Papua New Guineans available. But when I read a review of The Mountain by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers, I really wanted to read this one.
And to be fair, it’s not really clear how much of the book is fiction or non-fiction. It’s a novel about a woman who goes to Papua New Guinea as the wife of an anthropologist teaching in the new university and Modjeska in fact went to Papua New Guinea as the wife of an anthropologist teaching….
And the parallels go on from there.
Modjeska, I think, also does a good job of not trying to speak for Papua New Guineans, but instead showing the perspective of outsiders who really love the country. Papua New Guinea fascinates me because it is one of the last places on earth that still has many traditional societies that live independently from the modern state. As I read about in my Botswana book also, there’s a real tension over how to take advantage of benefits like medicine and tin roofs without losing a sense of tradition and community. Is there a solution? Maybe.
Those of you who have read my blog for a while, know that I’m not a fan of magical realism, particularly when I feel like the author wants me to believe that the magic has a place in the real world. There were some times where I was worried that The Mountain would fall into that category, but it never did. Modjeska somehow managed to convey complete respect for magical beliefs without ever agreeing that those beliefs are accurate. I’m still not quite sure how she did it.
The Mountain is one of those sweeping kinds of books that brings together discussion of colonialism, social change and conflict, the meaning of art, academic politics, environmental protection and more into a story of friends and family over two generations. I’m realizing that the way I have written about it, The Mountain might sound abstract and heavy and not very human or personal. But really, it’s all about a wonderful set of friendships that are fraught with difficulties. I love it when books and movies take friendship seriously as an important part of people’s lives.
There’s a particular form of artwork, called barkcloth, that is important throughout the book. It’s not something I was familiar with before, so while reading I developed my own vague mental image of what this incredible, almost magical creation looked like. My mental construct made it into something so amazing, that real images couldn’t really live up to it (just as the portrayal of Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings movie could never be as scary as the Nazgul in my imagination which were the personification of fear itself.) Real barkcloth is still actually pretty amazing though. You can see images and learn more about barkcloth making by Papua New Guinean women here: http://www.omieartists.com/about-us/.
I found The Mountain a most enjoyable book and an excellent choice for the fiftieth book in my book-from-every-country project. I’m quite excited to have reached fifty books, a quarter of the way through! I feel like I’ve made it far enough to show that I’m actually serious about doing this and I’m not just dabbling with the idea. I’m planning to do my usual overview post that I do every 10 books and then maybe a second post looking more broadly at the 50 books I’ve read so far.