Letters in the sand
Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’
There's more than one way to read a book. On the front cover of Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip (Text Publishing, 220pp; $29.95), which is set on Bougainville, Helen Garner likens the novel to a fairytale. Reviewers have glimpsed in it an allegory of colonialism. A friend who comes from Buka Island, off the top of Bougainville, read it with an eye to real events in a dirty civil war. Between these registers lies the success, and also the failures, of the book.
The novel, told in the voice of 13-year-old Matilda, opens in the last months of 1991. Her father, who had a job at the mine before it closed (in response to guerrilla attacks), has gone to Townsville, leaving Matilda and her mum in the village, with its eerie sense of foreboding. The punishing blockade of the island has snuffed out electricity and supplies, closed schools and hospitals; the young men have joined the rebels - "rambos" - in the jungle, leaving the village unprotected, hearing rumours about the "redskin" soldiers from the mainland. Matilda's story begins when Mr Watts, the "only white man for miles around", comes out of the overgrown mission house where he's retreated with his wife, Grace, and reopens the school. Matilda's mother reckons "his tribe had forgotten him". She is suspicious, but not so the children, who welcome the return of a routine that once gave shape to their days. They pull down the creepers that have grown over the roof and across the ceiling, sweep out the cobwebs and sit, expectant, at their desks.
"I want this to be a place of light," Mr Watts says. "No matter what happens." He doesn't know how the engine of a car works and he can't identify an unfamiliar fish, but he knows his Dickens - Mr Dickens, he calls him - and can describe a marsh on a frosty morning. "The truest thing I can tell you," he says, "is that whatever we've got between us is all we've got." He means the store of knowledge already in the village. What they've also got, he tells them more than once, and what's left after the soldiers burn their few possessions, are their minds and their imaginations.
As Mr Watts reads Great Expectations to the children, the two tales - Pip reinventing himself in Victorian England and Matilda finding a way to survive the deprivations of war - begin their progress towards a bizarre and terrible collision. When the soldiers find Pip's name spelled out on the beach, the village can produce neither man nor book to explain a presence that has come to inhabit the minds of soldiers as well as of children. Reading, Mr Watts had confidently believed, could be a transformative experience; the vengeance that follows the clash of incompatible "readings" of a single name written in sand confronts him with the harsh truth that imagination can be joined also to darkness and destruction. There is nothing innocent about a novel, or about the way it's read.
Writing on literature and psychoanalysis in his recently published Side Effects (which includes an essay on Great Expectations), Adam Phillips writes of the complex line of tension in both these creative endeavours between the urge to make something new in the world and in ourselves, and the urge to peel back what is already there and reveal the unseen. The novelist, like the psychoanalyst, he suggests, works with and between two concepts of creativity: the "modeller" moulding the clay to his own desire and the "carver" liberating the image within the stone. So for Matilda, we might say, Pip exists in one register - modelled from her need to make bearable the unbearable - while for the soldiers he exists crudely as an unseen threat they mistake as real.
Adams' framework of modeller and carver also offers a way of thinking about the novel Lloyd Jones has written. As fable - which Helen Garner is pointing to in her cover comment - it works best when the strange world of the island exists in its own fabulist terms. In that world, Mister Pip and the stories the mothers tell, and the rebels being thrown out of (Australian-supplied) helicopters, and the soldiers making the impossible demand that Mister Pip be handed over, need no other reference than the narrating voice - and mind - of Matilda. Read this way, the last 25 pages are an unwelcome shift of gear as Matilda leaves the island - and a discordant layer of explanation is imposed.
But read the other way, as a peeling back and revealing of a dirty war on our doorstep - Jones is a New Zealander who reported on the war for the Australian as well as New Zealand press - the last pages are required. By taking Matilda out of that time and place, they underscore that these were "real" events, played out of sight on an island in an obscure corner of the Pacific. It pushes the register towards naturalism. In this reading, what subsequently happens to Matilda, giving her the means to tell the story and retrace the origins of Mr Watts and his beloved Grace - who comes from the island, but is no longer of it - becomes necessary if we are to comprehend anything of a war that was largely hidden and, as a consequence, forgotten. Forgotten by us, his Western readers, though not, of course, by the people who are still living with its consequences, attempting to rebuild the fabric of a civil society. Hence my Buka Island friend's reading of the novel for clues about where incidents originated, who the characters might be, who told Jones their stories and where, exactly, they happened.
Turn the lens further in this direction and place the island, Bougainville itself, at its centre, and there's a reading that brings with it the long shadow of colonial geopolitics. Lloyd Jones does not locate the village beyond it being north of Arawa, on a beach and by the mouth of a river. The village can exist in imagination, for what is not imagined is the fertility and richness of the land, and its profound significance in the life of the village. Matilda knows that "from out at sea the view is a series of mountain peaks", but her dad reports - to his, and her, amazement - that the island looks "no bigger than a cowpat" from the window of a departing plane. The daily, lived-with view from the ground is of an overwhelming presence: rich, luxuriant, fecund, steamy. "Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves. Another three months and you are picking its fruit." For those who are raised on its riches, the land - rainforest, beach, garden, river, village - is literally the ground of life and meaning, survival and identity.
The Australian historian Donald Denoon, who's written extensively on Bougainville, quotes three young local men (who went on to play central roles) back at the beginning when the Australian colonial government "acquired" the land necessary for the mine. "Land is our physical life - food and sustenance," they wrote. "Land is our social life; it is marriage; it is status; it is politics; in fact it is our only world." Sean Dorney has pointed out that in 1988, the year before the mine was closed and civil war began, the winning title of PNG's National Literary Competition was ‘The Call of the Land', with ‘In the Name of the Land' as runner-up. That the "most passionate writing" that year - and not only by the winners - was about land, Dorney suggests, is indicative of the "deep grievances" over incompatible attitudes to this most basic of elements, and the alienation of tribal and village land - of which none was more disputed, or more dramatic, than the vast open-cut copper mine at Panguna, in the mountains behind Arawa on that most fertile and beautiful of islands, Bougainville.
Mister Pip does not engage overtly with this history. If you want to follow the track of the war and the origins of the mine, you will need to turn to Denoon or Dorney. Or to the Bougainvillean writer Regis Stella's novel Gutsini Posa (Rough Seas), or Yauka Liria's remarkable memoir, Bougainville Campaign Diary, that began with his operational diary as an intelligence officer in the PNG Defence Force. Lloyd Jones does not take it as his task to give us this history: Mister Pip is very much a novel. But as a man who reported from the war, and spoke to those who suffered it - my friend is probably right when she thinks she can identify where the stories come from - and has spent time on the island since, he knows it well. It is knowledge essential to Mister Pip as both fable and exposure of a very brutal war.