November 2006

Arts & Letters

Letters in the sand

By Drusilla Modjeska
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.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Heroes (Just for One Day)

‘The Countdown Spectacular’

Howard’s Brutopia

The battle of ideas in Australian politics

Time’s arrow

An interview with Robert Hughes

British rules

Why we’re still more English than American

More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Books

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990, walking witha a camel and three women

An open heart: Robyn Davidson’s ‘Unfinished Woman’

The author of ‘Tracks’ takes stock in middle age, in a memoir encompassing her mother’s tragic early death, mental health, and her relationship with Salman Rushdie

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality