May 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Mountain' by Drusilla Modjeska

By Robyn Annear
'The Mountain' by Drusilla Modjeska, Vintage; $32.95

It comes as a surprise to realise that The Mountain is Drusilla Modjeska’s first novel, since her writing – acclaimed and awarded as non-fiction – has always inhabited the tidal zone between fact and fiction.

Set in Papua New Guinea, The Mountain is a novel in two parts. Book One spans the five years leading up to PNG self-government in 1973; Book Two returns to the scene in the near-present. Common to both parts is their characters’ sense of dislocation: of being an imperfect fit, of failing to live up to cultural expectations.

Rika arrives in Port Moresby in 1968 with her husband Leonard, an anthropologist bound for a remote mountain village. Left behind in Moresby, Rika is caught up in the mood of approaching independence. Besides the expat university crowd, she befriends Jacob and Aaron, clan-brothers from Papua’s fjord coast. Both young men are impatient for change, but it is Aaron to whom people look as a leader; “He’ll be prime minister one day.”

He and Rika are drawn to one another, overcoming bigotry and her pallid marriage to be together. But, as years pass and she fails to bear his child, Aaron’s clansfolk at the fjords begin to suspect Rika of sorcery. “Son of ours. Brother. Come back,” they call after Aaron. “Return to us. Oh misfortune.”

Book One ends with Rika being offered a ‘gift child’ to raise: a hapkas boy – the child of a black mother and white father. His name is Jericho and Book Two is the story of his return, more than 30 years later, to PNG and to the mountain of his birth. Raised and educated in England, Jericho is drawn back by a sense that it behoves him to repay the people of the mountain for the gift that he once was.

There’s a mystery at the centre of The Mountain, in the gap between its two parts. When Book Two opens Aaron is dead, and it is Jericho’s object, and the reader’s, to find out what happened. In the end, it is Rika’s friend and reluctant witness, Martha, who brings not resolution but, in Modjeska’s characteristic style, an eddying approach to it:

 

He’s always assumed it’s narration he needs: interpretation, explanation. And yet, as Martha gives it to him, he knows from the tone of her voice when she keeps a detail to herself, and he finds to his surprise that it does not matter. What she gives him reminds him of something he should have known all along, and did – that it is form, and contour, the shape things make in space, the absences that are left between them that matters. Not the detail. Or even the narrating voice. Not only.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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