Review Blog

Feb 21 2013

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska

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Vintage Books, 2012. ISBN 9781741666502.
(Age: Senior secondary - adult) Highly recommended. Papua New Guinea is often overlooked by Australians in spite of its geographical proximity and close historical and political ties. Australia was the colonial administrator whose influence the inhabitants tried to throw off at Independence. However, the links between the mountain men and Australian soldiers in WW2 have become further immortalised by the increasing tourism to the Kokoda Track.
The (fictitious - but representative) mountain of Drusilla Modjesta's title is set not far from Kokoda on the largest island of New Guinea. Europeans Rika and Leonard lived in Port Moresby during the late sixties and early seventies. As an anthropologist, Leonard spent time on the mountain and his film became a seminal account of traditional life and its change caused by newcomers. Rika falls in love with indigenous Aaron, an upcoming leader who is the hope of Independence. There is foreboding about the length of his life. Jericho, the child of Leonard and a mountain woman, is given as a 'gift child' to Rika and Aaron, who can't have children. The second part of the narrative focuses on Jericho, who is the product of a life brought up in London and the art world but who is searching for his whole identity. He recognises the quality of the bark-cloth of the high mountain villages.
The descriptions of art and place are linked with the surrealists. Walking into one scene is described as being inside a Max Ernst painting. Modjeska knows her art - she wrote the acclaimed Stravinsky's Lunch about two Australian artists living at opposite ends of the world.
The Mountain is a rich, sensory epic. It will enlighten those who know little about Papua New Guinea - a place of contrasts, 'the treachery of paradise'. The English curriculum encourages the use of texts which engage with Asia. While definition of the countries of Asia is contested, the Pacific Islands/Oceania is included by ACARA and so parts of The Mountain would be useful in schools, although it is ideally aimed at adults or mature secondary students.
Joy Lawn

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