Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey (Huia Publishers, 2010) 315 pp., NZ$35.00.
Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey (Huia Publishers, 2010) 315 pp., NZ$35.00.
When I was a teenager living in Port Moresby, my parents decided we would take our allotted leave in New Zealand. Full of touristic bonhomie, we chatted to a taxi driver who asked where we were from. ‘Papua’, we replied breezily. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Is that North Island or South?’ Once we realised what he was on about, we explained. ‘Oh yairs,’ came the rejoinder, ‘I knew you was from the tropics; you’ve got the yeller look about yer.’ So our sense of being part of a broad Pacific community was stripped away by parochial focus and our healthy suntans reduced to a medical routine of fighting off malaria with jaundice-inducing pills. These two elements frame the recent novel Quinine.
Once Papua New Guinea gained its independence in 1975 it began to fade from the consciousness of Australians and others who made a living there as missionaries, planters, international advisers on everything and colonial administrators. The number of non-indigenous writers producing fiction set there also dwindled. Ex-colonials like Randolph Stow (Visitants, 1979) produced some good novels — after the usual slather of colonial romance twaddle, although that influence persisted in works like Louis Nowra’s postcolonial dystopian Palu (1987). Australian freelance traveller Trevor Shearston turned a critical eye on colonial officers and missionaries in Something in the Blood (1979) and White Lies (1986). Other sojourners have turned out books based on their experience there — for example Inez Baranay with her Rascal Rain (1994) — but overseas audiences have largely lost interest in the region, unless some crisis in the news, such as the Bougainville secessionist conflict or intertribal warfare in the Solomons, gives a novel topical appeal — as with Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip.
|Kelly Ana Morey|
So it is interesting that 2010 produced two novels again dealing with PNG. In Australia, Roger Averill’s Keeping Faith sets the tragedy of a young missionary woman caught up in Highlands violence against her brother’s loss of religious belief. The two have been brought up by strict church-going parents, and the book is more about the difficulties of keeping one’s faith in contemporary secular Australia than about life in New Guinea. The other novel is from New Zealand: surprising in itself — New Zealand’s Pacific connections traditionally have more to do with Polynesia — and even more surprising in that it concentrates on New Guinea in its phase as a German colony.
The historical turn in fiction about Papua New Guinea is not unusual. Trevor Shearston, as he became increasingly separated from personal contact with the country, turned to dramatising colonial rivalries centred around the missionary martyr James Chalmers in Sticks that Kill (1983), and in bringing to life (bizarrely via the voice of a severed head!) the improbable true story of Luigi D’Albertis’s expeditions up the Fly River in 1877 to hunt for specimens for European collections in the novel Dead Birds (2007). But it is rare for the stories of German settlement to be reinvented for antipodean consumption.
Kelly Ana Morey centres her story around the legendary figure of ‘Queen Emma’, perhaps hoping to attract feminist and Pacific Island readers (Emma being from Samoa, and a figure of scandal who carved out her place in colonial society as commander of a ‘salon’ and manager of a plantation). But it is not Emma’s story. The protagonist is Marta Mueller, born to a bourgeois family in Berlin, and thirty-three when we meet her, ‘a friend of science and a suffragette’. (Her mother’s family is von Tempsky, perhaps a deliberate attempt at a New Zealand connection.) Her father has a position in the Museum of Natural History, and they are visited by a somewhat bumbling plantation owner from New Ireland bringing artefacts for the museum (including a dozen Tolai skulls), but also on the lookout for a wife, after a romantic attachment to a half-caste island woman who has dumped him for a more lively prospect.
Herr Schmidt is attracted by rose-complexioned 17-year-old Gretchen, a fey would-be artist who is prone to mysterious bouts of mental disturbance: anorexia is suggested; self-harm by cutting described. Her more boisterous 13-year-old sister Augusta volunteers to marry Bernard (who is forty) so as to have adventures on cannibal islands — and innocently raising the scandalous idea of his cohabiting with native women (the book works with ironies like this). Gretchen’s visionary proto-surrealist paintings alarm Bernard (the family destroy them, shocked by their latent sensuality, save for one that Marta rescues and keeps forever as inspiration), and he ends up proposing to Marta. She is happy to take him on as she seeks adventure and wants to emulate the botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian or the explorer Mrs May Sheldon.
There is clearly a feminist impulse in those parts of the book spent admiring the free spirit of Emma Coe/Kolbe and quietly deploring the dismissal of Augusta’s talent and Marta’s intellect. If we concentrate on this aspect of the novel, the title suggests that for women, both in Europe and even more so on the colonial frontier, life is a bitter pill that won’t do more than delay disappointment and tragedy (the naming of Bernard’s plantation — Gethsemane — underlines the theme). However, we know that colonial society pre-World War One was a man’s world, so there are limits to how far feminist critique can meaningfully go. Indeed, the apparently self-made woman Queen Emma is revealed to be in thrall to her husband Paul, despite all her lovers and landholdings.
What is more, as Marta perseveres in her loveless marriage, her desires awaken under the lure of tropic natural beauty (a stereotypical jungle waterfall and swimming hole), and she focuses her emotions on her husband’s friend, the Australian planter Royal Weston. There is a bit of modern titillation in revealing him to be bisexual and in a long-term relationship with a native, but other than that, their relationship is heavily signposted and sends the text towards Mills and Boon territory and the historical setting leaves us with the — I’m sure unintended — echo of the old colonial romance.
Certainly there is a critique of colonial society, and something of a self-aware parody of the colonial/ historical travel and romance genres. Marta spends some of her educative years of travel as secretary to a completely egocentric writer of historical romances such as Moroccan Moonlight. The spurious Sophia Constantinelli eventually turns out to be instrumental in a subplot relating to Marta’s loss of a finger, although this remains but loosely connected to the New Guinea story. But the plantocracy seem to be apologised for, if not celebrated (the villains are really the Australians, who take advantage of their German neighbours when they are interned as war breaks out and their lands confiscated), while the natives are always in the background only, and the Asians are only ever Asiatics and Orientals. Also, Marta as lover subsumes Marta as free spirit. She does carve out her own space of dignified semi-independence, it is true, and she does (through Royal’s intervention) achieve her wish to become a famous illustrator of nature, but it is hard to see this as a triumph of liberation.
The double perspective of then and now is reflected, too, in the writing. I couldn’t sense Marta as a German woman of 1903–15; filtered through notes of modern concerns she’s undifferentiated from the typical heroine of a modern novel. At the same time, the recreation of the history remains too trapped in the historical. (There are many long flashbacks that leach the dramatic life away.) The prose needs a good edit at times; it ploughs along telling us, sometimes with repetitions of phrases, what we don’t really need to know or already do know until it seems like a rather cluttered and stuffy nineteenth-century drawing room.
This might be fine if it were deliberate and marked by a bracing alteration once Marta arrives in the tropics. However, starting each chapter with extracts from Marta’s appropriately formal-sounding 1949 memoirs and her and Augusta’s letters highlights that the rest of the text is in ‘authorial’ narration, not part of period atmospherics (it could have been in the voice of stolid Bernard Schmidt, for example), and the heaviness is never completely dissipated, regardless of the setting. Here is a brief sample of one of the livelier moments where culling small excesses would have made the rhapsody less like the colonial romance it tries not to be:
All around her the rainforest, the skies and even the rafters of the bungalow roof exploded and hummed with the activity of creatures, both seen and unseen. Strange birds swooped from tree to tree, chattering among themselves and shrieking their hosannas into the skies. A bright green lizard, its body no bigger than Marta’s smallest finger, scuttled across the boards of the verandah, its tail absent, left somewhere else to distract a predator. It stopped near her feet, opening and shutting its golden eyes in slow contemplation. And the reptile might have stayed there, if it hadn’t caught, through the sensitive pads of its feet, the seismic hum of human approach and scuttled abruptly away.
On the whole, this is a perfectly entertaining read, and will satisfy curiosity about a now little-known part of Pacific colonial times, but I have the sense of it trying for a more complex ‘postmodern’ irony than it manages.