Destination: New Guinea

Mysteries of these lush, exotic South Pacific islands are revealed by a horny anthropologist, a stricken war veteran and a curious young novelist.


Philip Weiss
July 20, 2006 4:00PM (UTC)

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world (after Greenland) and the focus of a lot of Western dreaming. This has to do with how relatively unknown the area has been. Contact between native and Westerner took place mostly in the 20th century -- much later than in other parts of the colonial world. It is said that more languages are spoken in New Guinea than anywhere else -- possibly several hundred -- and that the island's inner valleys with their birds of paradise are still not fully explored -- though apparently all the cannibals have now learned to eat other things.

Besides the mainland -- the western half of which is part of Indonesia, while the east is the Independent Nation of Papua New Guinea -- New Guinea also includes hundreds of islands that lie offshore, including the Trobriands. The legendary anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski traveled there twice during World War I to research the lives of the islanders. Today, his book "A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term" would be a blog, but in his own day Malinowski never even thought to make public his private reflections on life in New Guinea. In 1967, 25 years after his death, his widow published his book -- and it caused a scandal. No surprise there. "Diary" offers a frank account of Malinowski's boredom with his work, his anger toward the subjects of his research, and his lust for colonial and indigenous women alike.

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Malinowski's book is the expression of a turbulent mind, an elite and daring traveler in a far place, trying to get serious work done. He must fight his own lethargy ("I awoke feeling as if just taken down from a cross -- just wasnt functioning") and fight his disdain ("I thought about my present attitude toward ethnogr[aphic] work and the natives. My dislike of them, my longing for civilization"). He must fight his desire, too: "I can repress occasional violent whoring impulses by realizing that it would get me nowhere, that even if I possessed women under these conditions, I would merely be sloshing in the mud."

In his less loathsome moments, Malinowski also recorded stirring descriptions of New Guinea's watery geography, like this section about passing an island by boat: "Two rocks rise up out of the vegetation, like two truncated pillars out of a heap of overgrown ruins. The sea striving, advancing in orderly rows of long smooth waves. I rowed. At moments I didn't know which way to look -- at the exquisite silhouette of Gumasila or the vigorous harmonies of Domdom, or the symphony of pastel colors on the distant mountains of the big island -- Sarakeikeine. Flights of birds against the clouds dotting them like buckshot."

Move ahead 30 years. New Guinea is part of our history now. So try one of the great antiwar books of all time: "Fear Drive My Feet," published in 1959 by the Australian writer Peter Ryan. Ryan wrote the book when he was 21, teaching at the Australian military academy and reflecting on his experiences two and three years before, behind the lines in the war in New Guinea. Ryan originally tried to publish his book in the 1940s but didn't get anywhere. Years later, a houseguest stuck her nose into the manuscript unbidden, and went to work to find it a home.

There are so many wonderful things about Ryan's book it is hard to know where to start. It's about youth, and the ways that idealism is killed off in war -- or lost, as it was for Ryan. It's an outdoors adventure: Told in a straightforward and open manner, Ryan relates an amazing, and, as it turns out, deadly journey from village to village on New Guinea's Huon Peninsula, and then over 12,000-foot mountains, with the Japanese not far behind.

Ryan describes the place in a wide-eyed and naturalistic manner, as in this moment, about a family whose dying 8-year-old he cannot heal: "The tultul leant forward and picked up a piece of wood from the fire. He blew gently on it till it flamed, and then held it close to the childs head so that I could see better. Death was already in the little black face

"No one spoke. As I squeezed out the doorway the mother and father looked bewildered and the old woman followed me with her eyes, detesting my interference. I felt angry at my own helplessness...

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"[Sometime later] A piercing, terrible wail shivered through the air from the village. It was like a dog howling, but infinitely tragic. The child was dead ... The wailing became general, taken up, swelling and fading, by every voice in the community ... it went on all night."

The book's majesty is as a screed against war brought to a land that did not ask for it. Here, for instance, is Ryan's portrayal of a wounded Japanese prisoner, being revived so as to be interrogated. "As I looked at his face, wasted with fever and suffering, I suddenly felt more akin to him than to the Australians who would not let him die in peace. His eyes, wonderfully large and soft, met mine. In that brief second, I hoped he could read the message in my face."

For all the destruction it brought, the war helped to internationalize New Guinea, and make way for art lovers, even tourists. One of those who found her way to the island is Samantha Gillison, a Western woman who landed in New Guinea 60 years after Ryan. "The King of America" is Gillison's 2004 fictionalized account of the death of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 in western New Guinea, where he had gone to collect artworks. Her novel's main business is the psychology of American privilege. Delicately, she lays out the anxieties of Stephen Hesse -- her Rockefeller -- over his background, his isolation and his true self.

Hesse comes to feel that he can only find himself in New Guinea, and though he dies there, he is right. The yearning discomfort of his spirit is at last comfortable in this wild place. Gillison's sense of village life is unerring. "Only a few old men and women and quiet children lived in the isolated little hamlet," she writes, sketching a group of houses in the mountains that has drawn the attention of Hesse and a colleague. "The fathers, husbands and sons were either living in the men's house down in the village or had been killed in battle. There was something in this corner of the Koa Valley that was impossibly beautiful to Stephen. It was so full of feeling, as lonely as the end of the world ... Soft night was slowly pouring in around them, filling up the mountains. They could see a woman in the glow of the flames. She pulled a sweet-potato tuber out of the ashes, banged it on the mud floor to loose the skin from its steaming white meat..."

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On the one hand, this passage is mundane, showing life stripped to ignoble essentials. On the other, it is utterly transcendent, showing the weariness of a Westerner escaping his materialist condition. In the end, this is why travelers have been drawn to the island: to feel, as no other place can inspire, true spiritual conflict. To have visions while stuck in the mud.


Philip Weiss

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