and Philip Fitzpatrick are about my age. They were in Papua New Guinea –
Shearston as a teacher, Fitzpatrick as a kiap – when I was there. And they
have both authored books about life around the time of national independence
that I would dearly loved to have written myself.
years ago, in 1979, Shearston published Something in the Blood, a
wonderful collection of short stories of which it was said “[they] were driven
by a rejection of romantic and dishonest views of colonial Papua New Guinea and
are widely regarded as accurate observations of the life and politics of that
same could be said of Phil Fitzpatrick’s novel, Bamahuta – Leaving Papua, which,
if you'll forgive the paradox, is a relentlessly honest work of fiction -
although, as you read it, you quickly realise it is strongly informed by fact.
And, like Shearston’s stories, Bamahuta is thoroughly evocative of and
true to the times it describes.
Bamahuta has been much mentioned in these Notes recently.
It seems a favourable review, published after the first 2005 edition, was
banned from the PNGAA website by some offended, anonymous,
cloth-eared censor. Furthermore, Fitzpatrick was accused of unconscionably
melding fact and fiction. But these are impertinent cavils. They are like old
tannin stains in a chipped teacup - of slender passing interest even as the vessel is cast aside.
Fitzpatrick has written a beautiful book and Diane Andrews is to be
congratulating on republishing it. Fitzpatrick is not only a powerful storyteller
with a keen eye for the kind of descriptive detail that makes you feel you're
there, he also writes with a beguiling sense of humour and the ability to draw
characters who are real (sometime because they are real) and who we
can sympathise with, even when their personalities are less than appealing.
Bamahuta begins and ends with vignettes that take place in
the year 2000, thirty years after the period in which the book is located.
These markers show that the ambience of PNG has changed, and then, with powerful
prose and through electric storytelling, Fitzpatrick returns to PNG as it was
in the late sixties and early seventies. You can smell it and you can feel it;
you are there.
so are all the people you knew. They live again. The drunks and the lovers, the
eccentrics and the confused, the blow-ins and the die-hards. It is in his
characterisation that Fitzpatrick’s acute eye for detail excels. And the
Papuans and the New Guineans who populate this book – and who are, in a sense,
its real heroes – are at least as well drawn as the author’s countrymen. Here
is a writer who saw and who understood what he was dealing with.
of great moments. There is exploration, cannibalism, politics, sex, leeches,
patrol reports, puripuri, boredom, drinking, pretentiousness and courage. The
book can be read at a number of levels – from the easy stance of a rattling
good yarn to the more complex angle of seeking to understand the unusual mix of
grittiness, pragmatism and empathy required to be an effective midwife at the
birth of a nation.
and PNG do have a shared history. It is a rich history and it is a good
history: Australian resourcefulness and Papua New Guinean shrewdness thrown
together; all parties getting on with a job sometimes not fully understood but
which, irrespective of where it might have been headed, always seemed worth
Bamahuta makes you feel proud of this shared
history. Amongst its many other attributes, Phil Fitzpatrick's book is the only
reminder you should need of the centrality of the kiaps' role in PNG's
development, and of Australia's role in that same process.
As Paul Toohey
writes of Port Moresby in today's Australian: "The place would
improve exponentially if Australians forced aside some of their justified
scepticism and chose to revisit their old PNG friends or find new ones."
The elemental concept here being that of friendship: a friendship that Phil
Fitzpatrick understood so well and is able to write about so eloquently.
You must buy Bamahuta
and read it.
– Leaving Papua’ by Philip Fitzpatrick, Diane Andrews Publishing, $35. Visit
the publisher’s website here.