‘Man of Calibre’ is an entry in the Crocodile Prize
Ok Tedi Mining Book of the Year Award
Man of Calibre by Baka Barakove Bina, CreateSpace, 2015, ISBN-10: 1499751842, ISBN-13: 978-1499751840. 248 pages. Kindle $3.27, Paperback $16
THERE are two men, one in his thirties and the other in his sixties. They get drunk together and, as they have done so many times before, begin to argue and then start fighting.
The noise they make on the road next to the village wakes everyone up and a crowd gathers. The men say things they wouldn’t say if they were sober.
As the spectacle increases, the man bearing the brunt of their animosity cracks and creeps out of his house and, to his own surprise, lays both of them flat on their backs.
Come the dawn and the bruised and battered antagonists must face a village moot and, to everyone’s surprise, a ‘killing of the fire’ ceremony.
The term ‘moot’ is not one that I am familiar with and I had to resort to my battered old Pocket Oxford Dictionary for elucidation.
It is a “meeting, especially of a legislative or judicial kind” according to that venerable tome. How it got into the Papua New Guinean vernacular I don’t know.
In practice what it means is an informal village meeting set up to adjudicate on issues and disputes in a sort of sub-village court setting.
More importantly it is also a way of keeping village matters in the village and avoiding the shame and ridicule that might occur in a formal village court hearing.
‘Killing of the fire’ is, I think, a local Eastern Highlands custom. The fire is symbolic of an issue or complaint and the act of killing (extinguishing) the fire involves the payment of compensation.
In this case, the aggrieved are neighbouring villages who had always looked up to the subject village but feel seriously let down by the antics of the two fighting men.
The subsequent moot and fire killing ceremony take up most of the novel, which is set over one night and the morning of the following day.
These idiosyncrasies essentially involve a society grappling with the slow death of traditional culture and a confusing modern derivative full of unexpected surprises.
It is the rich soup of these contradictions and inconsistencies that make this new novel by Baka Bina (left) so compelling. Some of the meaty pieces that he fishes out of the soup are fascinating and irresistible.
These pieces range over a wide spectrum but feature the changing roles of men and women in the new society.
The discussions about men washing their kid’s nappies and their wives’ underwear are hilarious, as much so as the descriptions of men left without land and gardens hassling to get by any way they can are sad.
Also interesting are the breaking of taboos, like using men’s ‘big names’ in public and the confusing snakes and ladders of kinship that even the villagers find hard to understand.
Another central theme is the changing language and concepts and the introduction of new words and ideas into local usage. In this case it is the concept of ‘calibre’ (kalibaris), which is little understood and misconstrued by many of the villagers – just what is a man of calibre they wonder?
I was also intrigued by the way traditional exchange and obligation has been monetised, somehow replacing pigs and kina shell (although the former are still important) with money seems terribly crass.
Even respect and prestige has a kina value these days. Unfortunately there is too much more in this glorious soup that the author serves up to the reader to describe here.
It is wickedly funny and earthy book which is thankfully devoid of the preaching and religious platitudes that spoil so much of Papua New Guinea’s better writing.
In some ways the novel reminds me of James Joyce, the author of the brilliant Ulysses. However I’m not thinking about that work so much as his other novel Finnegan’s Wake. Man of Calibre has the same impetus and also crams much richness into such a short space in time.
The novel is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – how many novels can make that claim anyway?
There are typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that can’t be put down to poetic licence. There is also a confusing mix of English, Tok Ples and Tok Pisin.
Thankfully there is a glossary but it is annoying having to consult it every few pages. The English writer Martin Amis’ observation that good fiction should have universal appeal is salient here.
That aside, I would have no trouble in calling this a landmark novel. I haven’t read anything this good since Russell Soaba’s Tinpis.
In as much as it is possible, given Papua New Guinea’s cultural diversity, I would even go as far as describing Man of Calibre as an instant classic.
It should immediately go onto the curriculums of Papua New Guinea’s high schools and tertiary institutions.
I think it marks a significant turning point in the maturity of Papua New Guinean literature, and, indeed, the wider world. That hasn’t happened since the 1970s.