A death in the rainforest: how a language and a way of life came to an end in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019, ISBN: 9781616209049, hardcover, 275pp, AU$30.03 from Amazon Australia.
TUMBY BAY - What happens when the equally strange worlds of a remote Papua New Guinea village and an anthropological academic are brought together?
The anthropologist is ostensibly recording the reasons for the demise of the isolated language that the villagers once spoke.
Languages, like many things that no longer have a useful purpose, have been disappearing ever since humans occupied the planet. They are matters of regret but hardly earth-shattering. So why is the anthropologist interested?
The usual suspicion that the anthropologist’s motive is to write a book and make a lot of money is not really relevant in this case because the conventional concepts surrounding books, money and profit are not something with which these villagers are overly familiar.
Just as they are puzzled about what the anthropologist is doing in their village so is the anthropologist puzzled about the villager’s attitude to him and the way they treat him.
It all makes for a confusing mixture that is probably not going to turn out well for either of them. Unfortunately, these things never do.
Which is why the largely predictable dynamics as they evolve in the book contain the most interest. Everyone loves reading about personal drama.
As noted above, the book is ostensibly about how a localised village language is dying but this quickly becomes of peripheral interest. What happens between the anthropologist and the villagers is much more interesting.
In that sense it is a refreshingly frank book about the anthropological process and all its pitfalls.
This anthropologist has a sense of humour that is self-deprecating and wry. That’s not something that is common to the profession. Usually they take themselves far too seriously.
Unfortunately it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the book is also an unrelentingly critical and dismal account, not only of the people of Gapun in the Sepik but of Papua New Guinea in general.
In many ways it reminds me of Colin Turnbull’s 1972 account of the displaced Ik people in Uganda, described in his book The Mountain People.
Unlike Turnbull, however, this author eventually terminated his research after life in the village became too dangerous for him.
“I grew tired of ‘sleeping like a pig’, as the villagers like to say. I grew tired of falling asleep from exhaustion with one ear cocked and one eye open, ready to flee into the bush at the slightest sign that the village was under attack.
“I grew tired of the isolation, weary of worrying that the blast of a gun might rip through and light up the thick tropical night, sick of thinking that I might lose all my work and that I might not be able to get out of the village, or that I might be killed.”
Of Papua New Guinea in general he suggests that its future “may have more in common with a place like Somalia than it does with Australia or the European countries that Gapun villagers fantasize they one day will find a road to become like.”
There are many people who will disagree with this last sentiment but it must be acknowledged that it is a widely held view about Papua New Guinea’s future, particularly in places outside the country. This book abundantly reinforces this dismal view.
With this in mind one has to ask what was the point of the author’s extended research and the writing of this book. Why, for instance, is learning about different cultures of value?
It’s something that has exercised his mind too and he addresses it in the latter part of the book.
Talking about the Gapun villagers he says: “They do not feel that their role in life is to teach other, usually more privileged people, anything at all. And they resent – rightly in my view – the idea that their lives should be displayed like a tattered chart, or dissected like a high school bullfrog, for the edification of earnest Western liberal humanists who feel better about themselves if they convince themselves that they know more about the world.”
He also raises the question of “whether we actually ever do learn anything, no matter how well taught, or dearly bought, the lesson might be.
“As the dark, cold clouds that seem disconcertingly similar to the ones that enveloped Europe in the 1930s appear again on the horizon and edge ever more menacingly into our lives today, one might begin to despair about whether knowledge about anything these days, is of any use at all.”
This last view is one that strikes a chord with many people today, especially those of older years. What is the point about worrying when nobody wants to listen and seem incapable of learning from the past?
One might ask what chance does a Papua New Guinea, already well on the way to descending into Somalia-like chaos and dysfunction according to the author, have in a world like that?
It’s a depressing book that even the author’s humour can’t leaven. Read it at your peril.