Operation Kisim Bek Lombo by Baka Barakove Bina, Independently Published, 2019, ISBN: 97819744332366, 350 pages, my copy cost AU$34.28 from Amazon.com but there’s an eBook that costs US$4.94.
TUMBY BAY - We are probably all familiar with the term ‘alternative facts’. It is part of the bizarre tableau of language that has emanated from Trumpian America and sits alongside other questionable expressions like ‘fake news’.
Similar expressions are commonly found in literary fiction, particularly historical fiction. Historical fiction seeks to fill in the gaps between known or accepted facts to flesh out obscure and fuzzy periods in the past.
An interesting sub-genre of historical fiction is ‘what if’ history. This involves the writing of alternative history based on a different scenario to what actually happened.
Good examples are to be found in Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland where he explores what might have happened if Germany had invaded Britain during World War 2. Another example is John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers, which imagines an Australia invaded by the Japanese.
Papua New Guinea now has its own version of alternative history in Baka Bina’s new book Operation Kisim Bek Lombo. The book is based on an alternative history of the infamous Sandline affair to take back Bougainville.
Prior to the Sandline affair the head of the PNG Defence Force had launched an assault on Bougainville, code named "Operation High Speed II". However, the operation was a dismal failure, and within six days the embarrassed Papua New Guinean forces had retreated from the island.
The subsequent Sandline affair, involving the importation of foreign mercenaries, was a political scandal that became one of the defining moments in the history of Papua New Guinea, and particularly the conflict in Bougainville.
It brought down the government of Sir Julius Chan, took Papua New Guinea to the verge of a military revolt and preceded the ruinous prime ministership of Bill Skate.
Baka Bina’s book presents an alternative scenario to this conger line of debacles as a kind of mock serious attempt at redeeming the PNGDF’s damaged reputation as sometimes unwitting participants in this sorry period of history.
What he posits is a scenario where the rank and file of the PNGDF, disgruntled by being kept out of the loop by the politicians and affronted by being replaced by foreign mercenaries decide to take matters into their own hands.
To achieve this they call up the services of a range of ancestral mystics from different parts of PNG to assist in the unnerving of the mercenaries and their leaders. These include sangumas, dukduks, e’haros, kukurals, songans, malmals, ghewos, walking Sepik carvings and Samarai time travellers.
Mixed into this is a veritable cavalcade of modern military technologies to produce a veritable potpourri of events.
Buried in there too is a backstory involving a military officer desperate to reunite with his Bougainvillean wife and ‘redskin’ son hiding in the bush from the BRA, the various militia and the PNGDF.
This is the point in the novel when the narrative, in typical Baka style, becomes incredibly confusing and difficult to follow. One has to persist with the rambling sequence of events to arrive at the conclusion.
There’s more however.
A Tim Spicer like character is held by the military and the mercenaries who have been ejected from the country launch a return raid to rescue their leader.
I won’t spoil the novel by revealing how that turns out but it does involve a herd of pigs and threats of cannibalism.
While I couldn’t work out what the hell was going on half the time and had trouble handling the sudden jumps in the narrative and the confusing array of characters I ultimately enjoyed the book.
I’d suggest that if you are a fan of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume you’ll probably enjoy it too.
A couple of asides.
Baka has long lamented the lack of good editors in PNG and this unfortunately shows up in his book. As someone inured to this problem I didn’t mind so much but others may find it a detraction.
The other thing is a reference to the last case of cannibalism occurring in the 1950s. Apart from the recent weird people-eating events in PNG I can personally vouch that people were still at it in the 1970s.
As an alternative narrative to Jerry Singirok’s Opareisen Rausim Kwik the novel is fascinating.
Who knows, maybe there really was a gun battle at Taurama Barracks between a bunch of African mercenaries and a platoon of pigs aided and abetted by an assortment of activated sanguma.