Victory Song of Pingeta’s Daughter by Daniel Kumbon, Independently Published, 2020, 400 pages, colour illustrations, ISBN: 9798562831323, available here from Amazon Australia, AU$74.65 plus AU$3.90 postage
TUMBY BAY - By Papua New Guinea standards this is a big book. It runs to 400 pages, 85,700 words and 332 illustrations, mostly in colour.
In an article announcing its publication I referred to it as a blockbuster. That’s an aphorism often used to describe books that are not only physically big but wide in scope and ambition.
In any normal sense the term also relates to the potential for impressive sales figures but in the deprived literary scene of Papua New Guinea that aspect must be passed to the keeper while we concentrate on its scope and ambition.
In terms of ambition, what Daniel Kumbon has attempted to do with his book is trace the history of the Wabag district and Enga Province in general from the point of first contact with Europeans right through to the present time.
The device he uses to handle the scope of the book and pull all of the multiple strings of the narrative together is an intertwining of a broader regional history with a narrower story of a prominent Engan businessman, Paul Kurai and his family.
This sort of approach is always tricky because the balance has to be finely wrought in terms of cohesion and relevance.
On the one hand all of the elements and themes in the story have to be laid out so they make sense and exclude the extraneous and on the other they have to avoid any hint of sycophancy.
The book begins with the dramatic and bloody encounter between Paul’s grandfather and the prospector and explorer Michael Leahy in 1934.
This is a seminal event that not only reverberates through time for Paul’s family but for the Wabag district in general.
The few minutes in which an Engan warrior decided to charge a prospector’s camp with his spear and the split second decision of the prospector to shoot and kill him coloured everything that happened thereafter.
The ripple effect of that event was felt not only by the local people but by every kiap, missionary and visitor to the district right up until the time of Papua New Guinea’s independence and for many years afterwards.
By recognising that the future of his people lay with helping rather than hindering the kiaps and the missionaries Paul’s father, Kurai, laid the groundwork not only for his family’s success but also for the successes of his businessman son.
As you begin reading Daniel’s book the embracing theme outlined above is not immediately apparent and some of the divergences and narrative tangents are difficult to contextualise.
At several points there is an impression that he is leveraging material into the narrative that bears only minor relevance to the central story.
This impression is reinforced by some of the photographs included at the end of each chapter that might have been better left out for the same reason.
As interesting as this material and the illustrations are one gets the feeling that the book is being boiler-plated and stuffed and that a more deft and ruthless organisation of the material might have been in order.
That said, I can see the dilemma that Daniel faced. He was presented with a monumental and highly complex story to tell that had never been coherently told before and to do it justice it was necessary to cram as much into the book as possible.
It is a dilemma many writers face and which only the most hard-hearted and ruthless can handle and pull off successfully.
That said, there is a point in the book where most of the disparate elements begin to coalesce and a certain, albeit untidy, logic begins to form.
It is at this point that you have to make a value judgement about the book.
You have to balance the literary merits of the story against the apparently disordered but fascinating historical material, relevant or otherwise, presented to you.
I opted to take the latter course and tuck my literary cap into my back pocket. It is an approach I would recommend if you want to extract the maximum enjoyment from reading the book.
The other aspect I decided to take at face value was Daniel’s assessment of Paul Kuria, the grandson of that 1934 Engan warrior with a spear.
If Paul Kurai is representative of the kind of leadership that is finally emerging in Enga that is a cause for hope and is worth celebrating.
Paul’s intelligence, kindness, empathy, generosity and respect for cultural traditions is something that is sorely missing in many parts of Papua New Guinea.
Finally, it must be said that given the problems of doing any kind of historical research in Papua New Guinea where sources and references are so very hard to find Daniel has done a sterling job in stitching what he has been able to find into a coherent whole.
In that sense, I’ve no doubt that this book will form a valuable resource for writers who come after him.
It is also the kind of book that should logically find its way into the libraries of Papua New Guinean schools.