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A most readable novel connects two worlds

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John Kuri (Kamnguru Nem) and daughters. A novel that takes the reader into the complex world of Melanesians before the arrival of Western influence


Porugl: Son of the Underworld by Kamnguru Nem, Independently published, 183 pages. ISBN: 9798520442332. Available from Amazon Australia, ebook $25.94, paperback $42.83

TUMBY BAY - A gigl ambu is a female spirit who lives in the underworld and travels at night into the outerworld, where humans live, to secretly forage for food.

The underworld is ruled by an ancient serpent, Kerwanba. Among her subjects are spirits, dwarfs and the mysterious smoking makan nem who act as landlords.

Above ground Kekemba, the mythical eagle, soars and a gifted shaman invokes chants to heal wounds and illness and conducts rituals like the mengagle sungwa to bring back the souls of humans stolen by underworld spirits.

Such is the Tolkien-like world inhabited by the hero of Kamnguru Nem’s novel ‘Porugl Son of the Underworld’.

Set in Simbu just before contact with Europeans, the novel tells the story of Porugl, the grandson and heir of the powerful leader of the Akenku tribe, Kande Kumugl, who is thrown into a deep pit to die by a rival intent upon undermining his family lineage.

Why Porugl was treated in this manner and how he somehow survives and comes to live in the mystical realms of the underworld before eventually escaping makes up the book’s intriguing narrative.

While the novel is reminiscent of the world created by JRR Tolkien in his fantasy novels ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ it also invokes Greek and Roman mythology.

In this sense it is a reminder that the Western world was not the only place that developed foundational myths of complexity and durability.

In Simbu and other places in Papua New Guinea, complicated systems of thought and belief that explained both the natural and supernatural world existed long before Europeans arrived.

These systems were decidedly more potent than the simple superstitions ascribed to them by proselytising missionaries and others.

I first became aware of the depth of these beliefs while editing Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin’s seminal blending of myth and history in his 2013 book, ‘The Flight of Galkope’.

In that book he describes the effortless transition from legend to history that occurred among his own Galkope people.

This easy transition is one of the main reasons why Papua New Guinean people, used to living and dealing with their ghosts and spirits, were not much surprised by the arrival of the strange, light skinned men with their strange habits and attire who appeared among them.

One of the characters briefly featured in the novel is Mangruai, a fair skinned and long haired man who arrived before the first missionaries came to Simbu Province.

Some readers may remember the discussion on PNG Attitude about this man and who he might have been.

As the late Francis Nii suggested, some thought he was a Christ-like figure and this is how he appears in ‘Porugl: Son of the Underworld’.

Mangruai manifests as a logical and preparatory lynchpin between the traditional world and the new world.

Whereas Sil Bolkin presented his narrative as history, the author of this book has taken a different path and used a fictional story to explore many of the same issues.

This has given him leeway to be creative and imbue his narrative with the elements of fantasy mentioned earlier.

While the reader is never sure how true to type the characters in the novel are, it is possible to construe what might be factual and what is invention. This makes for an intriguing narrative.

Whether true or fiction, what comes across strongly in the book are the complexities of tribal organisation and leadership.

Porugl CoverAs the reader follows the fate of the central character and that of his father and mother the nature of traditional Simbu society in all its nuances becomes abundantly clear.

Not only does the reader get to learn about these fascinating people they also get to feel what it might have been like to be them.

And, on top of that, and for those with not so much an esoteric impulse, the book is a rattling good yarn.

Kamnguru Nem is the pen name of John W Kuri, a project manager of many years’ experience working with international development and other organisations.

He is an enthusiast of tribal history, the origins of people and their traditions. He also composes music in his free time.

‘Porugl: Son of the Underworld’ is the first book in a planned trilogy.


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Harry Topham

Phil - It is interesting how Western societies define their superiority on the human traits of so called intelligence.

How many of us would fail dismally any Mensa test because our intelligence strengths may lay in other fields namely those having more physical artistic bents.

In this context our status in life’s evolution train can easily be misconstrued.

Consider this- How many Australians could identify the names and characteristics of every bird, animal, plant or creatures of the sea that coexists in our presence.

Yet, I can recall that most Papua New Guineans and traditional aboriginal peoples that I have been in contact with many years ago did possess that knowledge.

Thus an analogy could be drawn that if a Mensa test result was based upon such knowledge criteria outlined then most of us citified Ozzzies would be regards as being dills.

At UPNG in the early 1970s, Prof Ralph Premdas put us political studies students through an IQ test designed for, if I recall correctly, Puerto Rican immigrants in New York. He made his point clear. Such tests - as are many similar constructs - are culturally determined - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

For a long time I've been developing a distinct scepticism about the idea that western civilisation is somehow superior to traditional indigenous cultures in places like Australia and Papua New Guinea.

That's why I've been prattling on about Bruce Pascoe's book, Dark Emu, which tries to mount a case that indigenous Australian cultures and practises are equal to western Cultures because they also engaged in agriculture.

In that book Pascoe misconstrues, cherry picks and fabricates information to support his contention.

What he really needs to say is that indigenous cultures are often superior to western cultures, perhaps not materially, although that is debatable, but certainly spiritually and philosophical.

A key factor, apart from greed, that drove colonisation was the belief that the colonisers were vastly superior to those being colonised. That's why colonisation was often referred to as the "white man's burden".

My experience in both Australia and Papua New Guinea tells me that indigenous people have nothing to be ashamed about regarding their cultures.

That's why I found John Kuri's book so interesting, and before that Sil Bolkin's book.

John Kuri

Thank you, Phil, for editing the book and also for the book review. Your attention to detail and suggestions enhanced the book.

Sipuuuu....Wakai Weh!

John Kuri

Thank you, Daniel. I am trying to figure out how to bring a hard copy of the book to PNG. Will let you know once I resolve this. Phil told me Amazon only delivers to Australia.

Daniel Kumbon

Congratulations John.

Phil is right in his review here, the highlands people had complicated thought and belief systems. They used compost to make kaukau mounds, used drainage systems, built bridges over roaring rivers like they'd built the Sydney Harbor Bridge, could distribute hundreds of pigs at moka or tee exchanges, slept in the hausman and passed on wisdom to young boys.. I think they were cut off from the rest of the world that they could not advance further.

Notify where in POM to find your book. The UPNG Bookshop has been helpful to me.

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