Stephanie's Reviews > The Mountain

The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska
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's review
Jul 08, 12

bookshelves: literary
Read in June, 2012

3.5 stars

This review originally appeared at

I’m always fascinated by how much an individual’s identity is constructed by context and circumstances rather than necessarily stemming from that individual themselves. I’ve found, in my travels, and in my reading, that it’s often the case that being thrust into a new environment, or returning to one that has shifted and changed over the years, brings someone’s identity to the forefront. It seems a contradiction that displacement is needed to pinpoint cultural or personal identity, but I find that, personally, that it’s when I’m somewhere unfamiliar that I realise who I am.

Drusilla Modjeska’s much-lauded fiction debut The Mountain is concerned very much with ideas of identity. Divided into two main sections, the book first looks at the experiences of the Dutch Rika in Papua New Guinea, and the second at a new generation of Papuan natives and their cross-cultural dilemmas. Modjeska examines culture on a number of levels, including the traditional arts, the aspirational desires of particular groups of people, and the uneasy intersection of two very different cultures with very different power dynamics. She also looks at length at how culture does not exist in a vacuum, but is constantly changing and evolving both of its own accord and from its interaction with other cultural groups–no matter how much it is expected to remain the same.

Rika, whose story occupies the first half of the book and in a way, too, the second, epitomises all of these themes. Born in the Netherlands, Rika has since married an English husband, and has arrived in Papua New Guinea as part of her husband’s anthropological studies. The reader immediately feels the tension between the two: Rika has been transplanted twice now, and this time to a world that is utterly unfamiliar and alien. Her husband, in contrast, is an anthropologist/ethnographer who is on a mission to study the local mountain communities.
Perhaps it’s this displacement that affects Rika’s perspective of her new home–although an outsider, she sees similar alienation occurring in the village, which has an awkward relationship with Australia and has been affected by a transfusion of white colonialists who though often seeking to study PNG culture are instead influencing it. Rika, however, avoids this cultural imposition, and from behind the lens of her ever-present camera, seeks to learn about the village through customs such as art and dance. Though inevitably a “white” woman, she manages to bridge the cultural divide enough to begin a romance with a local man, Aaron. The nature of this relationship is one that’s complex, and it strongly parallels Rika’s relationship with her new home itself.

The Mountain is in many ways a story of women, and Rika’s story is one of only many in the book. However, hers is not a solitary voice of displacement: all of the women in the book are torn between places or identities in some way, and it’s not uncommon for them to be subjugated in some way to their male partner. Many, too, are in relationships of convenience or which are rooted in pragmatism rather than love.
Martha, for example, married her husband Pete largely for the visa that it would afford her, and in moving to PNG for her husband’s work has lost many of the opportunities available to her at home. Her degree and work were seen as more movable and interpretable, and as such she finds herself taking up a sort of second-best education that’s not in line with her original line of study. The context of the study is also awkward, with Martha finding herself the sole white woman in a class of PNG locals studying colonialist literature. Like many others in the book, Martha finds herself without a voice–who is she to speak on such things in this setting? It’s a relevant question, given the efforts of the white volunteers who variously study the locals or attempt to ingratiate themselves into the local culture, both of which Modjeska paint as contrived approaches of misguided philanthropy.

Cultural validity and belonging are clear and persistent themes throughout the book, and it’s not just Rika and Martha’s struggles to find a place in PNG society that are touched upon. As the novel progresses, we look at the stories of local women as well: Laedi, for example, with her white father and a name (a rendering of the Australian pronunciation of “Lady”) that marks her as an outsider. Although the women are given the most voice throughout the book, the male characters are involved in a similar tug-of-war of identity. There are locally born brothers Jacob and Aaron, the first who is focused on “progress” and is happy to sacrifice the beauty of his home country in its name; and Aaron, an activist who seeks the opposite, but yet who falls for a white woman. There’s Milton, who affects the trappings of a western playwright.

And then there’s Jericho, who travels from Australia back to PNG as he seeks to learn about his background–his is a story of “homecoming”, and though he’s earnest in his efforts, his desire to find his cultural heartland smacks of pride and self-indulgence, and feels almost as patronising as the ways in which the white volunteers of the previous generation sought to “improve” PNG through their altruistic efforts. His story comprises the second half of the book, and knits together many of the hanging threads from the first half. It’s a valuable lens, but I couldn’t help but feel that the switch between voices and generations was disorienting.

Racism in its many forms is a key theme of the book, and Modjeska doesn’t shy away from it. The Mountain is in many places an uncomfortable read, as the covert and overt examples of colonialist racism are cringe-inducing. The fences put up to divide the whites from the locals are numerous and exist in both the literal and social/cultural senses. Mixed-race children are forever between cultures, and multicultural relationships are met with anger on one side and a pat sense of conquering to improve on the other.

The Mountain is an admirable read, but it’s no means an easy one. I won’t deny that it’s one that I appreciated more than I enjoyed, and can’t help but feeling that the title embodies exactly the kind of climbing effort involved in reading what often feels more like an anthropological thesis than a novel. There’s just so much here that it’s overwhelming, and it’s easy to become lost in the complexity of the book, particularly when one comes up against the second section of the book, which applies an entirely different lens of an analysis.

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