The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 297-299
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The Undiscovered Country: A Novel
The Undiscovered Country: A Novel, by Samantha Gillison. Owl Books. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. ISBN 0-8050-6198-3, 226 pages. Paper, US$13.
Good yarns are told when travelers return from undiscovered places. After his experiences in New Guinea in 1888, Hume Nisbet described the land as a hibiscus blossom. Since then European impressions of Papua New Guinea have been written in that tradition: Louis Becke's Yorke the Adventurer (1902 ), Beatrice Grimshaw's White Savage Simon (1919 ), Cecil Palmer's My Odyssey (1929 ), N Maclaren's Isles of Escape, G M Turnbull's Paradise Plumes (1935 ), Olaf Ruhan's The Land of Dohori (1957 ), Randolph Stow's Visitants, Trevor Shearston's Something in the Blood (1979 ), and Inez Baranay's Rascal Rain. The latest novel, Samantha Gillison's The Undiscovered [End Page 297] Country (1999 ), hardly departs from that tradition. Various juxtapositions, such as the last frontier and the land of the unexpected, have become the benchmark of travel literature on Papua New Guinea.
The Undiscovered Country is undoubtedly modeled after Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902 ). Peter Campbell, the protagonist, is conducting research for his PhD among the Abini of the Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea, accompanied by his wife, June, and young daughter, Taylor. Gillison's mirroring of Conrad is obvious when Peter discovers that he is in no control of the forces that hold people and societies together. This discovery is as shocking as that experienced by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. The utterances of people like Kurtz, and Peter and June Campbell, have created an impression of "undiscovered countries," one that postcolonial writers like Chinua Achebe have tried to erase. The district commissioner's experiences of Africa in Things Fall Apart resurface in Peter Campbell's experiences in The Undiscovered Country.
The ghost of the district commissioner in Achebe's novel haunted me as I read Gillison's The Undiscovered Country. One has only to substitute the district commissioner's wish to write a book for Peter Campbell's thoughts about what to write in his notebook. Writing a book, it seems, is the only way to make memorable the experiences of westerners in their quest to know undiscovered places.
In The Undiscovered Country, the suggestion is that the death and abandonment of the European racial myth is the only necessary precondition to understanding the cultures of nonwestern societies. By preparing for the death of June Campbell in a dignified way, Peter Campbell realizes the sacrifices that go with the quest for knowledge. In a way, Gillison has reaffirmed and insisted unceremoniously that it is costly to maintain superfluous western knowledge in a nonwestern context. For Peter the realization comes too late, even though moments of recognition present themselves in more ways than one.
Such moments surface through Taylor Campbell's ability to speak and absorb Abini language and culture. Peter and June react to Taylor's easy entry into Abini culture in a moment of shock and bewilderment. Unlike Taylor, the parents continue to distance themselves from the culture, landscape, and people of Abini. Then there is the Scottish anthropologist Roy Urqhart who, after two years of field work in the Joa valley, grew a long beard in the "Highlands style and married a village woman [for which] most of the whites in Goroka avoided him" (126 ). Both are instances of the many ways in which the western notion of self is arrested by its own limitation. Needless to say, a break with tradition is often sanctioned by members of a community who fear compromising with those who constitute the Other.
The house that Peter Campbell built is imposing, but is also the very house where the death of June is witnessed and the power differences in competing cultures are realized. The house defines the space in which Peter Campbell differentiates himself from the Abini men; he is different, he is white, and is studying them for his doctoral research as a participant observer. Peter Campbell is, however, [End Page...