The Crocodile, Vincent Eri, 1970
- Papua New Guinea, #2
- Borrowed from SF Library
- Read September 2016
- Rating: 3.5/5
- Recommended for: colonial powers ripe for toppling
Let me first say that The Crocodile isn’t a great book. It lacks narrative flow and the dialogue is clunky and often expository. The book follows its central character from the age of seven until some time in adulthood. It starts and ends at seemingly random places, and there is no real plot—no more thematic consistency than might occur in an actual life. Eri also employs none of the cues that Western novelists use to indicate the passage of time (though to be fair I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a deficit, a stylistic choice, or perhaps simply a cultural difference in traditions of storytelling) so that months and years go by unremarked, in odd leaps and bounds. These defects notwithstanding, however, the novel provided a good complement to Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, exploring many of the same issues and bringing up several important concepts and events in the history of the colonization of Papua New Guinea.
At the beginning of the story, seven-year-old Hoiri Sevese’s mother has just died, a victim of an evil spell that his father—a deacon in the London Missionary Society and disconnected from the knowledge of his tribe’s traditional magic—is powerless to counteract. This event, which occurs before the book’s narrative even begins, sets a theme which recurs throughout the book, of the ways in which Australian colonization has disrupted and destroyed traditional ways of life in Papua New Guinea. Sometimes these intrusions are insidious: for instance, the persistence of evil sorcery, and the way that, by contrast, their embrace of Christianity leaves Hoiri’s family vulnerable to hexes, are echoes of Albert Maori Kiki’s assertion that the Papuans’ private religion persists despite the obliteration of public ceremony. The injustices of colonialism become more overtly apparent as The Crocodile progresses: from the somewhat voluntary servitude of Hoiri’s relative in Port Moresby, who finds himself unable to escape from the cruel conditions of life in the capitol because of his dependence on tinned beef and packaged biscuits (“Get used to smoking and drinking tea and you’ll spend the rest of your life a slave to the white man”); to the imperious and self-absorbed local patrol officer who impresses Hoiri into service on an extended trip up-river the day after the birth of Hoiri’s first child, and who refuses to grant Hoiri leave to go even when he gets word that his wife has been taken by a crocodile (and the crocodile, Hoiri knows, is a sorcerer in disguise, so aside from caring for his now-motherless son, he also has a responsibility to find the perpetrator of the crime and wreak vengeance on him, a responsibility which the patrol officer does not respect in the slightest); to the Australian army, who draft Hoiri to work as a porter on the dangerous Bulldog-Wau Track during World War II, stealing several years of his life and denying him the opportunity to search for his wife or heal his broken family.
The Crocodile‘s villainous patrol officer provides some context for a story from Kiki’s autobiography: his parents met when his father was accompanying a patrol officer on a tour of the interior, and his mother was afraid that she would be punished if she didn’t have a man to protect her. When I first read that, I admit that my initial take was that there was some misunderstanding due to cultural or language differences. However, after reading The Crocodile it occurred to me that perhaps Kiki’s mother’s fears were not misplaced. The patrol officers, or kiaps as they were known in Tok Pisin, acted as “administrators, census takers, policemen, magistrates and gaolers”; they had near-total power over the indigenous people they encountered, including the ability to kill them with little fear of retribution. Given the dim portrayals of the kiaps in the books I read from Papua New Guinea, I expected to find a wealth of modern criticism discussing their role in the country’s colonization and the abuses perpetrated at their hands. Or, if not a wealth, at least something. Instead, I found articles like the one linked above, lauding their bravery and accomplishments, their boyish adventurous spirits (“At times it was dangerous work, like when Bill Brown and his patrol came under attack while investigating two murders in the eastern highlands… ‘I fired two warning shots. That didn’t do any good. My lance corporal shot one of the attackers who was killed instantly.'”), along with several articles celebrating the fact that the kiaps were recently made eligible to receive the Police Overseas Service Medal.
Similarly, when researching the use of indigenous people as conscripted porters on arduous and death-defying overland treks during World War II, I found many articles talking about their bravery and selflessness, lauding the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” who served the Australians during the war (yes, you read that right, and yes, it’s apparently meant as a compliment and seems to be largely unchallenged as such), but always seeming to imply that the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea just voluntarily joined up out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to help the Australians (or Japanese, since the Japanese used them too) win the war, rather than forced to join the army on pain of death and made to carry heavy loads over dangerous ground with little or no recompense. The Crocodile includes the lyrics of a protest song about the cruelty of being forced to fight in a foreign war; according to Eri, the song was still being sung when the book was written. The journalist Osmar White wrote, during the war, that “in some villages every able-bodied male over the approximate age of sixteen was rounded up, transported to the clearing centres and drafted to whatever type of work that had priority in the immediate emergency.” This seems more in line both with what Eri wrote and with the typical behavior of colonizing nations, but it is crazy how difficult it is to find any information on the perspective of the people who were actually drafted to work as porters during the war, let alone any sort of sociological or scholarly criticism of the use of Papua New Guineans as slave labor both before and during World War II.
Look, maybe some of the people of Papua New Guinea chose to join the war effort, to carry the soldiers’ guns and gear or to help the wounded colonizers. Maybe lots of the kiaps were decent people trying to do the right thing. But that doesn’t erase the fact that no one should ever be given the power of judge, jury, and executioner over another human being, let alone a vast group of them. It doesn’t negate the abuses suffered, the wrongs done, the years and lives stolen from people who obviously never asked to be colonized. At the moment depictions of kiaps as brave adventurers risking their lives to explore uncharted lands and bring civilization to savage cannibals, and accounts of helpful teddy bear-like natives willingly and selflessly coming to the aid of young and sympathetic (white) soldiers vastly outweigh the stories of indigenous people threatened, bullied, and beaten into serving a colonizing power against their own interests or inclinations. I can only hope that the protest songs are still being sung, that the stories of Papuans and the injustices they have undergone are being handed down orally, as the people of that island have traditionally handed down their stories, and that one day the world will know the other side of the story.