I was very excited when I saw that one of my favourite writers, Drusilla Modjeska (especially for her hybrid fictional biography Poppy and The Orchard), was speaking at the University of Sydney last Monday about one of my favourite novels: Randolph Stow’s Visitants. Scandalously, this novel is now out of print, but perhaps Michael Heyward plans to publish it in Text Publishing’s new-ish classics series. Given Modjeska compared it to Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary prose poem The Waves – an entirely reasonable comparison – it deserves to be available in some form.
The talk was at the University of Sydney’s new law building which I watched rise out of the ground through the windows of Fisher Library. It is a beautiful building and perfectly suited for sitting still and listening to book talk.
Here is how Modjeska introduced her talk:
‘Randolph Stow’s Visitants is often described as ‘underrated’, an understatement if ever there was one. Set in the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, it was published in 1979 and, in my view, remains unsurpassed in outsider fiction of our complex near-neighbour. Each time I read it, I admire it more.’
Given her own fascination for Papua New Guinea, having lived there in the late 1960s and written about it in The Mountain, Modjeska’s talk and the conversation afterwards focused on PNG, especially on Australia’s tendency to ignore it – its former and only colony – in fiction as in life, and on Stow’s sensitive portrayal of the local Kiriwina people. As Modjeska said, commentary on the novel usually focuses on the Australian official Alistair Cawdor, whose death sparks the novel’s action. Instead, Modjeska chose to focus – as is her want – on a central female character, Saliba.
Visitants is told in eight voices, one of which is Saliba’s. Each voice speaks from the context of what it considers normal, which Modjeska called the novel’s ‘radical break’ from previous fiction portraying postcolonial worlds. This is a particularly difficult novel to talk about to those who haven’t read it and much of Modjeska’s talk was devoted to describing it. She then put it in context through the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who wrote about the Trobriands – especially making clear the easy relationship the matrilineal Kiriwina have with sex, the fact that young girls are as sexually free during puberty and until marriage as boys – before turning to her real focus, which was Stow’s portrayal of Saliba and her significant role in the novel’s complex events. The novel begins with Saliba’s voice and it is her relationship with the young warrior Benoni that drives the novel, rather than the usual ‘dimdim [foreigner] romance’, as Modjeska put it. I will return to a couple of other things Modjeska said, but first, some more about the novel itself and its author Randolph Stow.
Having published four acclaimed books, at the age of 24 literary prodigy Randolph Stow decided to give up writing to become an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea. In 1959 he took up a post as a cadet patrol officer and assistant to the government anthropologist in the Trobriand Islands, but it was to be a short-lived career. During the course of his work he contracted malaria, had a severe psychological breakdown, and was forced to return to his home town of Geraldton, north of Perth in Western Australia, to recuperate. Stow drew on this traumatic experience – and on the widely reported sighting in 1959 of a disc-shaped craft containing four human-like figures hovering over the Papuan island of Boianai – for his extraordinary sixth novel Visitants. Told in five sections – Prologue, Sinabada, Visitants, Cargo, Troppo – the novel opens with the following words:
‘On June 26th, 1959, at Boianai in Papua, visitants appeared to the Reverend William Booth Gill, himself a visitant of thirteen years standing, and to thirty-seven witnesses of another colour.’
The prologue recounts the well-documented historical sighting by the Reverend Gill, an Anglican missionary, and his companions of a flying saucer hovering over their island.
As its title suggests, Visitants is about visitation – the invasion of bodies, minds, islands and planets – and about the complex interweaving and generation of systems of belief, myths and legends. The visitants in Stow’s novel travel to Kailuana Island, off the south-east coast of Papua. They include two of the Australian government officials who manage the territory, Alistair Cawdor and his assistant, cadet patrol officer Tim Dalwood; a local planter, MacDonnell, who arrived on the island in 1908 and announced to the local people that he owned it; Metusela, a disturbing newcomer to the local village with the large, changeless saucer eyes of a zombi; possible extraterrestrial visitants whose rumoured sightings start a cargo cult; and the elusive visitant that seems to have possessed Cawdor himself, as he retreats further and further from human society into alcohol and malarial madness: ‘And he screamed: The house is bleeding. There is nobody inside, he said.’
Visitants is told in fragments, in the voices of five witnesses to an inquiry into an outbreak of violence over the succession to an ageing village chief on Kailuana Island. The inquiry is held in November 1959 before Mr JG Browne, the Assistant District Officer, who also contributes his voice to the story. The five witnesses are: Dalwood; the planter MacDonnell; one of his servants, the young girl Saliba; the Government Interpreter Osana; and Benoni, the heir to the local chief. But although the inquiry is sparked by the violent destruction of a village, the focus of the testimony is the young patrol officer Alistair Cawdor, ‘sprawled there in his underpants like a zoo animal that had given up’, and his failing health and mental instability. Cawdor’s own contribution to the story consists of fragments of italicised notes on the lore and history of the island: ‘When asked why they should connect the stones with the space-ship, all the men implicated said that they had heard of the connection through BENONI, who had heard it from me.’
Stow beautifully evokes the islands and their inhabitants, from a cockatoo – ‘As I watched there was a sudden commotion in the air, and a white cockatoo came out of nowhere and skidded to a halt on the crown of the hat’ – to a sunset: ‘That evening, between Kaga and Kailuana, the sea died to a smooth curve of bottomless blue, and the blue of the sky faded and changed to green; an apple-green peacock-green sky pouring down a pink and golden light.’
He vividly conveys the constant flux and disintegration of the tropics, from Cawdor’s health and the power structures of the local village to the very materials of MacDonnell’s house itself: ‘Time has not smoothed or mellowed the fabric of the house. Grey splinters fur the walls of the central room, where maps and ships’ pennants fade to a neutral dun. A smell of mildew circulates, from chests and cupboards where clothes, bedding, papers, moulder in the hot damp.’ … ‘Rain was written on everything, fifty years of rain.’
Visitants is a rich, resonant novel told with lyrical precision, steeped in the simmering suspicion and menace that haunt the novels of Joseph Conrad, a writer Stow admired, along with TS Eliot. On his final decline, Cawdor scribbles a note for Dalwood in the local language, which Osama translates into English. It is a version of the closing lines of Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets, which in turn echo Julian of Norwich.
The true story of the sighting of flying objects over Boianai in 1959 by the Reverend William Booth Gill and his companions was widely reported in the media, whose coverage was based on the extensive notes and drawings make by Gill. A copy of Gill’s report was circulated to every member of the House of Representatives in Australia’s federal parliament. In December 1959, Gill was interviewed by the Royal Australian Air Force, but his sighting was dismissed, despite the large number of witnesses. The air force concluded that at least some of the lights that had been observed in the sky in June 1959 were the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. In the ensuing years, a number of explanations for the phenomenon have been suggested, including one that postulated the experience had been the result of the deluded visions of those in thrall to a cargo cult.
Which brings me to two of Modjeska’s closing remarks, both of which were news to me:
1 there is a myth common in the Trobriands that its people had two common ancestors, one white and one black, and that the white one took off with the cargo.
2 she used the word ‘hapkas’, which is the local language for ‘half-caste’ and is worn by its people with pride, designating that they come from two worlds. Modjeska spoke of ‘existential half-castes’ and in this context the brilliant PNG writer Russell Soaba and his outstanding 1980 novel Wanpis, which she said had never been published in Australia (a fact which makes her extremely angry). Soaba blogs about PNG literature here.
The last talk in Sydney University’s Reading Australian Literature 2014 series is Fiona McFarlane on Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story on 22 September. And next up here, rather fittingly and by pure chance, is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.