Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vincent Eri, The Crocodile

Eri, Vincent. The Crocodile. Jacaranda Press, 1970.

The Crocodile at Goodreads
The Crocodile at IBList

Rating:     7/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


The first novel in English to have been published from a native of Papua New Guinea is Vincent Eri's The Crocodile. Set before and during the World War II New Guinea campaign which saw the invasion of the nation by Japanese forces, the novel centres primarily on a young man, Hoiri, and his growing awareness of the colonial world in which he lives. Though Hoiri is the main character of the work, the story focuses primarily on the broad effects of Australia's occupation, and on the co-existing world views of traditional Papuan culture and Christianity within a small community.

The novel is structured in an episodic format; there is no linear plot, and the reader witnesses an evolving society through the major events in Hoiri's life. This is important since the purpose of the novel is to illustrate how a traditional culture has been affected by the modern rationalism of the west. Though the locals have adopted financial economics, there is still a good deal exchanged through trade; while Christianity's tenets are tossed about in common conversation, the belief and fear of traditional spirits nonetheless drives people's actions. The pairings of the old and new systems are so interwoven that the world Eri describes both fascinates us and makes us uncomfortable as our own western ways are being indirectly challenged. The disturbing aspect is that as Hoiri and his society age, and as they experience a war brought to them by the occupying west, it becomes clear that the original customs are, rather than intermingling with the new, being replaced by them.

While the novel is certainly educational and fascinating, it is, as a novel, highly flawed. The episodic format does not allow for strong character development, and most of the players are flat and underdeveloped. Leaps in time are sudden and awkward, and though we are following Hoiri on his life adventure, we learn many important details, such as his interest and engagement to the woman Mitori, almost in passing. There is no notion of point of view since we are inexplicably brought into the thoughts of secondary and even tertiary characters, and dialogue is used often as an expository tool, coming across as unnatural.

Despite these obvious flaws, the purpose of The Crocodile is achieved, and our sympathies for Hoiri extend to the entire Papuan populace. It is the notion of the crocodile and its dichotomy that directs most of the novel. The indigenous population respects and fears the crocodile. The creature is described as a powerful predator that nabs its victims and, before devouring them, displays their bodies as they are clenched helplessly between its teeth. Mirroring the crocodile are the white Australian officials who, in their own predatory fashion, manipulate the locals to support them in their own war. Caught between the predators of their natural habitat and those of the external ruling forces, the natives of Papua New Guinea have little choice but to adopt this new way of life, yet nonetheless remain instinctively bound to the old.



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