The Crocodile by Vincent Eri

From a review I wrote back in 2011:

‘Tobacco and sugar, two of the white man’s most powerful bits of magic.’

This novel is set in Papua New Guinea in the years around World War II, at a time when colonization was changing traditional Papuan life.  One of those changes was an expectation that a Western education would solve most (if not all) social problems and one of the consequences was an increased migration of people into towns.  Another impact, unfortunately, was that the Moveave people became caught up in the war itself.

The central character, Hoiri Sevese, is a Papuan villager educated in a mission school.  After his mother’s death (which was attributed to sorcery), Hoiri is moved from the Protestant to the Catholic mission schools.  While education makes Hoiri more familiar with some aspects of the world of the white men, he sees firsthand how Papuans are treated in the European-ruled community of Port Moresby when he travels there with his father on a trading trip.

‘Get used to smoking and drinking tea and you’ll slave for the rest of your working life for the white man.’

After he returns to the village, Hoiri is married in a Christian church and soon afterwards becomes a father. The day after his son, Sevese, is born; Hoiri is one of the villagers chosen by a patrol officer to accompany an inland patrol as a carrier.  While on patrol, Hoiri is told that his wife Mitoro has been taken by a crocodile.  Hoiri is refused leave to return to the village, so deserts and returns to kill the crocodile.  The war intervenes, and Hoiri becomes a carrier on the Bulldog-Wau trail and here, and in Lae, he is exposed to more European civilisation.   When the war ends, Hoiri is returned to his village: with eleven pounds; five sticks of tobacco, and hope:

 ‘Maybe this money will send Sevese to the white man’s school, maybe he will grow up to understand the things that baffle us.’

By the end of the novel, Hoiri is confused and torn between two diametrically opposed worldviews and is left without a viable culture.  Hoiri is unable to compete with the whites on equal terms, nor can he find emotional security within his own culture. Sadly, Hoiri has failed in both cultural systems: he was unable to avenge Mitoro’s death, as required by traditional culture, and he cannot sign his name, he prints it instead.

‘In a flash, he saw in front of his eyes all the wasted years of carrying the white man’s cargo.’

The conflict between cultures, between tradition and modernity, and the impact of colonization are all aspects of this novel.  Hoiri is a tragic figure, and it seems ironic that he sees that the same education that has partially alienated him from his own culture will somehow benefit his son Sevese.

I found this an enjoyable and challenging novel to read: it portrays a clash of cultures that is uncomfortable to read about.  Its author, Sir Vincent Serie Eri (1936-1993) was one of the first graduates of the University of Papua and New Guinea in 1970, and became the fifth Governor-General of Papua New Guinea (from 1990 to 1991).  ‘The Crocodile’ was published in 1970, and is stated (by its publisher) to be the first novel published in Papua New Guinea literature.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith