In the tradition of the stories of the 1910s and 1920s by colonial writers such as John Russell and Beatrice Grimshaw, Challinger seems to presume that those interested in human dramas with tropical settings will not want to learn too much or too deeply from them. The tropics? Good heavens! No literary pretensions, please! No complexity! Just nice shallow stuff to paddle in. A shock or two of the cultural exotica kind is okay. But don’t forget the twisty endings!
No matter how hard he tries, Challinger can’t cover up the fact that he really is a good writer with a complexity of moral and social points to make. And while some of the individual stories almost succeed in being entertainment at the level of 7 o’clock sitcom TV programmes, the collection as a whole betrays its ironic stance and serious intent.
The collection maps the range of attitudes white expatriates have adhered to in PNG during the twentieth century – adhered to in spite of huge political and social change.
Neatly (and I think very effectively) Challinger shows how the self-aggrandising, self- mythologising mentality of the early colonial adventurers still exists especially among the young, white and single Australian males in Moresby today. The difference is that the white adventurers no longer go on patrol into inaccessible, unknown corners of the country hunting for gold. Instead they go in their four-wheel drives around the well-known corners of Boroko hunting for cheap black fucks. (Three of the eighteen stories revolve around this theme.)
It is inevitable that in this study of the persistence of colonial attitudes the white male ocker voice and values should dominate.
It is an instructive voice. It is constantly accusing, constantly self-unaware, constantly self- preserving, and of course it constantly constructs ‘us’ and ‘them’. It tells how to describe the stink of a Highlands prostitute. It tells how to bite through the knuckle of a rascal gang member to get his fingerprint. It tells how to throw in the black girl when selling the fridge to make the deal attractive.
But as the collection unfolds, the intrusions and reversals this obsolete narrative voice encounters signal the gradual wearing away of the voice’s supposed authority. White males, in their attempts at manipulation, are themselves outmanoeuvred and out-manipulated, sometimes by white women and other white men, but mainly by black women and black men.
These white male characters, sensing that the colonial era is in fact over, realise that the idea of ‘beating them’ is no longer tenable. So ‘joining them’ is the alternative. In ‘Two Tea-boys’, two white businessmen cooperate in the corrupt dealings of one of their Papua New Guinean employees for the sake of the company.
In ‘An Important Consular Duty’, a Papua New Guinean coffin-maker rips off an old expat, so the old expat rips off his new expat employer, and the new expat employer passes on the rip-off to the Japanese embassy. The corruption equalises the Papua New Guineans and the Australians. The Japanese are identified as the new colonial authority.
In ‘Expatriate Rates’, the exasperated white businessman is taught sympathy and unalloyed admiration for his moody, grubby, unpredictable Papuan secretary. He discovers she is ten times better at her work then the new expatriate woman he employs effectively to replace her.
Then, in ‘Entertaining Mary’, a cretinous young Australian male finds that a Highlands prostitute, in spite of her formidable body odour and brash belligerence, has a much better grip on human values than do his bigoted white relatives. The reader realises that the girl’s simple honesty and forthrightness show up the hypocrisy and double-dealing of all the whites in the story.
Allied to the gradual erosion of the superior white male viewpoint in the collection is the expected emergence of the theme of white male post-colonial guilt..
In ‘Bighead’, a story narrated in nicely fractured Papua New Guinean English, an expat cricket coach takes on the blame for an after-match Gestetner-fluid drinking party which kills the team’s star batsman and blinds two others. As an allegory for pre-and post colonial experience, this is an interesting story.
But it is the last and longest story in the collection, ‘Jisala Mission’, which most powerfully and decisively calls into question the entire colonial endeavour. In the context of this story, the other stories reveal their ironic stance and satiric stances.
Cox, a hot-shot young missionary, takes over a dilapidated, undeveloped mission in an isolated Papuan valley. He succeeds in ousting the old missionary, Dodds, who had spent most of his time studying and recording the valley people’s language and customs. Cox does away with Dodds’ ‘human touches’ which included letting the people keep on with their old ceremonies, and letting them steal the occasional pick or shovel or bag of rice from the mission’s scant supplies.
Cox institutes a competitive, powerful new regime of no-nonsense Christianity. He builds proper housing, a road to the airfield, introduces electricity, and invites a stream of wealthy and generous American believers to see Christianity in action in the tropics.
Unfortunately, it is God’s plan to have the mission minibus plunge off a mountain road, turning Rahe, the mission’s outstanding convert, into a paraplegic. It is also God’s plan to arrange that Rahe’s legitimate compensation claim is so large that it will bankrupt the mission. Fortunately, Reverend Cox realises at last, that it is God’s plan too that Rahe would die, letting the mission of the hook. So poor Rahe, already a victim to Cox’s obsession with the power of religion and modernity to ‘improve’ things, becomes a sacrifice to the still uncontrolled progress of the insensitive and even murderous white male juggernaut in PNG.
The story states compellingly that the time for an end to colonial attitudes is well and truly overdue in PNG. These attitudes simply have no political, economic or moral relevance any more.
The characters in this collection, whether black or white, seem to spend all their time cheating, lying, scheming, fornicating, drinking, or being violent or greedy. The same was true for Russell and Grimshaw seventy years ago (with some censorship applied to the fornication). This used to be the accepted formula for what goes on in short stories set in the tropics. Challinger casts contemporary PNG in the old stereotypical mould to good effect; he portrays a dying discourse, a genre’s last gasp.
While being highly readable and entertaining stuff, it is also instructive, even if the cover blurb is too embarrassed to say so.