RUSSELL SOABA reviews author Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, Dead Birds
WHAT happens when the head of the vates is severed? It continues to sing. And what happens when an ancestral skull is placed on a pole and lifted high in the air? From that height it sees the cosmological womb of the earth more deeply than the living.
Or so go the ancient riddles and oracles. But all this sounds strange. All the more so because it is the chosen mode of narrative in Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, Dead Birds.
The story is told by an “utamu, the spirit of a beheaded man.”
In 1877, Signor Luigi Maria D’Albertis returns for a second expedition up the Fly River in search of bird of paradise plumes which he hopes to sell for reasonable amounts at various cultural institutions in Europe. He hires a 52-ft steam launch from the government of New South Wales and for his crew he takes with him several Chinese, some Pacific islanders and a British engineer. Every one of these men signs some form agreement with D’Albertis on how the spoils will be divided among them when the expedition is over. Along the way some villages and longhouses are destroyed with dynamite and coarsely constructed rockets. Subsequently, what the villagers see of the entire expedition is the return of not their ancestral spirits but those other aliens who have come to annihilate them.
Shearston’s novel is thus based on this second expedition of D’Albertis. But since the novel is narrated by an utamu, the names of each character appear not as we would know them when reading the chronicles of D’Albertis, but as a native of a Fly River longhouse hearing and recounting them through oral narrative. Thus, D’Albertis is referred to as Sinyor, the Chinese crew members are named as Fu, Seng, Tong, Zian and Auo, the British engineer as Mistaprestin and the Pacific islanders as Jek, Tomi and Bopa.
It is Bopa who shoots the villager at a certain point of the river called Daramb-wi and beheads him with a machete to give the head as a trophy to Sinyor who in turn preserves it in a methylated filled jar. The jar is then placed aloft, on a rack, whence the head keeps vigilance on everyone aboard the steam launch, and thus assumes its role as the omnipresent narrator both of the novel and the entire expedition.
The expedition lasts for two months or so, as the party moves up and down the Fly River, covering the whole 500 miles of it, mooring at and camping along its mud banks, while in search of the prized “flame-tails” and “noon-suns”. The villagers along the banks of the river are driven asunder, further into the hinterlands, by Sinyor’s display of dynamite explosions and rocketed fireworks some nights. Meantime, the expedition might be lagging a little; Sinyor is becoming somewhat ruthless in his approach to hunting wild game and the birds of paradise. At one point of the expedition he forces Zian who had returned empty-handed from a hunt to go out shooting again and not come back without a noon-sun or flame-tail. Zian walks off into the wilds with a gun never to return. At another, he flogs Aou for disobedience and this leads to the other’s worsening ill health and eventual death. Does Sinyor care, the others wonder. In all, Sinyor becomes nothing more than a cruel and merciless product of his own sense of meritocracy.
Yet, while we are occasionally woken up by such familiar historical details, we are nonetheless given the mood of viewing the whole expedition through the eyes of a dead ancestor. The idyllic river setting as home, stretches of sand banks for canoes to be pulled up, egrets stretching forth their necks for fish, the cutting up of sows as game in an old garden, the longhouses, call of women and children at dusk, and the light stamping of feet in accompaniment to the running dance. Bopa by now is acknowledged as a worthy slayer, for he is recorded in real life as ëa reformed cannibal from Fiji’, and must therefore live up to that expectation through his behaviour and attitude. Sinyor too is seen in his best element as a melancholy and cultured individual, complimenting his men with extra spoonfuls of sugar in their tea when a task is successfully done ñ such as game shot by a member of the crew to supplement a week’s rationing in food, or the number of “flame-tails” and “noon-suns” brought in order for him to display, compare, and to finally reach some conclusive evidence of a cross breed between the raggiana and the apoda species of the bird of paradise. (D’Albertis himself has had one species of the bird of paradise named after him.)
As the narration flows further other issues come into play. Like the real D’Albertis expedition, this one also becomes an awesome ordeal of longhouses plundered of garden food and domestic animals, abandoned villages, and displaced villagers attempting to regroup in order to offer resistance against this strange party of spirits who do not seem to care what they do.
Eventually, Sinyor himself begins losing control of his men. They rebel against him, while a few such as Tomi and Aou, think it is the head, the utamu, which is influencing the sentiments of back luck upon the vessel. The Chinese, led by Fu, are the first to stage a mutiny, which is unsuccessful and tragic as the skiff they had managed to escape in is abandoned a few miles downriver and this the rest of the crew discovers some days later. Then it is the turn of Bopa and his party of Pacific islanders with just Jek joining him since Tomi by now has become something of a close companion to Sinyor to join them. Using the skiff to make their escape, the two men do not get far. Sinyor punches a few holes in the skiff with bullets and the two men will have to swim ashore to survive at all.
Now, with Bopa and Jek gone the party is reduced to three and it is this number that the villagers of Daramb-wi finally attack, killing and beheading all but the utamu who must remain guide of the vessel that will float downstream to the mouth of the river, with its cargo of “bones without skulls, uneaten biscuits, boxes filled with dancing-birds.”
Dead Birds has more to it than the story of one man’s quest for noon-suns and flame-tails. Trevor talked about this novel as a work in progress during the Writers Workshop at the Port Moresby Holiday Inn in May 2005. At that time we were not sure how to take it, because the idea of an utamu telling a story defied human logic somewhat: that dead men tell no tales.
But in Papua New Guinea this mode of story-telling is as realistic as Lomogha disappearing into the bowels of the earth to re-appear years later as well-respected orator, or an artist going overseas to return later and dig up his ancestor’s skull through whose eye-holes he will claim a better view of the world that surrounds him. The main objective here is for a narrative to delve deep into the past in order to wake us up to the realities that we are familiar with.
More could be said about this novel, but for lack of space just a quote from Trevor Shearston will do. Why did he write Dead Birds? “Because,” says Trevor, “I have been waiting for a Papua New Guinean to write this book, and it hasn’t happened. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Therefore it falls to me. That will, I’m sure, bring accusations of appropriation. I couldn’t care less. The only judgement that matters, the only one that interests me, is how well I can do it [Meanjin 2003]”.
And he has done it well. Again. This is a good novel. Buy it and read it not any other day but today.