Palu by Louis Nowra (St. Martin's Press: $15.95; 222 pages)
To those of us brought up on "the National Geographic," we are "we," that is to say, "we" drive Chevrolets and Nissans, go to school at Harvard or UCLA, travel to Europe, eat dry cereal and so on. They are "they," that is to say, "they" often have black skins, put bones through their noses, and saucers in their lips. They live in grass huts and worship totems; we live in tract houses and go to church. Finally, we are humdrum; they answer to an exotic description.
Childhood Taboo Broken
But here, Louis Nowra turns all that around. Nowra writes from the point of view of a girl born in the highlands on the island of New Guinea. And when young Palu, a nice girl, makes her distinctions between coastal people, highlanders and night people (scary, very black tribes who live in the inaccessible interior), she is as matter of fact and down to earth as if she were talking about the differences between our inner city, the San Fernando Valley and our Westside. In other words, young Palu takes center stage: She becomes "we." And we, Western white-skinned foreigners, are the exotic ones, the "they" in this story.
Like any heroine who is meant to capture our attention, Palu is beautiful, smart, headstrong and has been afflicted with an unhappy childhood. As a child, she breaks a taboo, sees an alligator spirit, and, soon after that, her father makes advances to her and also begins to abuse her mother. Soon after that, her father kills her mother and some of his neighbors who have been getting on his nerves. Yes, the setting is "exotic," a jungle village and all that, but Palu's father's actions are just exactly what "we" see on the 6 o'clock news every night.
Palu, like any juvenile delinquent, is branded incorrigible and sent away from her tribe. She goes to work on a coffee plantation close to the coast, for a lonely man named Mr. Bacon, who makes her first his protegee, then his mistress. Palu is 16. During these years she "learns Western ways," wears dresses instead of grass skirts and, when Mr. Bacon takes her to the capital city of Port Andrews, she gets a staggering glimpse of the "larger world." From then on, it would be impossible for Palu to return to her tribe, even if she wanted to. (Again, Nowra is careful to couch this in terms that the Westerner can't help but understand. This uprooting is exactly as if a Kansas farm girl got picked up and then put down in Beverly Hills. It would be theoretically possible for her to go back home, but culturally unlikely.)
Vision of the Future
After Mr. Bacon dies, Palu is sent to school: New Guinea will soon be independent, and native teachers will be needed. There Palu meets Emo, a beautiful young man who yearns to lead his country into Western ways. But one man's vision can't change a whole society. Both Emo and Palu come from a past filled with alligator spirits and bat demons, from self-scarification and sacrificed pigs.
Palu honors this past but Emo is sure that refrigerators and motorcars will yank his people into a new form of paradise, a higher level of evolution: "He hoped the people would be encouraged by seeing how foreigners threw themselves into work and were not satisfied until a project was completed. Yet our people watched this seemingly frantic behavior in astonishment, amazed at such effort being put into something that did not seem essential to their lives and that they had done without for thousands of years."
'We' Versus 'They'
When Palu's husband fails at leading his country, he turns into a cruel despot, reclaims the most wicked elements of his earlier native upbringing, and--because he fears her power--imprisons his wife. This narrative is "written" by Palu as a justification of her own life and, in a sense, of her husband's as well. Both of them have become casualties in a cultural war between the first and third worlds.
This novel, then, is intended as a cautionary tale for Westerners who figuratively throw up their hands at the slowness of developing countries to see the superiority of "our" ways. But in reality it may be "we" who cannot see what "they" are up to; we who are blind to the complexity and beauty of their ways.