Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
JULIAN RANDOLPH ‘MICK’ STOW was born in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1935. He attended local schools before boarding at Guildford Grammar in Perth, where the renowned author Kenneth Mackenzie had been a student.
While at university he sent his poems to a British publisher. The resulting collection,
, won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal in 1957—as did the prolific young writer’s third novel,
To the Islands
, the following year.
To the Islands
also won the 1958 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Stow reworked the novel for a second edition almost twenty-five years later, but never allowed its two predecessors to be republished.
He worked briefly as an anthropologist’s assistant in New Guinea—an experience that subsequently informed
, one of three masterful late novels—then fell seriously ill and returned to Australia. In the 1960s he lectured at universities in Australia and England, and lived in America on a Harkness fellowship. He published his second collection of verse,
; the novel
, on which critical opinion was divided; and his most popular fiction,
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea
For years afterwards Stow produced mainly poetry, libretti and reviews
In 1969 he settled permanently in England: first in Suffolk, then in Essex, where he moved in 1981. He received the 1979 Patrick White Award.
Randolph Stow died in 2010, aged seventy-four. A private man, a prodigiously gifted yet intermittently silent author, he has been hailed as ‘the least visible figure of that great twentieth-century triumvirate of Australian novelists whose other members are Patrick White and Christina Stead’.
DRUSILLA MODJESKA lives in Sydney and frequently travels to two communities in Papua New Guinea. She is the author of
Exiles at Home
, a novel set in PNG
Modjeska was one of the first outsiders to visit the Omië community, from which
’s fictional mountain people are drawn.
ALSO BY RANDOLPH STOW
A Haunted Land
To the Islands
The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea
Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy
The Girl Green as Elderflower
The Suburbs of Hell
The Text Publishing Company
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Copyright © Randolph Stow 1979
Introduction copyright © Drusilla Modjeska 2015
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First published by Secker and Warburg, London, 1979
This edition published by The Text Publishing Company, 2015
Cover design by WH Chong
Page design by Text
Typeset by Midland Typesetters
Printed in Australia by Griffin Press, an Accredited ISO AS/NZS 14001:2004 Environmental Management System printer
Primary print ISBN: 9781925240276
Ebook ISBN: 9781922253088
Creator: Stow, Randolph, 1935–2010.
Title: Visitants / by Randolph Stow; introduced by Drusilla Modjeska.
Series: Text classics.
Dewey Number: A823.3
They Bring Their Somethings
by Drusilla Modjeska
THIRTY-SIX YEARS after its first publication,
remains, in my view, the finest Australian novel that takes Papua New Guinea as its inspiration and dilemma. Set on the Trobriand Islands in 1959 and published in 1979, it is a modernist novel of a colonial moment. Between those dates, 1959, when Randolph Stow was himself in the Trobriands, and the novel’s publication in 1979, PNG went from being a Territory of Australia to an Independent State. ‘Stretch your ear to ground and listen to the distant stirrings’, goes a line from the Trobriand Islands writer John Kasaipwalova’s 1971 poem ‘Reluctant Flame’. In those twenty years of profound change, the voices of Papua New Guineans, muted in 1959, audible only to those with ears to hear them, had become loud and insistent. As an epigraph for
Stow chose this line from
: ‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises…’
I have read this novel many times, and with growing admiration. Having written about PNG myself, though not until much later than Stow, I know how hard it can be to do justice to a place that lives by different concepts and understandings of the social universe—different, that is, from those of us white visitors who travel there and find ourselves profoundly affected by its strangeness and its power. Stow was certainly that, his months in the Trobriands as a young man leaving lasting damage that was in part exorcised in
. (The story of his time on those islands will be told in Suzanne Falkiner’s forthcoming biography of Stow.)
My interest in and admiration for
lies in the rigour and brilliance of its form. It is a novel of voices—echoes, rumours, languages understood and misunderstood—given to us with no controlling narrator. We must come to understand the complex narrative of intersecting plots through the pattern of voices, half Dimdim—as white people are called in that part of Papua—and half Kiriwina, as they weave back and forth, among, around and against each other.
Stow doesn’t do what so many novels of PNG do, mine included, which is to resort to ethnographic asides and explanation. The colonial voices show us the deafness of those who cannot hear the distant stirrings, but for us as readers to comprehend them we must listen carefully to the Kiriwina voices, as each speaks from the perspective of its own perceptions of what it takes as normal. This, to my mind, is the radical achievement of
, for it not only turns the colonial gaze back on itself, the view from the ‘other’—the blundering white man in the tropics, a not-unfamiliar trope—but it incorporates into the text the language, the patterns of syntax and expression of the Kiriwina language.
So, who are the visitants? Well, they come in many forms, and the title itself situates us with the Kiriwina; while the patrol officers, or kiaps, and the planters don’t regard themselves as visitants, that is what they are, part of a long history of sailors and traders, kiaps and missionaries, coming and going. More dramatically, the visitants are the figures which appear—or are rumoured to have appeared—in a strange object that hovers in the sky, some sort of ‘star-machine’. The novel, with its voices, is followed by a short note signed R.S. about the incident recorded in the prologue, the sighting in June 1959 of a ‘sparkling object “very, very bright”’ which appeared in the sky and came close enough to the earth for a missionary (‘himself a visitant of thirteen years standing’) and ‘thirty-seven witnesses of another colour’ to make out the figures inside. The note states that this incident, or the record of it, is not fictitious and is incorporated into the novel ‘without comment’.
The ‘witnesses’ of
, five of the voices, are, ostensibly, witness to a colonial-government inquiry into the suicide of Patrol Officer Alistair Cawdor while on patrol on one of the outer islands, Kailuna. Entangled in the story of Cawdor’s suicide is the story of the conflict on the island over who will inherit ‘command [of] the villages’ from the old chief, Dipapa. Entangled in that story, and in Cawdor’s suicide, is the mystery, the rumours, of the flying object, that in turn become entangled in millenarian hopes, beliefs and partially suppressed cargo cults that erupt into violence at the end of the novel.
As Anthony J. Hassall puts it in his 1986 study of Stow,
, the official government inquiry is the conceit; the novelistic achievement is the rendering of the voices that invites an understanding, a way of seeing these entangled threads, entangled lives—which the colonial inquiry will prove incapable of.
Randolph Stow was himself a visitant. For five months of 1959, aged twenty-three, he was in the Trobriand Islands as a Cadet Patrol Officer and an assistant to the Government Anthropologist, sent there to investigate a situation—feared destabilising by the colonial administration—that had to do with the ageing chief. ‘He has two heirs-apparent already,’ Stow wrote in a letter to Geoffrey Dutton,
and has cut them off for going to bed with his wives (he has thirteen) and now he announces that the chieftainship is going to die with him.
Après moi le déluge.
He’s a perfect example of…the indifference of old age, and at the same time its passionate, pig-headed desires.
there are two pig-headed old men: Dipapa, the chief, and MacDonnell, the planter, who have co-existed for decades in an uneasy balance of rivalry and alliance—and, when we meet them, are each resisting not only their own passing and each other, but what they fear will come after, beyond their control.
As the assistant anthropologist, or ‘legend man’, Stow’s role was to collect oral histories of the disputes and (mostly quiescent) cargo cults they were there to assess. Able with languages, he could soon converse in Kiriwina, which was essential if he was not to rely on everything being mediated by the Government Interpreter. Much of this experience finds its way into the novel. Dipapa, the fictional chief, with his slow dignified walk; young Saliba, with her ‘boiling skirt’; MacDonnell, the fictional planter, with
on his shelf: such detail is a gift to a novelist.
Trickier to deal with is the question of how to use profoundly different cultural understandings. In unpublished notes of his time in the Trobriands, Stow records a group of men trying to figure out what the bright, hovering object could be. Was the war with Japan in fact over, they wanted to know, or could it be the Japanese returning? ‘It is a tragicomic business,’ Stow wrote, ‘and the temptation, especially for a writer of fiction, is to emphasise the comic elements and to treat the cultists as a crowd of savage idiots. But we Dimdims are by no means always rational in “spiritual” matters.’