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Joseph Aguang's short novel Sorcerers won the Special Commendation Prize of the Fairdeal Novel of the Year Award in the 1989 Papua New Guinea National Literature Competition. It is set in two village communities in Madang Province, and the plot revolves around the reactions of two men, Libato and Asang, to the building of a new community school which provides, symbolically, the means to bring the two villages together. Libato is an enthusiastic supporter of the school, seeing it as the means to provide a secure future for his children in a changing world, whereas Asang sees it destroying the old way of life: in the opening scene Asang's trees have been felled without his permission to make way for a new classroom.

The clashes between "tradition" and the "new" are familiar enough in the "new literatures," which are rewriting the oppositions of "savagery" and "civilisation" structuring much imperial narrative. Just as imperial narratives idealized European concepts of "civilisation" and demonized "savagery," one of the problems in "writing back" to empire is that these categories are simply reversed and the native culture is idealized. What is fascinating in Aguang's novel is not just that he sees a greater complexity in the situation, but that he chooses to show the Papuan society through what European readers may find alienating: its sorcery.

Magic structures Papua New Guinean societies, with magic for love, gardening, fishing, and good luck intertwined with the magic that brings suffering and death. The "good" and the "bad" magic are not easily separated, and even looking on magic as good and bad is not particularly helpful, as the view transposes Christian ethics onto Papuan culture. Aguang chooses to concentrate on death magic and the "pay back" cycle of revenge killing.

Aguang explores how far the "new" can be held responsible for the final tragedy that engulfs the community. On the one hand, the two villages seize on the dispute over the school to settle old scores and restart an existing cycle of killing, and Aguang gives a bleak view of a society bent on self-destruction. Libato becomes torn between a Christian morality which tells him it is wrong to take life, and a Papuan morality which insists on the need for "pay back." While the school symbolizes the possibility of breaking out of this circle, it will only do so by breaking the whole fabric of the Papuan way of life. The school demands payment in cash for education, and Libato can only earn cash by leaving the village and working for the Europeans, which means that he cannot grow enough to feed his family.

Aguang has a tendency to let the needs of the narrative dictate the reactions of his characters, and this strains the credulity of the reader at times. But he presents the complex encounter between two power structures with sensitivity and care, and his novel is warmly recommended.

Nigel Rigby University of Kent, Canterbury
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Author:Rigby, Nigel
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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