Porugl: Son of the Underworld by Kamnguru Nem, Independently published, 183 pages, ISBN: 9798520442332. Available from Amazon Australia, ebook $25.94, paperback $42.83.
A gigl ambu is a female spirit who lives in the underworld and travels into the outerworld, where humans live, to secretly forage for food at night.
The underworld is ruled over by an ancient serpent called Kerwanba. Among her subjects are spirits, dwarfs and the mysterious smoking makan nem who act as landlords.
Above ground Kekemba, the mythical eagle soars and a gifted shaman invokes chants to heal wounds and illness and conducts rituals like the mengagle sungwa to bring back the souls of humans stolen by underworld spirits.
Such is the Tolkien-like world inhabited by the hero of Kamnguru Nem’s novel Porugl Son of the Underworld.
Set in Simbu just before contact with Europeans the novel tells the story of Porugl, the grandson and heir of the powerful leader of the Akenku tribe, Kande Kumugl, who is thrown into a deep pit to die by a rival intent upon undermining his family lineage.
Why Porugl was treated in this manner and how he somehow survives and comes to live in the mystical realms of the underworld before eventually escaping makes up the intriguing narrative of the novel.
While the novel is reminiscent of the world created by JRR Tolkien in his fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings it also invokes Greek and Roman mythology.
In this sense it is a reminder that the western world was not the only place that developed foundational myths of complexity and durability.
In Simbu and other places in Papua New Guinea complicated systems of thought and belief that explained both the natural and supernatural world were widely extant before Europeans arrived.
These systems were also decidedly more potent than the simple superstitions that were ascribed to them by proselytising missionaries and others.
I first became aware of the depth of these beliefs while editing Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin’s seminal blending of myth and history in his 2013 book The Flight of Galkope.
In that book he describes the effortless transition from legend to history that occurred among his own Galkope people.
This easy transition is one of the main reasons why Papua New Guinean people, used to living and dealing with their ghosts and spirits, were not overly surprised by the arrival of the strange, light skinned men with their strange habits and attire who appeared among them.
One of the characters briefly featured in the novel is Mangruai, a fair skinned and long haired man who arrived before the first missionaries came to Simbu Province.
Some readers may remember the discussion on PNG Attitude about this man and who he might have been. As the late Francis Nii suggested, some thought he was a Christ-like figure and this is how he appears in the novel.
Mangruai, as it were, was a logical and preparatory lynchpin between the traditional world and the new world.
Whereas Sil Bolkin presented his narrative as history, the author of this book has taken a different path and used a fictional story to explore many of the same or similar issues.
This has given him leeway to be creative and imbue his narrative with the elements of fantasy mentioned earlier.
While the reader is never sure how true to type the characters in the novel are it is still possible to construe what might be factual and what is invention. This makes for an intriguing narrative.
Whether true or fiction, what comes across strongly in the book are the complexities of tribal organisation and leadership.
As the reader follows the fate of the central character and that of his father and mother the nature of traditional Simbu society in all its nuances becomes abundantly clear.
Not only does the reader get to learn about these fascinating people they also get to feel what it might have been like to be them.
And, on top of that, and for those with not so much an esoteric impulse, the book is a rattling good yarn.
Kamnguru Nem is the pen name of John W Kuri. John is a program/operations manager with over 15 years’ experience working with international development organizations.
He is an enthusiast of tribal history, the origins of people and their traditions. He also composes music in his free time.
Porugl: Son of the Underworld is the first book in a planned trilogy.