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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Real-life book drama has happier ending than story

The library is viewed as a symbol of renewal.
The library is viewed as a symbol of renewal.

In his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying Oscar Wilde, argued that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life".

New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones' celebrated 2006 novel, Mister Pip, tells the story of a teacher on Bougainville, the only white man for miles around, who introduces his class to literature and opens a window to a world beyond their village by reading them Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. But a civil war is going on and the protagonists are callously indifferent to the teacher's noble exercise and the children's flickering aspirations.

After Mister Pip came out, Jones had the idea of creating a library for Bougainville. Many people in New Zealand, on the island and further afield, were captivated by his vision and enlisted in the cause of making it a reality. But good intentions foundered on the harsh realities of an underdeveloped country scarred by more than a decade of war. As in the novel, anarchy engulfed idealism.

A grim validation of Wilde's dictum? Far from it. To paraphrase another aphorist, Mark Twain: "Reports of this project's difficulties have been greatly exaggerated."

Although Jones had visited Bougainville towards the end of the war, the novel that eventually became Mister Pip was originally set in Lower Hutt and concerned children of the 21st century choosing between two cultures - brown and white, mythological and materialistic, Pacific and transplanted European.

After a period of banging his head against a brick wall, he had a three-part epiphany: the image of a white man pulling a black woman in a cart, the Bougainville setting, and the narrator's voice. (The story is told by Matilda, a girl in the class.)

In demand and therefore constantly on the move as a result of the book's international success, Jones became preoccupied with the question: what can I do for these people? Creating a library was the irresistibly obvious answer.

He returned to Bougainville to discuss the idea with elders and community leaders. What sort of a library would best serve their needs? Perhaps someone on a motorbike with a box of books travelling from village to village. The locals were adamant they wanted bricks and mortar. The war had laid waste to their civic structures. A new library would be a symbol of renewal.

The elders and community leaders formed the Bougainville Heritage Foundation. Jones returned to Wellington to establish the Bougainville Library Trust and begin years of fund raising.

Land was secured - an achievement in itself given the complex traditions of land ownership. The library concept was refined with a shift from the western concept to accommodate Pacific traditions. Like books, masks and carvings can tell stories that put people in someone else's shoes and shift them from entrenched positions.

The library was built. As New Zealand brokered the ceasefire which ended the conflict, there's a nice symmetry in the fact that Kiwis are largely responsible for constructing Bougainville's first cultural institution of the post-war era.

All it needs now are some books.

Two weeks ago, under the headline "What the Dickens has happened to all our books?" and a sub-heading "Lloyd Jones' much loved fiction is fast becoming colourful fact" and spread across half a broadsheet page, the Sunday Star-Times reported that life was indeed imitating art: "A beautiful library inspired by the New Zealand novel Mister Pip is home to just one book after more than 5,000 others went missing, held to ransom by warlords in a remote part of Bougainville."

"Colourful" is certainly one way of putting it. The following week, under the heading "Clarification," the SST advised that "last week it was stated books destined for a library in Bougainville were being held to ransom by warlords. That is incorrect. The books are in a container in [the Papua New Guinea port of] Lae awaiting shipment."

You might wonder why the SST called a correction a clarification. You might wonder why the redress for a half-page balls-up was a one-paragraph brief at the foot of a column of one-paragraph briefs. They say the medical profession buries its mistakes; the media tends to downplay theirs to the point of invisibility.

On the other hand you might shrug it off as tomorrow's fish and chip paper. That ignores the fact that many people and organisations have worked selflessly and contributed in ways big and small to make this admirable project a reality. They were entitled to be dispirited at the thought of the books on a slow boat to nowhere and their financial assistance evaporating in bribes.

This story will have a happy ending. The library opens next month, but much remains to be done.

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- NZ Herald

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