Vincent Eri’s novel, The Crocodile, is the coming-of-age tale of Hoiri, a member of the Toaripi coastal people of the Gulf District in Papua, who reaches manhood against the backdrop of Australian colonial rule. The novel gives the foreigner encyclopaedic information about commerce, education and history of the tribe, about the vegetation, and village life; about marriage customs and rituals. Indeed, much of the narrative is devoted to providing the reader with a thick description of Toaripi customs and practices based in the village of Moveave.
Yet Eri’s novel is much more than a fictionalised anthropological account of Toaripi life. The Crocodile gives dramatic form to the devastating entry of white man’s civilisation into the Papuan universe, and presents us with a society at the verge of disintegration. The narrative proceeds along two arcs: one relating to the tribal laws and their internal contestations and the other, the decomposition of those already fluid social mores by Australian colonialism. The first arc revolves around the mysterious death of Hoiri’s young wife Mitoro, presumed to be taken and killed by the eponymous crocodile, and involves the complex actions and motivations of sorcerers—mesiri men—thought to be tribesmen from a neighbouring clan. The second arc consists of the hardships endured by the Papuans under the Australian colonial government. They are exploited as domestic workers and as labour for government officers— kiaps—who regularly patrol the interior in the effort to ‘pacify’ and ‘civilise’ the natives. The literary tension produced by the two narrative arcs constitutes the novel’s profound critique of the effects of colonial rule. Notably, this is a novel where the enchanted world shares narrative space and ontological reality with Euro-Australian colonial and capitalist realities. In its most commented upon scene, Hoiri wages an attack on the evil sorcerer crocodile, where literal and metaphoric crocodiles are somehow the same. But having only injured the crocodile/sorcerer, Hoiri remains confused about how to deal with the mesiri he holds responsible for his family member’s death. He cannot pursue a ‘traditional’ course of action both because of his father’s deaconship—the church frowns upon such ‘superstitions’—and because white kiap law forbids ‘primitive’ payback law.
Significantly, Australian colonial laws are not the only authority Hoiri encounters. Despite Hoiri’s suspicion of white ways, he comes under the spell of the white man’s commodity culture on a visit to the colonial capital of Port Moresby. His father and uncle buy clothing and some canvas sail, in the process suffering racial harassment from the white store clerk. The episode reveals both an enchantment with gleaming commodities and resentment at the racist colonial environment. Hoiri’s uncle, meanwhile, astutely perceives the underlying relationship between things and labour in a colonial economy: ‘White people are very clever aren’t they? They bring all these wonderful things here and also make the money that one needs to buy them. We’ve got to work for them to get the money to buy them with’. The money economy thus functions to erode traditional trading and labour practices and deepen colonial authority.