Some books seem to bite off more than they should attempt to chew. When it works, the book becomes magisterial, something that captures a topic so well and so comprehensively that it becomes a de facto reference on whatever topic has been gobbled up. When it does not work, the resulting hodgepodge irritates for its lack of focus or frustrates the reader by wandering down so many alleys that the ultimate destination never quite crystallizes.
The Last Heathen manages to be almost, but not quite magisterial and almost but not quite frustrating. Let it be said at the outset that Charles Montgomery is a writer and a story teller of remarkable skills and talent. Whether his prose is addressing obscure and mythologized bits and pieces of Melanesian history or the frustrations of hanging around the harbour in Honiara waiting for ships that never leave (and being lied to day after day after day by the captain), the prose flows without ever allowing the reader even to contemplate skipping a section or two. The tales are simply too enthralling.
Mr. Montgomery chronicles an indeterminate length of time spent in Melanesia in search of something. The “something” unfortunately, seems to change from chapter to chapter (though the author’s enthusiasm for the quest never falters) and it is here that the lack of focus is most irritating. On one page, the writer’s grail is the tiny island of Nukapu, where John Coleridge Patterson, Melanesia’s first Anglican archbishop, was slaughtered. In other places, he searches with equal determination for hard evidence of the magic and spirits that populate Melanesian lore, while in other places still, Mr. Montgomery, the self-professed skeptic, seems determined to put flesh and bones to a tiny morsel inside himself that wants to believe in… something. Sometimes he seems to be in search of nothing more and nothing less than truth. Sometimes he seems to search for wistful and missing elements to his own soul. Perhaps he searches for all of the above, or something else entirely. Perhaps he is pursuing the art of searching.
Frustrations with objectives notwithstanding, the writing is admirably lucid and readable and it pulls the reader along with remarkable energy, although one never quite knows exactly where the author will go next… or why.
Some side trips are truly memorable and well told. The most gripping one comes towards the end of the book when Mr. Montgomery meets and attempts to understand members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican religious order. One of the brothers, after undergoing a by-now familiar grilling about magic and miracles, says to Mr. Montgomery “Why can’t you just let the stories be?” He speaks, perhaps, for every reader of the book who will at one point or another lose patience with the multi-faceted quest and its Quixote.
There are people in this book whom I have met and some whom I know and the passages in which Mr. Montgomery dissects them made me uncomfortable. They are not as I remember them and not as I know them, and yet, it would be unfair of me to claim a superior knowledge or memory. The more pertinent lesson might simply be that it is foolhardy to attempt ever to be definitive about another human being within the pages of a book.
Mr. Montgomery could have used a more ruthless editor. There are inexplicable and infuriating passages, for instance, in which he lapses into absolutely irrelevant psychoanalysis of his famous ancestor Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. What those passages mean here other than to be a venue for dropping a famous name is baffling and an editor would have done the author a huge favor by blasting them from the page.
One day, if he persists in such adventuresome quests, Charles Montgomery will write a monumental book that sparkles with all the skills and intelligence he so obviously possesses. The Last Heathen is above all an eloquent and readable promise of this possibility.
Vianney Carriere is director of the General Synod department of communications and information resources. He has traveled to Melanesia twice, once spending part of a sabbatical there.