Wednesday , February 21 2024
One of the year's best non-fiction works, this insightful account of Melanesian life follows the author as he retraces his great-grandfather’s steps as a missionary.

Book Review: The Shark God by Charles Montgomery

Travel writers, award-winning Canadian travel author Charles Montgomery tells us in The Shark God, work as follows: they contact a country's tourist agency, promise to write glowing stories, and then ask for "free flights, hotels, meals, and booze. Especially booze." They then spend weeks "lounging in crisp linen sheets [and] watching BBC World News."

That certainly wasn't Montgomery's approach to his book. The Shark God tells of Montgomery's attempt to follow the travels of his great-grandfather, a missionary in the islands of Melanesia in 1892. It is a humorous and insightful personal exploration of culture, religion, superstition, and faith that may rank among the year's best non-fiction books.

Montgomery's great-grandfather, an Anglican bishop, set out "to bring the One True God to the heathens" of Melanesia. At age 10, Montgomery found his great-grandfather's account of his journeys. To a young mind, the memoir was the family equivalent of Treasure Island or any other classic adventure story, only this was "an adventure sanctioned by God Himself." When Montgomery rediscovered the writings some 20 years later, they resonated differently. This time, he wanted to not only see those islands, he wanted to explore their legends and myths and how they were affected by the efforts of his great-grandfather and other missionaries.

Montgomery tells his story with a wry and highly observant eye. Although he used his travel writing credentials to arrange free transportation to Port Vila in the Vanuatu Islands (formerly the New Hebrides), Montgomery struck out on his own once in Melanesia. Here is his journey to one of the southernmost islands in the Vanuatu chain:

This I know: The ocean is not romantic. Not when you have left the calm of the harbor and the swell is up and the vomiting has begun. The ocean is not a gentle mother, not a bucking stallion, not an adversary you can grapple with. The ocean is a great rotting blanket that won't be still. It is a pool of rancid milk. A gurgling toilet. Something to be endured. This is what I learned on my first sea passage.

Similarly, when in the Banks Islands several weeks later, Montgomery wants to visit a German anthropologist.

I had a map that showed a perfect red line wandering all the way west across Vanna Lava to Vureas Bay. Everyone in Sola insisted the red line was a road. But when Melanesians say "road," they aren't thinking about a highway or even a cart track. They mean there is a way. They mean that yes, once upon a time, perhaps someone walked in that direction.

Yet Montgomery's travel adventures are essentially a colorful augmentation of his main stories. What Montgomery discovers in his journeys is that although religion pervades the islands, it is a far cry from what the missionaries may have ever envisioned.

Montgomery observes that "the real business of Port Vila… was religion." The town is crawling with missionaries of various Christian sects and "[m]en shouted the gospel from street corners." In a town on another island, he finds no less than four churches to serve 200 villagers. "The residents," Montgomery notes, "drifted back and forth between faiths like butterflies on flowers."

If Christianity is so predominant and there are so many churches, then why all the missionaries? Montgomery obtains one answer from Kay Rudd, a missionary with the Joy Bible College in Port Vila.

"People might claim to be Christian," Kay told me. "But voodoo, black magic, spirits . . . folks still live in utter fear of all these things. And you know, dear, a true Christian doesn't have to be afraid."

"Because ghosts and magic don't exist," I said. "You are helping people overcome their superstitions."

Kay sighed and gave me a look of strained patience. "I didn't say that. Evil is real. But Christians have the power to break the spell. If we can get Bibles into people's hands, in their own languages, they will see they have the power to beat the black magic. They don't have to fear it."

That is Montgomery‘s first indication that not only is far more than Christianity actively practiced in the archipelagos, the alternatives are real and still wield great power. Virtually everywhere he visits, numerous aspects of prior polytheistic beliefs and traditions are alive and well. Just as the predominant language of the islands is a polyglot of English and French with Melanesian grammar and syntax, spiritual and religious practices are a unique mix. The Melanesians blend Christianity, magic, curses, ghosts, mana (an invisible force that animates life, objects, people and actions), and kastom (traditional religion, ritual and magic).

To the islanders, kastom is as important as Christian doctrine, if not more so. The Melanesians appear to invoke whatever seems best suited to them or their current needs. Montgomery notes, "the strangest bits of [Melanesian] culture were those that had been infected by Christianity," because they produced a "hybridization of myths, magic, and spirit." Thus, the shark god of the title refers to a traditional god for whom only one resident of a lagoon in the Solomon Islands is the conduit. On another island, a wedding ceremony in a Christian church is followed by a kastom ceremony.

Yet there is more than simply Montgomery's desire to retrace his great-grandfather's journey. He is also on a personal quest, a quest to see and experience traditional magic and any miracles it can produce. As he tells a representative of the national tourist agency on his arrival, "I'm looking for heathens." That journey is transformative for Montgomery and in unexpected ways, ways that also reveal the importance and blend of both kastom and Christianity.

Montgomery tells each aspect of the story in easily readable yet enthralling fashion. His description of a trip to visit with a "prophet" on one island is reminiscent of Martin Sheen arriving to meet Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Montgomery describes one locale as "a town anesthetized," where the "lethargy was so thorough that nobody I met could be bothered to wrap their lips around the town’s full name, let alone the full name of the island." When he recounts his four days of a malarial delirium in this town, Montgomery takes us through hallucinations based on the Bible and tales of his family genealogy. Yet in Montgomery's adept hands it all blends and flows.

Okay, Montgomery got a free flight and the islanders freely shared their kava, a drink made from a shrub of the same name that produced in Montgomery a "newfound feeling of transcendence." He was not, however, spending his time imbibing while reclining in crisp linen sheets and watching the BBC. Montgomery visits the villages and remote areas of the islands in his search for the heathens and their practices. He travels with the natives and often lives with them. The result is a book that deserves to be short-listed for any number of awards this year.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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