UNDER THE MOUNTAIN WALL by Peter Matthiessen


Email this review


The Cloud Forest -- more than anything else he has written --established Matthiessen as that rare combination of naturalist-scientist- explorer and story teller which is once more evidenced in his creative account of a surviving Stone Age civilization in the heart of New Guinea, among the Kurelu tribe. That these observations came out of the Peabody-Harvard Expedition of 1961, the expedition which cost, the life of Michael Rockefeller seems somehow apart from the picture he has recorded. The men of this expedition were the first white men to come into close contact--and for this reason this area under the shadow of Snow Mountain had been chosen. Their identity as important anthropologists, a botanist, a film cameraman, two photographers, one medical student -- and the author himself, is recorded in the introduction. But the main body of the book is the story of the great warrior Weaklekek and the swincherd Tukum, of U-mue and his family, their enemies and their friends. In a record of the two months in the spring and summer of 1961, a lost culture emerges. The perhaps overly sensitive, while at first fascinated, may find fascination turn to revulsion. The daily, almost child-like warfare with neighboring tribes, the gouging out of arrow tips and spear heads from human flesh, the festering, the death, cremation with appalling rituals, the hacking-off of girl-child fingers in mourning...one is sickened by the self-inflicted, primitive suffering. Mr. Matthiessen however, achieves a nearly impossible feat of characterization and motivation, and gives us infinite detail of New Guinea flora and fauna, pig-theft and wife-rape, along with the rest. Armed patrols and missionaries have emerged upon this valley in the year that has passed, and the Kurelu may well hear of flights to the moon before they discover the wheel.

Publisher: Viking