Immortalizing Dickens


Imagine a community ravaged by conflict. What would the people be thinking of? Survival, that’s a given. Means to find the bare necessities, of course. Reading and learning Charles Dickens?

That’s a first.

Mister Pip, a beautiful tale by Commonwealth Prize Winner Lloyd Jones, tells the world of a story where reading Dickens represents salvation for a community torn by conflict. Set in a village on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville during a brutal civil war in the 1990s, the story is rendered from the eyes of Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator. The story begins with a blockade that has just begun. As helicopters circle the skies, the schools are empty and teachers have fled for their lives.

The entire island has only one white man, with a home in the jungle and an abiding love for Dickens. This kind man, Mr. Watts, is a firm believer in the fact that knowledge sets minds free. He assumes responsibilities of teaching the children of the village. With dreams of making the classroom “a place of light”, he takes the children through Great Expectations where they discover something just as vital as bare subsistence, “a bigger piece of the world” that they can enter at will.

In the beginning, there is a wonderful exposition on the escapist joys of reading. The sheer foreign element of Dickens’s world, its rimy mornings and blacksmith’s forges hold the class’ attention. Young Matilda falls in love with the orphan Pip, even going on to building him a beachfront shrine. When the war draws closer, the subversion of the stories seems to shine brighter. Mister Pip is mistakenly assumed by “redskin” soldiers to be a rebel fighter that they cannot seem to find. At that moment, the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves.

Great Expectations changes young Matilda. In a country bereft of any knowledge-inculcation, she finds herself instilled with a moral code. Their book is destroyed, midway. But Mr Watts jumps in, filling in, recounting Pip’s tale in instalments to avert disaster. The yarn he spins combines elements from many lives: those of his own, Pip’s and the islanders’.

The story is a magnificent rendition, carving a microcosm of post-colonial literature, putting together narratives that speak of races and fables. In an island split by war, Charles Dickens unites.