Notebooks from New Guinea:
Fieldnotes of a Tropical Biologist

Vojtech Novotny

illustrated by Benson Avea Bego
translated from the Czech by David Short
Oxford University Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
Despite the subtitle, Notebooks from New Guinea is mostly ethnographically aware travel writing rather than science. It consists of ninety or so largely independent vignettes, perhaps written originally as letters to friends and family or as jottings in a notebook, but reworked and organised here to avoid repetition and so later pieces build on earlier ones. The result is easy to read and a lot of fun, but at the same time thought-provoking and insightful: Novotny is a storyteller who works with a light touch, a gentle humour, and a broad and sympathetic understanding of his fellow human beings.

The pieces in the first part introduce an "Island of a Thousand Tongues and a Wild, Wild Landscape", conveying something of the cultural and ecological diversity and strangeness of Papua New Guinea. The second part looks at "Old and New Customs of a Tribal Society", at aspects of traditional society and the effects of contact with the industrialised world, of interactions with miners, conservationists, scientists, missionaries, and so forth. And the third part turns to descriptions of "How do Do Science in Papua New Guinea", illustrating some of the travails of scientific research in the tropics and how running a research station is irrevocably tied up with local politics and personalities.

Among a vast range of other topics, we are introduced to the Onabasulu's use of base 33 for counting, the importance of aviation in the highlands and the perils of tiny idiosyncratically maintained airfields, why road accident fatalities mostly occur in even numbers, some radically different approaches to medical care, a bit of ethno-ornithology, and the role of tropical plant-insect relationships in estimating the number of species on Earth. Novotny recounts some of his own experiences, most notably in a series of "intermezzos" about encounters with malaria, and he is good about giving us the context of his involvement with the people and places and customs he is describing, but he is never self-absorbed and his curiosity remains outwardly directed.

Notebooks from New Guinea is littered with comparisons to the Czech Republic, which the translator has wisely refrained from Anglicising. The effect of this is not so much to normalise New Guinean cultures as to contextualise Western culture, helping us to see our own conventions and practices in a different light, to grasp the complex interweaving of human universals and local customs. So Notebooks is a great way to learn something about Papua New Guinea, but also to learn something about — in that often trite phrase — what it is to be human.

As a nice bonus, Notebooks from New Guinea includes some lovely line drawings by Keweng artist Benson Avea Bego.

March 2013

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%T Notebooks from New Guinea
%S Fieldnotes of a Tropical Biologist
%A Novotny, Vojtech
%M Czech
%F Short, David
%Q Bego, Benson Avea
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2009
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199561650
%P 256pp