‘Brokenville’ is Leonard Fong Roka’s account of the ten-year-long civil war that broke out on the island of Bougainville in 1988. The memoir won 2014 Crocodile Prize for Book of the Year.
Leonard leads a happy and peaceful life on Bougainville until it is suddenly interrupted by the rumours of fighting in the nearby mountains. Although he doesn’t know whether the stories are actually true, strange behaviour among adults and the first trucks loaded with police personnel that appear on the streets prove that something is not right.
As time goes by, the growing violence leaves Leonard with no illusions. It is war. It is them against us. But who exactly is ‘them’, and who exactly is ‘us’? For a boy with a ‘redskin’ father and a Bougainvillean mother, this is not the easiest question to answer. Especially when he is forced to spend his days hiding or moving from one village to another in order to survive.
This is such a good book! Raw, honest, authentic, a little edgy, wonderfully enlightening. Leonard Fong Roka offers an invaluable, unique insight into one of the most violent conflicts that took place in Oceania after World War II. For those who proudly call themselves Pacific Islanders, this is a must-read. For curious Pasifika aficionados… Well, let’s be honest here, this title should be compulsory reading for everyone.
And why exactly is this book so worthy of your attention? Because it’s a real gem; for several different reasons.
First and foremost, ‘Brokenville’ is the finest example of a personal narrative. Although penned by an adult, it brings a child’s eye view to the tragic events. Leonard Fong Roka was merely nine years old when the war erupted. His homeland – Bougainville Island – was the epicentre of bloodshed. Everything he saw and endured, every vivid recollection from that time is a testimony to the past. Testimony which not only chronicles the history but also – or should I say more importantly – the early life of an extraordinary man. Despite the author’s effort to avoid writing about himself, he is one of the actors. You feel for him when his father is killed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, you admire his strength and determination, you respect him. Leonard Fong Roka relates his own experiences, but you can easily sense that he represents hundreds of thousands of people affected by the conflict. You cannot help but be deeply moved by his words. Even though he rarely displays any emotions.
This emotional moderation may be the result of the author’s strong focus on facts and historical accuracy. If you want to know more about the Bougainville Civil War, this memoir is a mine of information. Rich in meticulous detail, it documents every stage of the crisis, presenting the invaluable point of view of the person who witnessed the battle, survived, and lived to tell the story. I don’t think one can imagine what life in a war-ravaged country really looks like, but this volume might just give you a slight idea. With its comprehensive descriptions of brutality, terror, fear, it is a history lesson like no other.
The substance of the book definitely delights, but the author’s writing style – equally good – may be something you will be genuinely surprised by. Leonard Fong Roka creates with passion. His prose is almost completely bereft of emotions, and yet it evokes strong feelings. It’s quite journalistic, rather simple, and very candid. He seems to know exactly which word should be used when. Whether he does it unwittingly or with full awareness, I am not sure. One thing is certain – there’s obviously method in his madness.
‘Brokenville’ is without a doubt worthy of all its hype. It is a fantastic book that explains a great deal about the Bougainville Conflict. But most of all, it’s a touching memoir of a truly incredible, talented man – a fighter who dares to dream and reach for the stars.