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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Coming of the Gods: An Iban Invocatory Chant of the Baleh River Region, Sarawak

by Peter Metcalf

MASING, JAMES JEMUT. Two volumes. Canberra: Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 1997. 598 pages. Maps, figures, tables, glossaries, references. Paper $A45.00 (overseas price for both volumes).

The production of this text is a saga in itself, one that has taken half a century to unfold. It begins in 1949, not long after the last Rajah ceded Sarawak to the British Crown. In a remote Iban community, Derek Freeman attended a longhouse festival focussed on a cosmic journey recounted by the lemembang, or bard, Igoh anak Impin. Impressed by Igoh's poetic genius, but lacking a tape recorder, Freeman arranged for the bard to repeat the entire cycle of songs, dictating line by line to a literate Iban, Patrick Ringkai. Over several years, Freeman made annotations to this manuscript, even after Igoh himself had converted to Christianity. In 1976 Freeman recruited James Jemut Masing, recently returned from a university in New Zealand, to undertake a translation of the text. Masing's work earned him a doctorate from the Australian National University. Now finally published in a handsomely produced two-volume set from the same institution, it represents a priceless contribution to world literature.
The text itself makes up the whole of the second volume, 219 pages of Iban transcription, each matched by English translation on the facing page. It falls into eight parts, episodes in the travels and headhunting adventures of the divine hero Lang Singalong Burong, plus a ninth episode collected by Masing at a later date. There is little exegetical material, nothing more than a c...

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