Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lost: a literary treasure, last seen in Tonga

In his cult 2002 movie The Stone Reader, Baby Boomer Mark Moskowitz told the story of his obsession with an obscure novel he had read in his youth, and of his long journey in search of the author of that book, who turned out to be living as a recluse in a small town in the American Midwest.

Moskowitz's search for Dow Mossman wasn't easy, but he did at least begin his journey holding a copy of Mossman's one and only book. The Stones of Summer may have been out of print for decades, but the information on its jacket and on its opening pages guided Moskowitz to a series of people - a publisher, a photographer, a retired creative writing teacher with a passion for greyhound racing - who were able to give him stories about Dow Mossman, as well as offer guesses about the man's location.

Since 1997 Anne Amundsen has been searching for a long-lost book and author, but her task is more daunting than the one Mark Moskowitz faced. Anne is searching for a novel she remembers reading in the middle years of the 1980s, when she lived with her diplomat husband in Nuku'alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga. She remembers the book's locations, and a good deal of its plot, but not its name or author.

A friend of Anne recently sent a description of the book she is hunting to the e mail loop of the Tonga Research Group. Because this blog is haunted by bibliophiles - Jack Ross, who has made an online catalogue for his vast private library, and Richard Taylor, who lives and works amidst book-rubble, are both regular commenters - I offered to post Anne's message here, in the hope that she might get the sort of help which made Mark Moskowitz's quest an ultimately successful one.

Here's Anne's e-mail:

For a decade now I have been searching for a missing book, based in Tonga. It was definitely fiction - it was definitely 'located' in Tonga - and my uncle was definitely mentioned (without doubt). My search for this book is entirely on account of the reference to my uncle, which I feel my family should be able to read and treasure. Regrettably all I can remember is that . . . :

The book I am trying to find was read by me when we lived in Nuku'alofa between 1985-1987 (my husband was the New Zealand High Commissioner at that time). After reading the book, I lent it to a Tongan who did not return it to me, although my husband also read it before it went AWOL! As you will see from the details below, the story was based in Tonga. My extensive enquiries, over the years since, have led me to believe that nobody in Tonga has read this book (apart from my husband and me)! This is surprising, since it was very exciting. Being located in Tonga it is amazing to me that nobody there seems to know anything at all about this book! Any assistance would be enormously appreciated, thank you.

1) It is a NOVEL, not historical fact. Published no later than 1987, but more likely no later than 1986.

2) It is 'located' in TONGA - I think some of the characters 'stayed' at the Dateline Hotel.

3) Some action takes place underwater in the Tonga Trench.

4) Hong Kong somehow comes into the story because in this novel is mentioned my uncle, Captain Bob (Robert) Newton of the 5th/7th Rajput Regiment, Indian Army, who was killed in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion of 1941. His heroic death, under fire, is chronicled in this book - quite extraordinary, since the book is fictional and about TONGA - not Hong Kong .

5) I think the book is a thriller (or possibly science fiction, though less likely).

6) It has to have been published in 1987 or prior to that (definitely not later).

7) However, books which it is NOT, are:

Friendly Isles: a tale of Tonga , by Patricia Ledyard, Vava'u Press 1984 - NO.
On Their Majesties Service, by Captain C.H. Hill-Willis, Neptune Press 1983 - NO
The Fire Has Jumped, edited by Garth Rogers, Institute of Pacific Studies 1986 - NO
Lost Paradise, Ian Cameron, Salem House Publications, Topsfield , Mass. , 1987. NO
Night of Error, by Desmond Bagley, St. Martins 1987 - NO.
Solomon's Seal, by Hammond Innes, Collins 1980. - NO
Sphere, by Michael Crichton, Knopf 1987. - NO
Steel Tiger, by Stirling Silliphant, Ballantine 1983 - NO
Pacific Odyssey, by Gwenda Cornell, Coles 1985 - NO
Rascals in Paradise by James A. Michener - NO
Tempest and Torment by Graeme Clarke - NO
The Trulove (O'Brian) - NO
Peking Incident (Atcheson)- NO
Lighter Than A Feather (Westheimer) - NO
Shanghai (Marshall) - NO
The Admiral (Dibner)- NO

Yours faithfully

Anne Ammundsen


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a it possible that AA might have mixed together two or three different novels in her memory?

This can happen to us when we recollect...

9:39 am  
Anonymous Anne A said...

Anonymous - I understand your concern! However, this was entirely too EXTRAORDINARY (to read about my uncle in a novel about Tonga) to have made a mistake. This was the sort of moment in time when, quite literally, I nearly fell off my perch!

12:43 pm  
Anonymous Anne A said...

I know that the corollary to your thinking will be “why didn’t AA make a note of the book details when the borrower failed to return it”? The short answer is that my toddler son was ill when we left Tonga and for several years I was simply too busy to be worried about getting another copy of the book. When I finally got round to wanting to buy it again – to my horror I realised I had forgotten all the vital details – like author and title! I should also add that my husband read the book and he, too, couldn’t believe his eyes when he read the passage about my uncle. Truly, I am not loopy!!

1:19 pm  
Anonymous querulous fellow said...

Anne, have you checked the catalogues of the really big libraries? I believe the British Library catalogue is online.

Apologies if you did this years ago.

3:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Was the book a hard back? Can you recall any details of what it looked like - size etc? Marks on it? Design of the dust jacket if it had one? Marks on the book itself. Binding? Publisher? Was it well known publisher? (possibility it wasn't). Approx how many pages was it? Can you zero in on when you read it? That if 1984,5,6, seems you may have read it before 1987 which means it was published before then.

What was the general argument ("Purpose' or theme) and the general plot? of the book? I know these are hard questions and I have books I have read (sometimes more than once) but have forgotten both (most of) the characters and plots!

Author's probable nationality?

I had look at my own data base and elsewhere but got nowhere but it doesn't mean it cant be found somewhere.

But it is a hard ask for sure!

(Most books are 7 and 1/2 to 8 and 3/4 inches high but smaller books are say 12 mo i.e. is few inches smaller)

3:48 pm  
Anonymous Anne A said...

Hi querulous fellow - I checked the British Library catalogue but couldn't find a way of searching for Tonga Fiction....I think I rang them up too and was told that I couldn't put in a Tonga Fiction search criteria :-( ...

Hi Richard - I am pretty sure it was a paperback with nothing unusual about its size. The design is long forgotten I am afraid. I definitely read it in 1986 or 1987 and it was newly published at that time - or very soon prior to that.

I am tempted to say it was a British author of some note - but I am definitely NOT sure of that. I tend not to read fiction much, so it must have really grabbed my attention and been advertised a bit at least or else I am unlikely to have been drawn to buy it when visiting Australia.

Before lending it I stuck a sticky label in the front with my name, address and phone number!

So much good that did me 25 years ago!

1:36 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Anne - hmmm - tough one! Keep looking, I had some ideas but they were no good. I have some literature in Tongan I think. The problem is that booksellers often just describe the book condition, but key words such as key places in fiction are sometimes given.

I'll keep an eye out...

8:55 pm  

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