The Ten Thousand Things is about Felicia, a woman who returns with her baby son to an island in the Moluccas, Indonesia, after she has been away for many years. The island is reigned by her grandmother. There, she learns that everything carries stories: nature, houses, and all other objects. Some are to be feared, others to be respected. You may even meet the dead. This book, in which time and storylines circle around each other, expand and retract, is one of the first works of “magical realism” in Dutch fiction.
I struggled with The Ten Thousand Things. I had written half of this post in my head by page 60 and I was ready to just admit that maybe this style, maybe this thing they call magical realism (I think?) just isn’t for me. There was so much going on, so much strangeness and yet familiar family storylines. So much “exotic” landscape with stories tied to everything. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up, or if I was interested enough in trying. Nor was I able to come to terms with how I felt about Dermoût’s way of painting the scenery: at what time is the story situated? how did she feel about the Dutch colonial presence in Indonesia? What should I think about her portrait of the Javanese, and others in the region? I wasn’t sure.
[Actually, her reflections on Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies (probably still? at the time she is writing about?) are very interesting. There is no agreement with one side or the other, or so it feels, in the end. She shows many sides, a joyful professor and his Javanese helper, who nonetheless feel estranged from each other because of all the othering going on between them. The description of what we might consider exotic, and yet Dermoût’s utter respect for it. She never judges, she shows. I don’t know, the thing is, I had to let go of these questions, while reading. Because that is not what reading this book should be about, for me, at this time.]
Around page 70 things started to change. Not because I suddenly started to understand what Maria Dermoût was trying to tell me, or what her views were, or anything. That only started to happen a little while later, if it happened at all. But because I was able to let go. Of my more scholarly perspective (That was hard considering I am trying to write a thesis about Indonesia’s colonial years at the moment), of my confusion, and just enjoy the story. The flow. Because once you get used to it, and just read, the story does have a certain flow. And I started to care for the characters, where at first I couldn’t quite do that either. I cannot pinpoint why. But somewhere around the time that the story started to diverge even more, it started to work better for me. I became curious: why introduce all these other characters, all these other stories? How on earth are you going to make them come together, in the end, in only 10 pages?
But wow, those last pages. They are so poignant. Maybe it is because things become more personal there. Maria Dermoût writes about Felicia’s feelings and unwillingness to get over the murder of her son:
She wasn’t an oversensitive woman and certainly not sentimental, but she would always keep that deep and burning pity for those who had been murdered; she rebelled against it, murder, she couldn’t accept it, not for her son nor for anyone, not then, not now, and not in all eternity.
But she was a woman living on earth who had loved her child living on earth – perhaps it was his silence which she could not bear.
Those scenes! Watching, reading, how Felicia tries to, but fails to, and yet accepts that she cannot, come to terms with the loss of her son. All the more touching when you know that Maria Dermoût lost her own son, who died in a Japanese war camp.
And now, I am left with a feeling that I want to read more by Dermoût. She is said to have published one more book, and a few short stories. But maybe I will read them in Dutch this time? This book is one of the few times that I was left wondering what this book would have been like in Dutch. Because, while it didn’t feel like it at the end of the book, the beginning made me question whether this was her style, or the translation, and if the translation did not keep me separated, in a way, from the story that was being told here.
The Ten Thousand Things is not for everyone, I think. I had trouble getting through those first pages myself. But while reading, I felt it might be a lot more suitable to some bloggers I know (The Wolves & Sasha, perhaps?) than it was for me. And yet I enjoyed the book. And I am sure it is a story that will stay with me for a long while, even if I felt a little lost at first.