“What was this book about?”

JacketBooks on Tap read The Ten Thousand Things  by Maria Dermoût at Champion Brewery on December 8. None of us had read of it before, but a few of had seen it mentioned in Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book takes its title from a Tang Dynasty poem and for the astute reader sets the theme: all of life is connected and repetitive. One very observant reader caught on to the fact that it is technically a frame novel, starting and ending with commemorations of the dead.

Written by a woman born in Java to a Dutch family that had been in the area for four generations, the novel is both European and Indonesian with strong influences from local folklore, Buddhism and natural philosophy. It is likely set on Ambon Island in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia (formerly the Spice Islands), where Dermoût lived and where her son was born. She details the natural beauty of the area, describing the Small Garden-cum-plantation where generations of the Dutch Kleyntjes family has lived, the seashells, the flora and the landscape. This close observation draws on the work of naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius who worked on Ambon and the area’s animism and Buddhism. It also lends a magical realism flavor and makes the book timeless and out of time.

What there is of a plot centers around Felicia, the granddaughter of the Small Garden owner. Told by her grandmother to have courage, she leaves with her weak father and rich mother for Europe, has a disastrous marriage and returns alone to the Small Garden with her young son. Grandmother and granddaughter work closely to raise money using the products of the plantation and selling them in the town on the main part of the island. Felicia’s son grows up, joins the army (against the grandmother’s wishes) and is killed in service, a death Felicia brands a murder. It’s murder that connects the other plots, and it is these victims who join Felicia at the commemorations at the start and finish of the book. At the climax, Felicia truly listens to her son (although he is dead) and for the first time has empathy for the murderers and their victims. She only glimpses this universal balance with the perspective of age but does seem to be newly committed to it.

So what were we drawn to in this unusual novel? The atmospheric descriptions made us want to visit the island. Its tight focus also seems accurate for remote island life. The duality running throughout the book kept it interesting: it isn’t clear if all the murder victims were in fact murdered, if the traveling bibi cursed the family, if Raden had more than a filial relationship to his step-mother, if the Commissioner had a wife, if the three girls are the same as the ones in the nightlight or if Pauline killed the sailor (and if so, the right one). This duality was also see more subtly in such things as Felicia’s name (her grandmother thought it a jinx and Felicia certainly had sorrow in her life) and the black mussel sauce and the white mussel sauce the grandmother is known for.

The novel is strongly matrilineal, with the women controlling the action even in chapters focused on men. Raden cannot continue in school because his step-mother refuses to sell her jewelry to fund him, the women in the Commissioner’s household may have murdered him but definitely close ranks after his death and Constance and Pauline are at the heart of the household supposedly run by the official and Moses. Raden was of particular interest as a Indonesian student working for a European professor. Before starting the book some of us were worried that this 1955 book set in Indonesia written by a white woman would be contain ugly racism. However, Dermoût gives voice to all characters and upended our expectations. While not perfect, it is an intriguing look at a time and place we hadn’t read much about and ends on a realistically hopeful note.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Ambon Island map
Naturalist Georg Eberhard  Rumphius
River of Doubt by Candice Millard (similarities to Professor)
Speaking of islands, information about the USVI’s hurricane recovery needs

Books on Tap Information:

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