Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things

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Mooi Indie painting

I loved, loved, loved this book!  I actually finished reading it last week, but had to absorb its impact for a few days and mull over how to approach it in a review.  I don’t know about you, dear reader, but books I really like, that touch me emotionally, tend to leave me speechless or whatever you call the literary equivalent of being tongue-tied.  Why is that, I wonder?  I think it’s partially a fear my review won’t do the book justice, that it deserves better than what I can give it and that if I could only write a better review my bookish treasure would get the consideration it deserves from any prospective readers out there.  There’s also, however, another element that makes it hard for me to discuss this work  — I loved it and what if others don’t?  So be forewarned — I’ll listen to opposing opinions about its quality but be prepared to (strongly) argue your case!

Before I get started on the novel itself, I want to note a few mundane matters.  I purchased The Ten Thousand Things many years ago, largely because it was on sale (see how honest I’m being?) and I felt a strong attraction for its exotic setting.  I mean, really, a spice plantation in the Dutch East Indies in the early part of the 20th century?  How could you possibly get more exotic?  I had always wanted to travel in the Indonesia/Oceania part of the world and I was practically licking my chops at the idea of a painless way to learn something about the area and maybe to imbibe a bit of local atmosphere.  Besides, the book is an NYRB Classic, meaning it has a beautiful cover, pages made from acid free paper and a really tactile quality in general (you just somehow want to stroke it, you know? )  Although I purchased this novel at least a decade ago, I finally read it for the first time — last week!  In the first few years after it entered my rather motley collection, I’d occasionally take the book off the shelf and admire the cover art; then of course, back on the shelf it went; it just struck me as a “difficult” read that I didn’t have the energy for at whatever time I happened to be considering it; it always lost out to what I perceived as an easier novel (bring on another mystery or sci-fi space opera!); eventually it became just another of those beautiful NYRB Classics that I’m better at buying than actually reading.  Two events were instrumental in converting this book from a dust catcher into a reading experience:  I finished a course last fall on the art of the Dutch maritime empire during its Golden Age (i.e, the 1600s) and I needed a selection for the “Africa, Asia, or Oceania” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  This time around when I picked up Marie Dermoût’s Ten Thousand Things my course in Dutch art history gave the novel context and an historical resonance;  it seemed — and was — the perfect selection.  The importance of having an historical context for a particular book is a very personal matter; while it’s important for me (I was a very enthused history major several eons ago, when I first attended college), it’s totally unnecessary to enjoy the novel, which, by the way, isn’t at all a difficult read.  In fact, my quest for historical facts actually got somewhat in the way.  I kept interrupting my reading to spend internet time trying to determine the real life counterpart of the narrator’s unnamed island, or whether the “sugar panic” on Java that impoverished her family actually occurred.  Total, obsessive waste of time chasing irrelevant facts; much better, dear reader, to have simply sat back and enjoyed this lovely book.

What I (and many of the reviews I looked at) found among the most entrancing features of The Ten Thousand Things is the sensual, poetic quality of Dermoût’s prose and, closely related, her ability to draw you into the landscape of a dream, providing you remember that dreams are sometimes uneasy things.  The novel opens with a description of “the Island in the Moluccas” where there are still a few “gardens” or plantations left from “the great days of spice growing.”  The garden’s great house has long since fallen prey to earthquake and fire, but a guest pavilion remains, four large rooms on an open side gallery; this is the home of the lady who owns the garden:

She had a beautiful name — Mrs. von So-and-so [that had been her husband’s name; he was from an East Prussian noble family] — and she was the last of an old Dutch line of spice growers.

For five generations the garden had been in the family; after her, her son would have been the sixth generation; after him, his children the seventh — but it was not to be like that.  Her son had died young and childless and she was an old woman, beyond fifty now, without other children, without other relatives — the last one.

According to the custom of the island, where they had trouble remembering difficult names and where everyone had a byname, she was called “the lady of the inner bay,” or also “the lady of the Small Garden,” for that was the name of the garden.

Trust me, the language and descriptions become even more hypnotic as the novel moves on; I’m having to restrain myself from quoting huge chunks of it.  You’ll just have to read it for yourself (if you don’t, you’ll miss the description of the three graves at the edge of the garden, and the ghosts of the three little girls, daughters of a long-ago owner, who are seen by some to play under the spice trees and on the beach of the inner bay.  Your life will be poorer).

The novel’s structure is based on the island’s geography.  The opening section (“The Island”) depicts the island’s sights, its sounds, and its residents, living and dead, from the lady of the Small Garden, to the simple fisherman who dyed his hair blue, because his remarkable soldier son must be honored by having a remarkable father.  “At the Inner Bay” is perhaps the novel’s most narratively cohesive section; it recounts the life of the girl, Felicia, who in her old age becomes the lady of the Small Garden; it tells of her birth, her early childhood and of her strange and powerful grandmother, with her herbs and cabinet of wonders guarded from evil by living shells.  After Grandmother refuses to rebuild the big house, the scene of death and misfortune, Felicia is taken to Europe by her irate mother, the wealthy heiress of a Javanese sugar plantation.  There, in a few brief paragraphs, Felicia grows to adulthood, living with her parents in a succession of luxury hotels, until she meets the “stranger from Nice,” whom she marries.  When the “sugary money” runs out, so does he, taking Felicia’s jewelry with him and leaving her pregnant.  After she tires of sponging off relatives in Holland, a penniless Felicia returns with her infant son Himpies to her Grandmother on the Island, where she spends the rest of her life.

In contrast to her years in Europe, which are covered in a paragraph or two, Felicia’s time with her grandmother in the Small Garden (which eventually passes to her) is recounted in great detail.  This section of the novel also narrates the life of Felicia’s son Himpies, who dies as a childless young man.  Dermoût paints a picture of Himpies at all stages of his life:  the infant Willem, whom the islanders rechristen “Himphies” (remember, the island loves “bynames”); the child who is almost an organic part of the Small Garden; the youth who reluctantly goes to Holland for his education and the young officer who has knowingly chosen the wrong career because it enables him to return to the island.  It also recounts, finally, his unnecessary, untimely and agonizing death.

In the novel’s third section, “At the Outer Bay,” the narrative shifts to the island’s only town and three of its residents, who are loosely connected to Felicia and Himpies.  Each story centers on a character who, like Himpies, meets an untimely end.  In the novel’s last section, “The Island,” we return in a sense to the novel’s beginning, where Felicia, now the old lady of the Small Garden, keeps vigil alone, one night each year; at this time the ghosts of those whose stories we’ve read (including Himpies) visit her.  At dawn, when the ghosts depart, Felicia leaves off her vigil, goes “under the trees and indoors, to drink her coffee and try again to go on living.”   As much as I love the poetry of Dermoût’s language and the fact that, for all her lovely descriptions, she also tells a good story, it was her almost pantheistic vision of life that appealed to me so much.  In Dermoût’s island, everything — plants, animals, stones, wind, the sea — is connected; each has its role to play and its fate to be endured.  Time is circular, like the serpent that swallows its tail; we travel a circle of life and death, to learn that which Felicia has known from the beginning — that the dead inhabit the island as much as the living.

This is as good a place as any to squeeze in a bit of info about Maria Dermoût herself.  Although I was unaware of the fact until I read this novel, she is considered one of the leading writers of Dutch colonial literature.  The Ten Thousand Things, which she wrote in her sixties, is a heavily biographical work.  Like Felicia, Dermoût was born in Malaysia (specifically, Java in 1888), was educated in Holland, married a Dutch official and spent most of her adult life in Indonesia.  Dermoût’s only son died in a Japanese concentration camp; in 1962 she herself died in Holland, alone like Felicia.  Her output, alas, is small, being limited to this novel and to one other work; The Ten Thousand Things actually fell out of print in English before being rescued by NYRB Classics.

Remember my words at the beginning of this overly long post, about my fear that I’d fail to do justice to a wonderful work of literature?  As I mull over what I’ve written, I fear that I’ve made Dermoût sound too sentimental.  She isn’t at all.  Colonial history, anywhere — Africa, the Americas, Malaysia — has a very dark side, which has its place and connection to events in Dermoût’s world.  The Small Garden has the charming custom of sounding a bell when visitors approach or depart; it’s a little chilling to find that what’s being used is “the slave bell” from the Small Garden’s days as a major spice plantation.  The island’s inhabitants include the ghosts of three little girls, daughters of one of Felicia’s distant ancestors.  The three died together in a single day, most likely poisoned by a mistreated slave girl; the tale is so dark Felicia’s grandmother refuses to speak of it (it’s one of the reasons she also refuses to rebuild the great house, the scene of their deaths).  Felicia’s son, young and charming and good, is killed almost by chance; his death is unnecessary, slow and painful.  In addition to the exigencies of fate, Dermoût acknowledges the darkness that is part of human nature:  many of her characters are murdered; more are selfish, greedy and domineering.  And, of course, the Lady of the Small Garden, her grandmother and her son Himpies, are themselves the human remnants of the great tide of European conquest and exploitation that re-shaped a huge chunk of the globe; to carry my metaphor further, they are akin to the shells left stranded on a beach after the tide has receded.

With this last fact in mind, I can’t resist including this painting of an unknown official of the Dutch East India Company and his wife, standing next to a harbor in a city that centuries after their time will be called Jakarta.  Behind them a native servant holds a pajong or parasol over their heads; in Javanese culture the pajong symbolizes high rank and status.  The Dutch official points with the pride of ownership and authority to the huge Dutch ships riding at anchor, loaded with the spices that were far more valuable than gold, shortly to begin their voyage “home.”  On the distant shore is Batavia Castle, a key component of Dutch military power over their conquered island.

Opnamedatum: 2017-10-05
Duch East Indies Merchant at Batavia Harbor (now Jakarta) (Aelbert Cuyp, c. 1640-1660)

Here’s another painting on the theme of empire; this is an image of Dutch military and political power rather than Cupy’s portrayal of the mercantile/commercial power of the East India Company.  Painted from the perspective of the victorious Dutch, it depicts the “submission” of one of the last indigenous leaders who opposed their rule.  The Javanese prince thought he was attending a peace conference held under a flag of truce.  He wasn’t.  After being arrested he was quickly exiled and that, as they say, is that.

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The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro at the end of the Java War in 1830 (Nicolaas Pieneman, c. 1830-1835)

Dermoût’s novel has a scene in which Felicia, a penniless young woman newly returned from Holland, persuades her grandmother to begin selling the Small Garden’s produce in the town market.  Grandmother is indignant — “what do you mean? sell for money things that we didn’t pay money for?” — but relents when she realizes Felicia needs money to provide an education for Himpies.  Since I’m on a visual roll, this is all the excuse I need to throw in this painting of a street market in the Dutch East Indies:

east-indian-market-stall-in-batavia-albert-eckhout

The painting is attributed, probably incorrectly, to Albert Eckhout, a 17th century Dutch artist who’s known primarily for his paintings of life in the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil rather than Indonesia.  Although it predates Felicia’s mercantile adventure by two centuries or so, I think it conveys some of the exotic (to westerners, anyway) quality of Felicia’s world (as well as the ethnic typecasting frequently found in western paintings of non-western cultures).  Lastly, the painting at the beginning of my posting is from a genre known loosely as “Mooi Indie” or “pretty Indies pictures,” i.e., somewhat stereotyped portrayals of beautiful and/or picturesque scenes of Indonesian life and scenery, often (but not always) painted by Europeans.  I wasn’t able to determine the artist’s identity or the location of his scene and I did feel a bit reluctant to use it, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

Well, that’s it for tonight!  I have a few more paintings I’m itching to include, but I’ll spare y’all.  Hopefully I haven’t frightened anyone away from reading a wonderful novel.  I can’t think of a better closing than the one used by Dermoût herself, a line of poetry from Ts’en Shen:

“When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”

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