In The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût brought us to my birth country, Indonesia. This is the first time for me to read a Dutch Indies literature so it was truly an interesting experience. I had to look up Moluccas – the place where the book is set, and only then realized it’s the islands of Maluku. In fact, I only recently discovered that pre-independent Indonesia is called Dutch East Indies. Just things you wouldn’t learn in school’s history books :).
I was born in the capital, and never left the island of Java for the first 17 years of my life. Weeks after my 17th birthday I left the country, and since then only go back very occasionally, each time making an effort to travel the country even if it’s just for a short while, even if I couldn’t go very far. I’ve never been to Maluku or Papua — those places are probably as exotic to me as it is to people from outside the country.
And exotic is how I would describe The Ten Thousand Things, from the description of the places, the islands, the sea — and the creatures of the sea! The stories were dream-like, giving you the feeling of floating in and out of a dream, in far flung places, somewhere in an obscure corner of the world, where the water is clear blue and deadly at the same time, where the islands store ten thousand stories and the spirits roam. It gave me nostalgic feelings as indeed where ever you are in Indonesia you are never far from the ocean.
The main character that holds all the stories together in the book is referred to as the Lady of the Small Garden, who is from a Dutch family but born in Moluccas. She went to Netherlands for her education, and eventually came back to the islands with her son. The “garden” has been in the family for generations and the lady’s grandmother has always stayed there. She’s become part of the island as much as the local people.
I have awareness that the majority of Ambon people are Christians (which is something that stands out in a country that is almost 90% Muslim), but I never quite connected it with its important role as one of the Spice Islands in the time of colonization. It all makes sense now.
I love that I’m learning so much by reading the perspective of an outsider looking in, though I have conflicting feelings about calling Dermoût an outsider. After all her family had stayed for generations (she’s the 4th generation) and she might even have indigenous blood somewhere along the line.
How long does one need to stay? How many generations before you can truly belong?
Though The Ten Thousand Things is not strictly autobiographical, it’s not hard to see how Dermoût drew from her life experiences. Thankful that NYRB Classics has taken her book into their line. Here’s hoping that they will republish her other book, as it seems to be out of print and would be hard to get.
One interesting thing to note, if you look for the pictures of Maria Dermout, the above would be the one most widely appears. It was taken in 1907 when she was 19 years old, and somehow gave an impression of her as a young writer. But her books were not published until she’s in her 60s!
Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Magical reading set in a place both familiar and unfamiliar to me. It has sparked a new found interest in Dutch Indies literature. I have The Black Lake by Hella Haasse to be read soon-ish.