The Ten Thousand Things, Maria Dermoût, 1955
- Indonesia, #8
- Paperback (received as a gift)
- Read May 2017
- Rating: 5/5
- Recommended for: Saints and poets maybe
This is quite simply one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. I am not usually a person for whom excellent writing can compensate for a scant plot (and it must be admitted that the plot of The Ten Thousand Things is slight and slow-moving); however, Dermoût’s prose kept me hooked in a way that is, for me, unprecedented. I wanted to keep reading this book, not to find out what happened, but simply to be reading. I wanted to wallow in it, to make it last. I am sure there are people who always read that way. Myself, I am usually racing through, wanting to know, impatient for events to unfold. I often catch myself skimming or skipping entire paragraphs or even pages in my thirst for plot (which, incidentally, is also probably why I enjoy rereading so much: there is always something I missed the first time through). With this book I slowed down. I read and savored every word. And every word seemed worth savoring, each one carefully chosen, each sentence constructed like a work of art.
It’s mesmerizing: every time I dipped back into the book to try to find quotes to illustrate what I mean, I ended up just reading on from wherever I started. This is writing like an enchantment. You start to read and you are bespelled: you forget what you were doing and why. You want only to keep reading.
OK, but here’s one excerpt, and if this paragraph doesn’t interest you (and it might not; I don’t think Dermoût’s style is for everyone, and I can easily imagine that this excerpt will leave some people cold), you should probably skip the book, because it’s all like this:
And sometimes, very rarely, the old heathen lament (careful, don’t let the schoolteacher hear it) for one who has just died. “The hundred things” was the name of the lament–the hundred things of which the dead one is reminded, which are asked him, told him.
Not only the people in his life: this girl, this woman and that one, that child, your father, your mother, a brother or sister, the grandparents, a grandchild, a friend, a comrade-in-arms; or his possessions: your beautiful house, your china dishes hidden in the attic, the swift proa, your sharp knife, the little inlaid shield from long ago, the two silver rings on your right hand, on index finger and thumb, the tamed pigeon, but also: hear, how the wind blows!–how white-crested the waves come running from the high sea!–the fishes jump out of the water and play with each other–look how the shells gleam on the beach–remember the coral gardens under the water, and how they are colored–and the bay!–the bay!–please never forget the bay! And then they said: oh soul of so-and-so, and ended with a long-held melancholy ee-ee-ee? ee-ee-ee? over the water.
The Ten Thousand Things is a book about death, as much as it is about anything. It is also a text that is very interested in lists and collections (which is probably another reason it appealed to me: there are few things I like more than a well-composed list). It is a book comprised of startling and clear images: a woman made of coral, the ghosts of three little girls playing together in the sand, a baby sleeping in a basket under mosquito netting while silent visitors file by to look at him. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is, but here’s a brief summary: after a disastrous marriage, Felicia moves with her infant son back to the small Indonesian island where she was raised, and lives there with her grandmother. Eventually the grandmother dies, and then Felicia’s son dies, and the woman stays on the island and talks to ghosts. Also some other people, who are only tangentially related to that plot, are murdered, but this is less sensational than it sounds. Like the grandmother’s curiosity cabinet, where the sacred and magical mix with the profane and prosaic, every incident in the book is given equal weight. Nothing in life, Dermoût seems to say, is any more or less important than any other thing. Not even death.