The Ten Thousand Things

by JDP

This ephemeral, atmospheric novel melds the occult with the objective, the vivacious with the virulent; in the end, however, Dermoût reminds us that all of these dichotomies dissolve into an ultimate commonality: the human.

Maria Dermoût / Dutch-Indonesian / 1955 / 208 pages
Translated from the Dutch by Hans Koning

There are very many colonial novels, some more innocuous than others. Though occasionally sinister under the cover, books such as A Passage to India, for example, or A House for Mr. Biswas manage to maintain at least a cordial veneer. Others are much darker in content, like The Heart of the Matter (which culminates in murder and suicide) or A Bend in the River (which dwells on the political violence inherent in many post-colonial transitions). And, of course, there is always the great purveyor of the darker side of British colonialism — Joseph Conrad — as well as his African foils Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembene. These colonial narratives are rife with tension, with occupiers versus occupied, and with us versus them mentalities. The two groups either mix poorly like oil and water or force themselves to assimilate, often with dire consequences. To some extent, the implicit contest is one about the locus of the human soul: is it in the educated Westerner with his science and his machines or in the naturalistic native with his collectivism and connection to the cosmos?

The stakes are thankfully not nearly so high in The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, a Dutch-Indonesian colonial author whose book — were it not for the NYRB classics imprint — would almost certainly not be in wide circulation in the English-speaking world. The tensions here are more localized, less cosmic, and pertain to the common lot of mankind. How do I deal with my older (and superstitious)  relative? How do I cope with the death of my friend or of my son? These questions play themselves out against a colonial backdrop, yes, but Dermoût’s story is not racially or religiously driven.

To a large extent, the novel is instead predicated on the geography of a slightly fictionalized Dutch island in Indonesia. Dermoût goes through elaborate efforts to distinguish the “outer bay” from the “inner bay” from the island’s interior and there is something of a hardcore partition between the cast and plots that transpire in each of these areas. It also allows her the opportunity to develop in great detail the flora and fauna of each of these areas; indeed, part of the fun of reading the book is experiencing Dermoût’s substantial botanical and zoological chops. We are walked through the names and descriptions of different shells, many species of fish, and countless types of flowering plants. We see the cloud formations in the sky, hear the wind whipping through tropical-leaved trees, and feel the gentle yet persistent ebb of the tide. All of this contributes to an atmospheric work on par with The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: whereas with Mann you can’t help but feel the crisp, cool air of the Alps, with Dermoût, there’s no way of dodging the preponderance of grand vistas populated by skittering organisms (both human and otherwise).

With all the beauty evidenced in the first dozen pages, one must guard against being lulled into a false sense of security. For this is a melancholic and subtly violent novel. We are not so terribly deep into the novel before we’re told that the “ten thousand things” of the title refer to a listing of one’s important possessions and experiences at the time of death. Over the course of the novel, several people will be murdered (all of them “off screen” so to speak) and the narration turns toward their surviving relatives to explore how they cope with the loss. These examinations are often heartbreaking. In the introduction to the volume, Hans Koning mentioned that when he first read the novel, he openly wept. At the risk of labeling Koning a bit of a sap, I should say that I don’t think most readers will react quite so strongly; even still, it is an emotionally arresting novel.

There is also something of the occult here. Due to the fact that the novel is about family life and, to that end, spends a lot of time discussing lineages and ancestors, I am reminded of the magical realist works of García Márquez (who also substantively dealt with “the family” rather often). But Dermoût is undertaking something a bit different; the ghosts of yore seem less magical, but more real. They are somehow intertwined with the very empirical, organic fabric of the island itself and fleeting glimpses of them populate most of the novel’s pages. There are elements of Christianity, Islam, and naturalistic agnosticism at work in this Indonesian society and they combine into a hyper-spiritualistic understanding of life, death, and their interaction. The murders, then, do violence not only to the empirical body, but also to the metaphysical threads that unite all the inhabitants of the island; unnatural, untimely death blots out the otherwise peaceful landscape.

Several reviewers have argued that The Ten Thousand Things is a work of idiosyncratic genius. I unequivocally agree with the first word, but find the veracity of the second difficult to appraise. By virtue of being idiosyncratic (a similar word I might employ is scattershot), Dermoût’s novel shoots most of my metrics to hell. It is beautiful to behold, quirky and unique. It is also a pleasant read in the sense that I like her characters quite a lot and I find myself (hypothetically, of course) responding in like ways to the situations with which they are confronted. But the novel jerks around a bit unexpectedly at times, most notably halfway through where Dermoût forsakes a sustained narrative arch she’s been developing for over 100 pages and launches into a fractured series of anecdotes for the next 100 before returning to the previous narrative in the concluding 8 pages. It is fairly difficult to wrestle with this additional material (especially because the main plot line is just so good) and it seems to cast some aspersions on earlier themes while at the same time intensifying other (comparatively minor) thematic elements. If you can safely navigate the bait-and-switch, it’s well worth gently coasting toward Demoût’s finish.

And, indeed, the end is delicate, measured, and sad. It is an altogether less explosive resolution than many novels dedicated to this subject matter and one is left with the conclusion that Dermoût was perhaps a more nuanced and intricate thinker on these points than many of her contemporaries. At any rate, this is a novel that should be read by more people and I’m thrilled that the NYRB classics imprint has done us such a service in returning it to a high quality and widely accessible format.

Rating: 6 / 10

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