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― Alberto Manguel


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The Ten Thousand Things - Maria Dermoût, Hans Koning Chances are you haven’t heard of Maria Dermoût before, especially if you don’t read Dutch. She left behind a small body of work -- two novels, both published when she was in her 60s, and five short story collections. It appears that throughout most of her life, writing was something she engaged in for herself, perhaps a way to maintain a sense of stability in a life full of motion. It is fortunate for us that she finally published her work, as her writing is atmospheric, mysterious, balanced precariously between the class- and race-conscious world of Dutch colonialists, and the spiritual and traditional world of the indigenous Indonesians. As Hans Koning writes in the introduction to the NYRB edition of his English translation of the novel, "Dermoût was sui generis, a case all her own. She did not write about her Indies as a Dutch woman, or as a Javanese or an Ambonese. Hers was a near-compassionate disdain for the dividing lines, the hatreds and the fears ... She painted landscapes, still lifes and people in a world of myth and mystery." (viii-ix) Her novel The Ten Thousand Things, generally considered to be her masterpiece, is a work of memory and loss, of a world of haunted ruins, secret rituals, lapping water, and mist-shrouded forests.

Maria Dermoût (1888-1962)

Born in 1888 on a sugar plantation on Java, Dutch East Indies, Dermoût was educated in Holland, but she returned to Java afterwards and married a jurist. Her travels with her husband led her throughout Indonesia, where she lived in Java, Celebes, and the Moluccas, moving between the colonial world of plantations and towns and the indigenous communities in more remote villages. She later returned to Holland, but she appears to have carried the ghosts of Indonesia with her.

The Molucca Islands, Indonesia

The Ten Thousand Things has a simple structure. The first section, “The Island,” provides a brief but sensuous description of the Moluccan island that is the site for the story. We are immediately introduced to a sense of the distance between the present and a past when the islands were dotted with spice gardens, when grand plantation houses stood proudly. Now all that remain are ruins, collapsed walls, overgrown gardens, and traces of the past: “The remembrance of a human being, of something that happened, can remain in a place, tangible almost--perhaps there is someone left who knows about it and thinks about it sometimes.” Dermoût immediately moves to more specific ghostly images:

Did two lovers once hold each other here and whisper -- forever -- or did they let each other go between the little nutmeg trees and say -- goodbye?
Did a child play with her doll on the window sill?
Who was standing on the beach then, staring over the three little waves of the surf? and over the bay? at what?
A silence like an answer, a silence of both resignation and expectation, a past and not past.
There was not much else left.
Two of the gardens were haunted.
In a little garden at the outer bay, close to the town, a drowned man walked, but that was of not so long ago, of now, so to speak. And in another garden at the inner bay there were, from far time, three little girls.

The Molucca Islands, Indonesia

As she continues through the rest of this section, Dermoût leads the reader on a virtual tour of the island. The graves of the three girls remain a landmark, but she devotes equal attention to the landscape that surrounds them:

A small straight lane--going nowhere--of cassowarinas, high firs with long drooping needles, as smooth and straight as the feathers of a cassowary, stirred by every breeze from the inner bay -- rustling, lisping, as if they were standing there whispering together. The singing trees they were called.
A water-clear brook ran through the wood, higher up part of it was led through a hollow tree trunk to a stone reservoir marked by a sculptured lion’s head with a mossy green mane. From the gaping mouth several spouts of water arched across each other, down into a dug-out stone cistern: a large yet shallow cistern with a wide edge of masonry to sit upon.
All this was in the shade: the cistern, the reservoir with its sculpture, the tree trunks, the ground, all was moist, thickly covered by moss or molded with black and dark-green spots--only the surface of the water held the light in its clarity, in the transparent ripples which swept across it.

Spice garden, Bali, Indonesia

Throughout the novel, Dermoût excels at this kind of description. She drew me into the shadowy, mossy forests, the blue, clear water of the bay with proas gliding across them, ferrying people from one side of the bay to the other. Her skills at description are not limited to scenery. She also conveys the lives of the islanders from a past when they followed traditions marking life and death. One of these rituals introduces us to the meaning behind the novel’s title:

Someone sang a love song in the moonlight: “the evening is too long, beloved, and the road too far”-- others clapped their hands with it--a single bamboo flute, languishing.
A lullaby for a child, or a story sung to it, battle songs of the wild Alfuras, head-hunters of Ceram. 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 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 novel itself is one prolonged song for the dead, one which connects lost loved ones to the landscape, the houses, the people, the treasures, the laments and songs of celebration that make up a life. Dermoût identifies power in trees and water, in shells and jewels, in zealously-guarded family recipes for powerful potions, used for good or for evil. In many ways, the novel also traces the deterioration of belief in these traditional means of balancing the power of the universe with the dreams and fears of humans, as islanders became more distant from these old ways under the influence of the colonial West. Dermoût does not write any explicit attacks or defences of the old ways, but she does write of them with respect, while also conveying a growing sense of skepticism on the part of some characters.


The novel next is divided into two longer sections, “At the Inner Bay” and “At the Outer Bay.” In each section, Dermoût delves deeper into the history of the ghosts she introduces in the first section. She remains focused on the family and experiences of a character she introduces in the first section, the lady of the Small Garden, who has lost all her family, and remains alone with her ghosts. Particularly in the second section, “At the Inner Bay,” Dermoût describes the childhood of the lady of the Small Garden, Felicia, and her experiences living with her grandmother as a child and later as an abandoned mother. Throughout this section, we are introduced to Felicia’s family, the Indonesian servants who serve as an extended family, and the myths and legends they all live with and by. Throughout, Dermoût maintains a focus on the power of things, particularly as she describes the antique cabinet full of treasures that her grandmother assembled and watched over, a tradition she passes on to Felicia.

English postcard showing an Indonesian sugar plantation, c. 1900

Throughout the rest of the novel, Dermoût weaves the stories of the dead, the legends of the island, and the personal history of Felicia and her family into a tapestry of memory, love, and loss. Vestiges of the past surround those who stop, listen carefully, and remain open to their echoes. She concludes the novel with a fourth section, again titled “The Island,” which provides a memorable conclusion to Felicia’s story, as well as to the other stories we have read.

With her two children, Ettie and Hans, in 1912

Dermoût knew loss intimately. Her son Hans died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. She does not write directly of her loss in this novel, but she uses her personal understanding of her grief for the loss of her son to create a moving picture of a mother's mourning. She tries to assuage loss and grief by recounting some of the ten thousand things that made up life on the islands she knew so well. Perhaps by writing this beautiful, strange, mysterious novel, she found some peace for herself.

Maria Dermoût in her living room in Noordwijk in 1958


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