Friday, March 8, 2013

Dutch Tao

The Ten Thousand Things

by Maria Dermoût

“When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”  It is with this epigraph from the great Tang dynasty poet, Ts’en Shen (618–907), that the Java-born Dutch writer, Maria Dermoût, sets the tone for her uncanny, ethereal novel The Ten Thousand Things.  Set, near the dawn of the last century, on one of the Spice Islands in the  Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the story—at points but a gossamer tangle of threads—follows the life of a woman named Felicia who, after a long absence, has returned to the East Indies from Holland with her son, to the house and garden where she was born and raised.  There, with affection, with patience, she teaches him about ‘the ten thousand things’. It is near the tail-end of this darkest chapter of Dutch imperial history, that Dermoût begins this gentle, truly wondrous tale—a paean, a plainsong, to the Spice Islands she loved, to its people, animals, and plants, and to the spirits that haunt that lush and tortured land. Hers is a world steeped in myth and mystery, an experience at once intangible, elusive, and deeply, resoundingly clear.  Of the novel, Dutch author Oek de Jonge writes: “It possesses something that wards off hordes of readers, yet still manages to attract a handful, who then embrace it and spread the word of its exquisite nature. The shell seekers among the readers, the slow walkers, those who stop and turn and bend over to pick up that one beautiful shell—they recognize her extraordinary work.”

Maria Dermoût (Helena Anthonia Maria Elisabeth Dermoût-Ingerman) Dutch novelist and short-story writer known for her subtle and evocative portraits of colonial life in the Dutch East Indies was born June 15, 1888 in Pekalongan, Java, Dutch East Indies and died June 27, 1962 in Noordwijk, Netherlands.  Dermoût, who was the descendant of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, spent her childhood on a sugar plantation in central Java. She attended school in the Netherlands but returned to the islands as a young wife and remained there most of her life.

Her work was not published until she was in her 60s. Her first two novels, Nog pas gisteren (1951; Yesterday) and De tienduizend dingen (1955; The Ten Thousand Things), are fictionalized accounts of her youth. Although written in an economic style, the two novels are rich in details of island life as experienced by both the colonials and the native people. Among Dermoût’s other books are three volumes of short stories: De juwelen haarkam (1956; “The Jeweled Haircomb”), De sirenen (1963; “The Sirens”), and De kist; en enige verhalen (1958; “The Wooden Box: A Unique Account”), as well as a book of sketches, Spel van Tifagongs (1954; “Tifagong’s Play”). Her work is critically acclaimed not only for its clarity but for its sensitive account of colonialism coexisting with a lush, primitive beauty and power.* The Ten thousand Things is published by New York Review of Books Classics.

*Encyclopedia Britannica

Peter Adam Nash

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