When the ten thousand things have been
seen in their unity, we return to the beginning
and remain where we have always been.
On an unnamed island in the Moluccas, at a not-quite determined time, a woman of a certain age communes with the dead.
She is Felicia, a woman of Dutch heritage born in the Spice Islands, who returned (perhaps an odd choice of words as she had never lived there) to the Netherlands for schooling, and returned home with her baby son after her marriage collapsed. Now she is alone in a slightly fading house, her grandmother dead, her son killed by a headhunter's arrow, alone except for a few servants who call her "The Lady of the Small Garden."
Ordinarily I wouldn't give away the plot of a novel, but at of this is revealed in the first few pages of the book. Indeed, it can scarcely be said that "The Ten Thousand Things" really has a plot. This is the sort of book that Emily Dickinson would have written if she had turned to prose, and Maria Dermout is no more concerned about the grinding gears of getting characters from Point A to Point B than I suspect the White Lady of Amherst would have been. (Felicia, too spends a great deal of time trailing around in flowing pale gowns, and becomes more and more reclusive as the years passed; a mere literary coincidence, I suppose.) Yet it is more than the habits that Maria Dermout has chosen to endow her heroine that kept making me think of the American poet; Ms Dermout's her style is very much the same--full of odd dashes, and exclamation marks denoting little outbreaks of suppressed emotion; indeed this entire slim novel feels compressed, or rather distilled, like a prose poem. Similar, too, is Dermout's preoccupation with death and longing. Everything is gone, vanished--only the ghosts remain--of her son, of three little poisoned girls, of a drowned fisherman.
Very different, however, from Dickinson, whose images are often abstract, is Dermout's preoccupation with the concrete. The sensual details really come alive--the sea snails on the branches, like "porcelain fruit", the little brown sea horses hanging perpendicularly in the water, "staring earnestly at each other." Objects, especially, have a power and significance bordering on the supernatural. They are often talismans: a snake bracelet for warding off poison must be guarded by living shells which rustle around the paper box; a white stone placed carefully in a drawer gives birth to another stone during the night. They take the place of characters as Felicia continues to push people away.
Actually, I've only described the first part of the novel. There are two more sections, which at first seem to have nothing to do with Felicia's story, one being an account of the (unnamed ) renters of Felicia's home in town after she withdraws from society, and the second of a Javanese prince and his travels with a Scottish professor new to the islands. There are a few more expositionary fragments, with all the sections linked together by murder, which sounds far more sensationalistic than it reads on the page. It's more a meditation on death and loss.
After reading this book, I wondered a bit about the personality of the author. Is Felicia a stand-in-for the writer? So many of the facts of their lives run parallel. If so, unlike with Keri Hulme and her Mary-Sue doppelganger, she does not spare her fictional counterpart. FeliciIt' is tough, with a hard voice and a cool manner--and so remote that even her only child calls her "Mrs. Small Garden." It's a pretty merciless vivisection.
Hans Koning's translation is excellent--the author's style is so unique that it cannot be mistaken for anyone else's--he hasn't smoothed away any of the idiosyncrasies of the novel. He also called it one of the saddest book he has ever read, and that when he was finished, tears were streaming down his face. No doubt this is a forlorn book, but I finished with more of a chill admiration for the author and her craft than anything else. I can see why many people deem this a masterpiece, but I am middle-brow enough to need an engaging plot or characters that I care about; and Maria Dermout, like her heroine, willfully withholds the requirements I need to really love a book. I can recommend "The Ten Thousand Things" as a portrait of a vanished time and the literary vision of an uncompromising artist.
Three and a Half Stars