‘The Ten Thousand Things’ by Maria Dermoût

‘The remembrance of a human being, of something that happened, can remain in a place, tangible almost – perhaps there is someone left who knows of it and thinks about it sometimes’.

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, Pg.6

In preparation for my move to Indonesia (almost a year ago) I bought Maria Dermoût’s beautiful novel, The Ten Thousand Things when I was back in the UK for a short period of time. Although not Indonesian, Dermoût was born to Dutch parents in Java and spent a lot of her childhood and adult life living and travelling around the many islands that make up this fascinating country, in particular the Moluccas where her novel is set. You can sense in her writing – in the mesmerising depictions of the scenery – just how familiar Dermoût was with the awe-inspiring nature that abounds in Indonesia. From wild jungle to populous seascapes, nature is a force to be reckoned with and taken seriously in The Ten Thousand Things. Its presence in the novel highlights the omnipotence of nature as the characters lives depend so critically on its caprices – a fact that has been forgotten or not taken seriously enough in today’s modern society.

‘The Garden held her, slowly enveloped her, showed her things, whispered her its secrets…’

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, Pg.62

With the dramatic landscape of the Molucca Islands as its setting, The Ten Thousand Things is structured around the main geographical locations that the characters’ lives revolve around: the island itself, the Inner Bay, the Outer Bay, and, once again, the island. Weaved into this landscape is the quiet, yet powerful, tale of Felicia who returns to her birthplace in the Spice Islands with her baby son from Holland. Having grown up in the Molucca Islands, Felicia is sent to the Netherlands as a young girl to complete her education. Before she departs her grandmother gives her a silver bracelet with the strict instruction to return with it one day. Felicia stays true to her grandmother’s words, though only by leaving her husband with a baby in tow does she journey back to the islands of her childhood.

Full of sadness and loss, The Ten Thousand Things so beautifully and artfully reminds us of the wonder in natural, everyday things. Inspired by the Chinese philosopher Ts’en Shen, Dermoût took the title for her novel from a quotation by Aldous Huxley: ‘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 the power of her writing that she is able to uplift the reader with a sense of hope through her gorgeous, subtle prose. It felt as if every word Maria Dermoût wrote was carefully picked out of a love of the landscape and the characters she was describing. Never have I read a more perfectly created piece of work and the story will remain with me, vividly, for a long time to come.

‘Then the lady of the Small Garden whose name was Felicia stood up from her chair obediently and without looking around at the inner bay in the moonlight – it would remain there, always – she went with them, under the trees and indoors, to drink her cup of coffee and try again to go on living’.

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût, Pg.208


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