Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout

Those who were musical still remembered the melodies of all songs, all dances; here they used still the small copper cymbals of Ceram, the "land at the other side"; there they blew on the Triton shells, which are shimmering orange inside; and once she had made a long trip to hear someone sing "the song of the dying fishes" as only a man could sing it.

The Ten Thousand Things is a magical novel. It takes place on a mythical island where the mystical and the mundane live side by side. The first place we visit is the Small Garden, not really small, and there we learn a bit of the island's mythology: of the leviathan that lives in the big shell on the beach, which Felicia, the novel's ostensible heroine, is afraid to touch as a child; of the three children's graves, whose occupants often play on the beach and can be seen as long as they don't know; of the house that burnt down with a family inside and can never be rebuilt; of snakes with glowing stones that can only be possessed in their iridescent state if they are given freely; of other things as well.

And the first section of the book lures you into thinking you know what kind of book this is going to be: something light, escapist, fantastical; but there are dark colors too. The blood when the big crabs eat the little ones; the murders and violence that won't quite stay in the past; the separations and estrangements that haunt the citizen of the island, Felicia most of all.

We meet her at birth, and the story moves quickly through her childhood with her grandmother, her departure to the mainland, and her return, newly single, with a baby, Himpies. But where we might expect the narrative to slow, it keeps moving, through Himpies' childhood, teenager-hood, young adulthood, through to (SPOILER) his eventual death by ambush as a soldier. In one of the novel's most sriking passages, his death is poetically--cryptically--presaged:

Suddenly there were three young turtles, all three the same size, their shields gleaming, almost pink, with a symmetrical pattern of dark brown and yellow and black stripes and spots; each with its four fins waving up nd down, young and yet with the same old man's bald head on a wrinkled neck, with little gleaming eyes under sleepy lids and a large yellow beak like a bird's.

They let themselves drop, their fins upright, as if they were drowning, rose again; they kept together, swan over and under each other, carefully, not touching, with a strangely thoughtful and yet casual gaze.

Then as unexpectedly as they had risen, they dropped down into the deep and did not reappear.

The language here is typically sensuous, lush, and minimal at once. Dermout's images are like pastel dreams, representative but not concrete, and what do they represent? Mostly death, it seems.

And then, at the apex of Felicia's grief, almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, we leave her to visit the other side of the island and, in a series of vignettes, learn about three more murders: a colonol killed by his wife and her handmaidens, a cook killed by her ex-lover and his death at the hands of her best friend (probably) and the death of a professor who's visiting the island to study wildflowers.

When I hit the second half, I was confused, but as the stories go on, there are the slightest of connections: the small garden appears, a tribe recurs, an author of tavelogues is referenced. And at the end of the professor's tale--perhaps it is better called the tale of his assistant Raden--we return to Felicia, and everything is tied together in a mystic circle that evokes fate, mystery, and the somber beauty of death, and the liminality of life that avoids tidy conclusions:

She pressed the tips of the fingers of one hand against her forehead just above the eyebrows--how many murderers there were! It made her dizzy, and at the same time she was astonished about something: while thinking of them she did not feel the anger, the disgust of always, but pity almost: not the large and burning pity that came for those who were murdered, but a small feeling of impatience, of sadness--oh why, why, you fools!--without the desire for revenge, without hatred now. As if they were not murderers but also among the murdered.

And then there were no more murderers and murdered. After all, it was one-and-the-other, as her son had wanted it.

And so it all comes around and the novel ends with an affirmation of the continuance and inevitablity of life, as Felicia is called by the islanders to end her annual night of mourning:

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.

No comments: