Friday Reads: The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût

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Every Friday I will be recommending a work of fiction or non-fiction written by a woman who has influenced and shaped my intersectional feminist perspective, with special emphasis on women of colour, women in translation, LGBTQIA women and women of different religions.

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The Ten Thousand Things

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

In honour of Women In Translation Month, for the rest of August I am going to dedicate my Friday Reads posts to women I have read in translation. First up is the beautifully eery, yet stunning, novel by Dutch writer Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things. Set in the remote islands of the Moluccas, Dermoût captures the overwhelming beauty and volatility in the natural landscape that is so much a part of Indonesia.

Before I moved to Indonesia in 2016 I bought a copy of The Ten Thousand Things as I struggled to find any books written by native Indonesians in English translation. During my year and a half there I managed to find and read a number of translated works but each translation I read was frustratingly bad; so much so, that it ruined the overall reading experience for me, no matter how much I enjoyed the plot. Luckily that was not the case with The Ten Thousand Things. Sometimes a translation can be so good that it’s easy to forget the original wasn’t written in English. 

Although not Indonesian, Maria 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 (or the Maluku Islands). 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.

Full of sadness and loss, The Ten Thousand Things so beautifully and artfully reminds us of the wonder in natural, everyday things. Dermoût took the title for her novel from a quotation by Aldous Huxley, inspired by the Chinese philosopher Ts’en Shen: ‘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 crafted 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.

Maria Dermout

Maria Dermoût was a Dutch novelist born in Central Java, Indonesia (previously known as the Dutch East Indies). Returning to Indonesia after her studies, she travelled extensively across Java and the Maluku Islands (the original ‘Spice Islands’) with her husband before retiring back in Holland. Although writing from a young age, she remained largely unpublished until her sixties. Her most famous novel, The Ten Thousand Things, has been translated into eleven different languages.

I took some of this post from the review I wrote of ‘The Ten Thousand Things’ on my old blog, Yasmine Rose Reads Books, though some of it has been changed and modified slightly.

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