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A moving account of a childhood overwhelmed by history, The Song and the Truth is a profound meditation on how the paradox of memory–at once intransigent and elusive–shapes our lives.
The mornings approached, the dark dome of the sky first became translucent and then cracks appeared in it, to let the light through. Sometimes it was a slow process, sometimes it was so fast your eyes could not keep up.
If I was still outside, as it grew lighter and lighter around me, I would run back to my room and wait in bed for the day to come. As soon as it was fully light the gods, who had gone wandering in the night, returned. People in paintings and photos could roam around freely at night, but at the crack of dawn had to be back in their frames.
I tried hard to learn by heart all those names, of the gods and the people in our household.
There was a god, with no name, who was the god of Granny Helena. He had brought her here, because he watched over marriages and births.
My mother and my aunt had been born here, under the watchful and all-seeing eye of that one god. They were convinced that they belonged in the Dutch East Indies, because this god had so ordained.
But this god, in his lax popish way, had nevertheless allowed Granny Helena, their mother, to run off to England with an itinerant painter and stay there with him for good. Fortunately my mother and my aunt were cherished and brought up by Poppy, Granddad Bali's new wife; they had not been abandoned. Poppy had introduced them to other gods, who also did a good job, perhaps a better one than that one god with all his patron saints. From then on that one god was on an equal footing at home with the other gods, who were older and native to the country.
We regularly lit candles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, while we scattered flower petals around Buddha's feet. Mary was on the same table where he sat smiling, a little way off. The fat amber Buddha sat facing the door to ward off evil.
In the hall was the god Vishnu in all his splendor, seated between the wings of the long-legged bird Garuda, which in turn stood on a tortoise, the symbol of time.
Garuda was a gigantic man-bird. Apart from massive wings and a great plumed tail, he had a pair of human legs with bird's talons on them, and human arms and hands, in which he held Vishnu's feet. Garuda was Vishnu's steed: he carried the god everywhere.
I asked if we had been brought by Garuda too.
"No, there was no need, we were born here."
Garuda was the great bird of good fortune. He had a proud, cheerful face and pointed, razor-sharp teeth.
I would often climb onto a settee to reach him and, without anyone seeing, stick my little finger into his beak, to feel his massive, jagged teeth. Each time I tried to see how long I could keep it up, how long I dared. I was only satisfied when red teeth marks had appeared in my little finger.
Sometimes, before the sun had even risen and the morning was still white, my mother would get me out of bed.
She dressed me. I had to wear socks and shoes with buttons that I loathed and took off as soon as I had a chance, together with the socks. Things were not arranged fairly in the world: most people who I knew were allowed to walk around barefoot the whole time. Very occasionally they would wear light sandals, which they could kick off whenever they liked. Why did I have to put such tight things on?
"If Daddy sees you walking around barefoot, he'll be sad. Bare feet are very dangerous, it seems. You mustn't do it, it's dirty and dangerous."
The shoes, the socks, putting them on and walking around in them: a daily punishment, though I had done nothing wrong.
"Why is she allowed to and not me?" I asked, pointing, although my mother said I must not point, at Babu Susila who always forgot the shoes when she dressed me.
"Susi isn't allowed to either, but she forgets to put on her shoes, because she's got so much on her mind, much more than me," said Mummy. "I have nothing on my mind, I just have to dress you so beautifully that everyone will say: Look, there goes the prettiest girl in the world."
My mother wanted me to look like a doll. She fiddled around with me, trying to make me look like those dolls that I never played with. But it did not work with the clothes and even less with my hair.
However hard she tried, however many cuddles and pinches she gave me when she dressed me, I was never pretty enough for her. It made her lose heart. Finally she behaved almost roughly, as she tried in vain to get my hair into shape.
"It's like a feather duster, it's a disaster, a breeding ground for vermin, I'll have to buy a steel dog's comb, what's going to become of this? Who in heaven's name do you take after?" I heard her whisper.
"Will we have to cut it off? Will we have to cut it off, Mummy?"
I had heard them talking about this; children who had lice had to have all their hair cut off. I had once seen a child like that in its mother's arms, in the carrying sling or selendang. There were blue worms throbbing under the bare stubbly little scalp. I shuddered when I thought about it.
"We can try it. But will it help? It may get even worse."
I became as sad as she was. I would never come to any good.
"I give up. What a funny little creature you are, yes, you, my darling monster," she exclaimed in mock despair. She gave a short snorting laugh, a laugh she used when she teased me. It was better when my mother teased me than when she was angry with me. But I never knew exactly when she was teasing me and when she was serious.
"Do you know what the trouble with you is?" She stretched, but did not say what. (Hoping that it might miraculously come right, I allowed my hair to be washed as often as she wanted without protesting. And for her I would have kept my tight shoes on all day long, I think, as a token of my love. Everything that hurt me gave my mother pleasure, so why shouldn't I have gladly borne the pain in my feet?
Or are these memories false? And is it true what she says, "Child, I had to chase after you all day long with your shoes. I couldn't do a thing with you!"?)
Once I was dressed as well as I could be, we went to see my father off, as he drove away in the car with the chauffeur at the wheel. Because Daddy was away so much, at first I found it difficult to believe that he really lived with us and for a long time I even thought his bed was at the clinic and not at home.
He wasn't a day person, because he was not there during the day. He wasn't a night person, because he was often not there at night either. He came home or he left, and those were important moments. Waving him good-bye was a solemn event, during which my mother did not want me to cling to her or put my thumb in my mouth.
My hair had been brushed with much pain and effort and a large ribbon had even been put in it, but my father ran his hand through it and messed it up again. He ran his hand through my hair, lifted me up, kissed me on both cheeks, looked at me, and said in a serious voice, "Stay healthy, my child."
The clinic was in town at the bottom of the road down from the hills. My father made sick women better, but how he did this and why, I had no idea. Mummy said that we did not need to know. She also said that he often looked gloomy because not all of the women always got better; sometimes they died, and that made him sad.
When the car with my father in it had driven off, my mother and I kept waving until the last bit of it disappeared from view. We turned and walked slowly back home.
The house where my memories begin was in the garden of Dewi Kesuma, who had been a princess until she had been turned into a stream by the gods. The stream wound its way through our garden. Dewi Kesuma was crystal clear and charming, except in the rainy season, when she became swollen, and flooded.
Farther on stood the waringin tree, which had once been a prince. It was so large that it could be seen from a long way off. It was at the front of our grounds, near the entrance. It cast its shadow over our garden and part of the road, which led from the town to the hills. In the hills, amid the blue mists, lay the volcano Tankuban Prahu, an upturned rowing boat, under which a fire god slept.
If our house had been an animal, it would have been an elephant. With its head turned toward the road, the elephant lay waiting for I know not what. The two white pillars by our front door were its tusks. Above them were tall oblong windows, its dark, wide-open eyes that looked out at the world with curiosity.
Its bulging cheeks were the outbuildings and its fat rump facing the mountains housed the storerooms and kitchens. Here, in these rooms where it was darker than in the rest of the house during the day, there was activity day and night. We did not see much of it, but smelled and heard all the more. The splashing of water and the spitting of fires, the hissing and steaming of dishes and infusions. Above all, the smells of spices being heated. Here people were chopping, cutting, kneading, and cooking. Here everything was first dragged in, then laid out, inspected, and finally prepared for us. My dog rooted about between the rotting piles of rubbish, which were packed together under banana leaves. He was called Teddy-Bali, because I had been given him by Grandpa Bali.
The dog had another name: we often called the dog "Here boy . . . kebon!" Teddy Kebon . . . "Here boy, Teddy . . . kebon," because the dog and the kebon, the gardener's boy, were never far away from each other. When we called they both came running up.
Posted May 17, 2004
Reviewed by Randy Farnsworth, author of 'A Stand Yet Taken'. As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself absolutely intrigued by the story. Seeing the magical world of early-twentieth century Indonesia from the eyes of a five year old was truly enjoyable. Ruebsamen has a way of writing that puts the reader directly into the mind of the narrator, and I honestly felt little Louise¿s excitements and disappointments. It was a real let-down to leave Indonesia with Louise and her family and make the journey to Europe. The middle part of the book, including the ocean voyage and the stay in Paris, was much slower, and I found it less interesting. Perhaps Ruebsamen intended that, because Louise disliked that as well. But in the latter third of the book, the pace increased somewhat and I found myself much more interested in the outcome. As Louise mixes real events with imaginary ones, it becomes a little confusing, and I had to re-read several sections to figure out, for example, if someone had really died or did they survive after all. Again, it may be that the author intended this, because the child narrator has reinvented her vision of reality to alter certain horrific events. I don¿t know what the author¿s intent was in writing this book, and I¿m not one to try and put a meaning to everything an author produces. However, after reading this, I found myself sitting and watching my young children, trying to understand their view of the world and relate that to my own perceptions. With that, I¿d say that Ruebsamen definitely succeeded in causing this reader to stop and think about life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 8, 2001
The review that I read said that the first part of this book, set in Java ,is magical but when the setting moves to Europe it becomes ordinary. I disagree. I ordered this book because of the first, exotic, setting, but I found that when it moved to Europe I became even more ingrossed. Description is important to me and it seemed that she lavished more of it on the European section, perhaps because this is an autobiographical novel and she remembers the more recent settings more clearly. I will never forget the last chapters, set in the wetlands of Holland. This is the odyssey of a Jewish family escaping from the Nazis.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.