Set against the backdrop of the Dutch East Indies and Nazi-occupied Holland, this luminous novel delivers epic themes filtered through the rich imagination of a young girl. Living with her parents on the island of Java in the late 1930s, five-year-old Lulu moves in a magical world of daydreams and island myths. But when one day Lulu innocently describes a scene she stumbled across late one night, the repercussions are felt for many years and across two continents. Called from the sumptuous tropics back to The Hague, with stops in Marseilles, Paris, and London along the way, Lulu’s family is soon forced into hiding as the war approaches.
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.
About the Author
Helga Ruebsamen was born in 1934 in Jakarta, Indonesia, and spent her early childhood on Java. In 1939 her family traveled to Europe, and they stayed in Holland throughout the war. She worked as a journalist for Het Vaderland, a newspaper in The Hague, before becoming a freelance writer. She is the author of five collections of short stories and two previous novels. The Song and the Truth is her first work to be published in English.
Read an Excerpt
Every day, as soon as the sun went down, tiny lizards climbed up the walls of our veranda.
"Look, the tjitjaks are here."
The night people lit the lamps, in the rooms and on the veranda. The ladies who'd come to tea took their leave and went home. The day was over, and night was beginning.
My mother accompanied her guests as far as the waringin tree and waved to the visitors and their children as they left. I stood on the veranda listening to the sounds coming from the Lembang road. I could hear the cars driving uphill, up the mountain, where the sun was already asleep in the volcano. Or hear them driving downhill, to Bandung, the town where the zoo was and my father's clinic. There were often parties in town, and the cars drove faster then.
My mother came back; I could hear her singing before I saw her. She didn't hurry, she sauntered along, stopping now and then, so that the bright spot she formed in the darkness grew larger only very slowly. When it reached the point where I could make out more than the color of her dress, I could also see her platinum blond curls and even her bright eyes. By then she was so close that she could touch me.
"Well, we've got the veranda to ourselves again," said Mummy. She stretched out on the settee and beckoned to me. "All those visitors," she sighed, "and never anyone you can talk to."
The tjitjaks had found their places. On the ceiling they had frozen into wooden ornaments, but they pounced like greased lightning on any insects that strayed close to them.
The lamps burned in the rooms and on the veranda, so that night could not descend on us.
The night abolished the distinction between inside and outside. At night it was cool and dark everywhere. Everything was safe--people, animals, and plants--beneath a dark dome as large as the world.
When the sky, the earth, and the water had attained the same dark hue, the toké arrived. I waited for the toké every night. He was the big brother of the tjitjaks. I did not need to go to bed before the first toké had called.
By that time all the other nocturnal creatures were there: flying foxes, crickets, bullfrogs. Their noisy concert was in full swing.
The toké rarely showed itself, but every so often it called out its own name loudly, so that we and other tokés knew where it was. The more often the toké called, the more luck it brought. Everyone could hear it, including us. The moment the toké started up, we would stop talking. We counted under our breath. One . . . two . . . three--it went on for ages.
Would there be another call? Yes, one more. Quickly on: four . . . five . . . six . . . seven. Then it became more and more exciting, because once it got to nine, the luck would really start flowing. If the toké called twelve times, we would have long life, many brave sons, an enchanting daughter, and a vast fortune.
Later my mother told me that the night before we left for Europe, the toké had called thirteen times.
When the toké had called a few times, when scarcely anyone else was talking on the veranda, I was taken to my room.
At night a new life began for me. Once the sun had set, I no longer needed to remember what had happened during the day; the night erased the hard white things just as the sponge on my mother's blackboard erased her chalk letters.
At night I could say and do what I liked. I needed only to see it in my head and it happened. If I wanted to get up and go outside to see the moon, I was immediately lifted out of bed and taken out in someone's arms. The night people petted me, laughed the whole time, and asked nothing.
I was given as much pink syrup as I liked by the night people, and soft green sticky cake to go with it. I was allowed to touch everything. I was allowed to watch everything.
Whenever I said anything they cooed cheerfully or clicked their tongues admiringly. They never asked me anything, but they always answered me. We chattered away, the night people and me, whether or not we understood each other's every word.
Night people had the names of the work they did during the day: Babu the nursemaid, Kokki the cook, Djahit the seamstress, Djongos the houseboy, Kebon the gardener's boy. They had other names as well, which had a singsong sound; I knew those too.
I never had to say them out loud. All I had to do was think them, and the night people came. During the day everything was different.
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.