FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALIA
Translated from the Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein
A bored 20-something English teacher in Jakarta, a “city of thwarted suicidal urges“, longs for adventure far away. Unexpectedly, she summons a demon (her “lusty Lucifer“), has wild sex with him, and subsequently enters into a sort of Faustian pact, which allows her to travel throughout the world … though at what price?
Bequeathed a pair of Wizard of Oz style red shoes (the Demon Lover informs her that “Their owner is a witch, but she is long dead … I warn you, these shoes are cursed“), our heroine is mysteriously transported to New York. Referred throughout as “you”, she finds herself in a cab, on the way to the airport, with a ticket for Berlin.
What follows is reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book from the 1980s. An intelligent, adult take on a genre for which I held much childhood affection was a tantalising prospect.
However, the story that I found myself embarking on was frustratingly incoherent. Perhaps the book itself is supposed to be a meditation on the limits and powers of narrative. But perhaps it was also let down by the translation, and in parts it was definitely badly edited.
I tried two permutations of the story: in the first, “I” remained in New York, feeling cut off and strangely marooned, before engaging in misguided experiments with a mystical mirror, an event that rapidly ended in a surreal and opaque fairy tale ending.
In the second version, I travelled to Berlin via New York, and then headed on to Amsterdam, after an encounter with a mysterious, snow-globe toting old man, where I found myself sharing an apartment with a complicated prostitute.
I found the conceptual nature of the book the most difficult to engage with. Some reviewers have suggested that its mythical and magical elements serve to demonstrate that however free we may think we are in our wanderings (if we are lucky enough to secure that elusive visa or green card, or to have the nationality, uncontroversial name and language skills that facilitate unfettered movement around the globe), there are ultimately only a finite number of stories to be played out in the world.
Perhaps the book is an extended riff on the lengths people will go to to leave unsatisfactory lives behind and travel to the West, and the uncertain outcomes of such a determination: after all, to cite the Wizard of Oz, a story that is repeatedly revisited throughout this labyrinthine novel: “There’s no place like home“.
There are hints throughout of multiple simultaneous realities, which might partly explain my confusion on my first reading. In this case the book may benefit from multiple readings, to follow all the various possible threads.
In the Amsterdam iteration, for example, I read that “If a city can have a twin, maybe you and your red shoes do too. What kind of life might your red shoes be having in New York?” However, because multiple story strands at times use the same interlinking narratives, the coherence of the story, already looping and meandering, broke down at times.
I’d been very eager to read this book (published in Indonesian in 2017, and in English by the Harvill Secker imprint of PRH in 2020) but, overall, I felt that its intriguing premise didn’t live up to my expectations.