Free as Demon-magic

Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering

Harvill Secker, 448pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781787301177

reviewed by Jessica Lee

In COVID-19 times when space is shrunken, place more grimly partitioned, and mobility throttled, a novel about ‘the highs and lows of global nomadism’ like The Wandering gets an unintended inflation in its surreality quotient. Casual border-crossing is now inherently aberrant, anachronistic even, a practice that will come attendant with curtailment and constraint even as lockdown lifts. Intan Paramaditha’s tongue-in-cheek, magical-realist handling of border-crossing – as a thing only made possible via the voodoo of a literal demon – accrues, under the heavy warp of 2020’s coronavirus context, an extra-uncanny resonance. The Wandering (published in its original Indonesian in 2017 as Gentayangan) offers its reader a hyper-mobile participation in its story; its form is that of a choose-your-own-adventure challenge. Wooed with glitzy red footwear à la Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz by a scaly-skinned Demon Lover, you now possess the biopolitical autonomy of the very privileged: your body evades the flex of state biopower; you’re unregulated. ‘You’ may choose, by the flip of a page, to end up in New York, Berlin, Amsterdam or Zagreb. Passports aren’t a problem; neither is race, gender, religion, or money. No nation-states are calcified against you; all borders are permeable to a traveller fuelled by demon magic.

We begin in Jakarta, Indonesia, with ‘you’ a woman festering desperately on the cusp of 28, craving momentum, but caught in the grip of a deep-seated monotony that you don’t see a means of breaking. To you, inertia, stasis, a deficiency of dynamism, are negative states attached to particular places: mainly, Indonesia and its close neighbours, Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia. The far-off countries of the Global North, on the other hand, are glamorous, filled with velocity, and as such, you think that ‘everyone needs a map and a departure point, even if we become traitors to our roots’. Clearly, your wanderlust feeds off of an internalised neo-colonialism, a cultural cringe baked into the mix along with other, more gendered frustrations – that to stay close to home, to shelter in domestic torpor, remains the feminine ideal. Gentayangan, the state of un-fixity and of drifting, of moving here and there impulsively in a denial of rootedness, is, according to you, a state reserved for men, white people, ghosts, and disobedient women. Your bad-girl status is cemented in the prologue. You react to the apparition of a demon in your bedroom by using sex to ensnare him; thus enslaved, he gifts you with the magical tool that’ll break you out of your tedium: red shoes, of the glittering, teletransporter kind.

From then on, Paramaditha’s choose-your-own-adventure paradigm really kicks in, and the first choice you’re faced with appears momentous: New York or Berlin? As each path funnels you along toward its next fork-in-the-road, you’ll also encounter an interspersal of fairytale, of reworked mythology – the feminist-fabulist kind, that appeared in Paramaditha’s first collection of short stories published with Penguin in 2018, Apple & Knife. Snow White, for example, that traditional apogee of feminine passivity – so passive that sex with her is necrophilia-adjacent – morphs in Paramaditha’s telling into Snow Red, abductress, chieftain of an army of demons, owner of Cerberus, three-headed dog. Drawing from the archive of succubi, The Wandering also presents us with the biblical Whore of Babylon, incarnate as the Great Whore of Amsterdam, a high-class madam creaming pure profit off her sex work by operating outside of the Red Light District’s legal strictures. These denizens of Western mythology rub shoulders with figures of Indonesian legend such as Malin Kundang, the sailor cursed for loving the sea more than his mother, science-fiction aliens from galaxies far far away, and rat kings from villages in Cibeurit. It’s a blended cast carefully curated for each actor’s relevance to the age-old concern of which bodies, in the global morass of bodies, are agential bodies – which have freedom, mobility, and which have not.

Apple & Knife earned comparisons to Angela Carter, doyenne of the feminist magical realism genre. Said comparisons aren’t unfounded; Paramaditha is, like Carter, expressly committed to the intersection of the feminist and the fantastic – she values the disruptive potential of both modes to ‘question and disturb reality’, and calls the world of Apple & Knife her ‘feminist horror universe’. Yet Carter and Paramaditha are totally apposite stylists. Carter’s is a plush, ornate voice to which Salman Rushdie once attributed ‘smoky, opium-eater's cadences’, while Paramaditha’s register is uncomplicated and expository rather than lyrical – she serves us plain, narrative prose, occasionally with a side of snark. Reviewing The Wandering in the Guardian, Lauren Elkin took umbrage at how the language doesn’t exactly take flight, attributing this to the ‘pedestrian’ quality of Stephen Epstein’s translation. This is a curious interpretation: both author and translator make a point to emphasise the collaborative nature of their relationship, and Paramaditha writes in English, too, albeit for her academic publications (she holds a PhD in film studies from NYU), so possesses an Anglophone sensibility of her own that Epstein in fact points out, in his translator’s acknowledgements. The Wandering’s colloquial tone should be interpreted as intentional, a technical aspect of its meaning, consciously filtered and finessed on the part of both Paramaditha and Epstein. This doesn’t mean it can’t be critiqued; it just means the critique shouldn’t be pinned on the translation, or else run the risk of sideways-stepping away from truly appraising the text on its chosen turf.

The Wandering isn’t mellifluous or imagistic; it doesn’t sing on the level of the sentence, unlike, for example, English translations of Paramaditha’s contemporary Nukila Amal, or those of Indonesian literary-feminist foremother Ayu Utami. This doesn’t detract, however, from The Wandering’s structural dimensions – it's here that Paramaditha has the most to say, and here where she has the most ludic fun. Joining the high-octane ranks of the likes of Olga Tokarczuk and David Szalay, who’ve done much to re-metabolise literary forms grappling with globalised travel. Paramaditha’s choose-your-own-adventure format tackles the same condition of liquid modernity, but with a user-friendly playfulness that’s all her own. You’re as free as demon-magic, master of your own diegesis, given, at regular intervals, the opportunity to re-consider your storyline: do you feel like this, or like that? This is a crossroads: it’s time to re-orient; over to you, now. Yet any choice you make is always willed but blind; you’ve no idea what’ll unspool from it, or how it’ll interact with government technologies like time-sensitive work visas, the US Department of Homeland Security, and Trumpian border controls. Material systems still heavily coerce your reality. Self-determination exists only in a fleeting, facetious way, in the brief air pockets wherein you’re explicitly bidden: this is your moment of choice (but really?).

The self-plotted trajectory of your adventure ends in a suite of possible outcomes. These include but are not limited to: the heteronormative, the queer, the homicidal, the pure absurdist/surreal, and the false-bottomed – in which you’re sent spinning back to the very beginning, to ‘go the same way and fall in the same holes, [in] a constant déjà vu’. Some endings don’t slake the desire for closure, which is fine, for you’ve the prerogative to riffle through the book’s end-parts and select the one you feel most befitting, and if you riffle you can observe the alchemy of choice + material constraint that produces the differential in their desirability. I riffled, and realised: by far the best ending on offer is a hallucinogenic scenario involving a phantom train rushing through the abyss, filled with cocktails and jazz, helmed by Gertrude Stein, with a red-heeled Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston down the corridors. It’s pure movement, pure speed, bursting with the itinerant energies of a bunch of unruly women – the ‘bad girls [who] go wandering’. In its happy absurdism, it does in miniature what The Wandering does as a whole: releases some steam, rebels, from the pressurised material reality determining which bodies can go where, and at what speed.

Jessica Lee is a Women's Studies graduate who lives and works in London.