In these uncertain times, the concept of travel is increasingly fraught. While borders were already closed for some, they have been further tightened in the wake of a global pandemic. But depending on who you are and the passport you hold, the prospect of holidaying overseas is still an option. Some nationalities are allowed entry past certain borders; others are not – pointing to larger questions around the privilege and luxury of travel.
Conversely, within the context of travel lie internment, exile, unbelonging, rootlessness – the many borders and boundaries that demarcate not only territories on a map, but also the axes of power that define global centres and freedom of movement. The stark delineations between terms such as “tourist”, “expat”, “refugee” and “migrant” drive this home. At what point does one stop being a “tourist” to become a “digital nomad”? Who is deemed an “expat” while others are regarded as “immigrants”? And why is there often a distinction between “migrant” and “refugee”?
Many travel-themed books engage with daydreams of adventure, a journey that centres the self in a way that rarely considers how that same self is regarded in relation to the people it encounters. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, to name two examples, see their protagonists grappling with a crisis of identity and lack of purpose. In these stories, the flâneur’s prerogative trumps all. The places they explore willingly open up for them, the inhabitants merely there to prop up a grand tale of self-discovery. In the end, the hero stumbles on a universal moral truth.
But Intan Paramaditha’s debut novel, The Wandering, takes this escapist impulse and turns it into a tale of limits. The book has 15 time lines, its form inspired by the young-adult Choose Your Own Adventure books: the choices the reader makes determine the course of the narrative, much like in life itself. Originally written in Indonesian in 2017 and translated for the first time into English by Stephen J. Epstein, The Wandering employs the second person – a move often considered gauche or difficult to pull off in fiction – to great effect. In another person’s hands the prose could be trite or stilted, but Epstein’s translation pulls the reader in, complementing the narrative’s dreamlike character.
The book opens with a Faustian bargain, struck between the unnamed protagonist (“you”) and her lover, the devil, who gives her a pair of red shoes that allow her to travel anywhere. But there’s a caveat: she will “find shelter but never home”.
Despite the use of the second person, the protagonist is a fully fleshed-out character: an English teacher raised on a diet of Indonesian and American media in the post-Suharto New Order. Desperate to leave her humdrum life in her home town, Jakarta – where for her the prospect of going abroad would otherwise remain an eternal fantasy – she puts on the shoes and materialises in New York. This is where the literal journey begins for the reader: a series of possible scenarios could cause one to end up in Berlin, Amsterdam, Tijuana or back in Indonesia. In one story thread, she takes up a job as a waitress in a cafe and marries an undocumented migrant from Peru, gradually becoming undocumented herself, until they decide to leave for Lima when their daughter becomes a teenager. Another thread sees her becoming housemates with a Bulgarian sex worker in Amsterdam. An alternative plot results in her getting together with a much older white American man in a marriage of convenience. Yet another time line ends up in a train – with Gertrude Stein as conductor, no less – that never stops. One ends in a writing prompt. The reader becomes as invested as the protagonist in securing a satisfying conclusion, jointly moving through a psychogeographical landscape that brings a conspiratorial, collaborative quality.
As in her previous book, the short-story collection Apple and Knife, Paramaditha’s sensibilities are unabashedly feminist. Her stories are firmly centred on women negotiating their self-determination in the world. And just as Apple and Knife is steeped in the Gothic, Paramaditha weaves together elements of the fantastical in The Wandering; a prevailing phantasmagoria remains a central motif. The author’s finesse with wielding the short-story form comes through in the anecdotes the protagonist hears from the people she meets on the road, which act as frame stories throughout the novel.
One could compare Paramaditha’s work to Murakami or García Márquez, or even invoke the Eurocentric label “magical realism”, but that would be doing the author a great disservice. In spite of The Wandering’s experimental tenor, Paramaditha holds her own in stories that reflect her internationalist upbringing and the reality of a Muslim–Indonesian imagination. Her penchant for reinterpreting classic myths and fairytales, as seen in Apple and Knife, resurfaces: the different time lines provide renditions of the South-East Asian folktale of Malin Kundang, the myth of Greek goddess Hecate and the North American children’s story The Wizard of Oz. For Paramaditha, even if there are borders in an incredibly unjust world, there are none within the imagination. Juxtaposed against the cosmopolitan outlook of the book, it is a larger comment on mobility in a globalised society, not to mention the interplay of privilege and oppression that changes depending on where a person is, or with whom they are interacting.
What’s perhaps most brilliant about the novel is its Brechtian tone, which snakes around the narrative like a silent spectator. The metafictional aspect is not lost on the book: references to Brecht are littered throughout, and the protagonist’s devil lover reminds her at one point, “You’re not the only haunted wanderer.” Reminiscent of postmodern classics such as Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, The Wandering is a cleverly crafted tale about the illusion of free will, and the stakes and pressures that accompany the choices influenced by one’s identity in the world.
Harvill Secker, 448pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering".
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