Gabriela Bourke reviews The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha
by Intan Paramaditha
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Reading Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering during a global pandemic and in a time where all but essential travel within state borders is forbidden is a strange experience. In the author’s acknowledgement included at the end of this book, Paramaditha writes that the novel was ‘…conceived in New York, published in Jakarta and written over the course of nine years as I moved across continents…’. The imposed stasis in which I read this book though forced a contemplation of some of the most pressing themes of the novel: how do power, position and privilege determine where you’re allowed to go, and perhaps even more importantly, where you’re allowed to stay? Paramaditha’s ‘choose-your-own-adventure’, second-person narrative invites you to jet-set, from Jakarta to New York to Berlin and beyond, the impetus of the story depending on the choices you make and those choices formed by your own desires, ambitions and longings. The Wandering considers what freedom means, in a world where a yearning for elsewhere underpins so many of our encounters, and where travel is borne of boredom for some, but terrible desperation for others.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s line ‘Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living’ occurred to me more than once while reading this novel. A create-your-own adventure story imparts a responsibility: of choosing right, making choices that will carry you to a satisfactory ending. In fact, the decision fatigue I was already feeling as a result of moving house in corona-times was exacerbated by the requirement of choosing a path through the narrative, and by my desire to ‘choose right’. My first foray brought me to an end all too quickly – an ending that did not bring me the satisfaction for which I yearned. Retracing my fictive footsteps and finding a new way resulted in a relationship with an old, white man who seemed to have an obsession with young, Asian women. How did I get here? I wondered, despairing, moving backwards again, hoping there was a better way, and then again, backwards and forwards, realising as I did so that usually a novel, like life, won’t give second chances. In life, death signifies the end of one’s story on earth, whereas The Wandering gifts its reader that fantasy of acting on hindsight. Unhappy with reaching an untimely demise, I return to the point where I can salvage my life. Unfulfilled by a relationship, I travel back, choose someone else, carry on once more.
So who has the freedom to make mistakes? This is the fundamental idea on which The Wandering is built. Who has, as Tiffany Tsao puts it on the back of the book, the freedom to wander the earth? Not Fernando, with whom the narrator flees the US upon Trump’s election in 2016. Not Meena, the narrator’s friend and neighbour whose freedoms are curtailed by geographic and financial borders. What about the narrator herself, who has agreed to a lifetime of wandering, denied forever the opportunity to return home? Paramaditha’s commentary on the nature of globalisation and neo-liberal consumer-capitalism is both thoughtful and provocative. The realisation that the ‘you’ of the story and the ‘you’ who is me reading the text are chasms apart in terms of the restrictions placed on our passports is discomforting. The Faustian pact on which the story is premised forces a consideration of other real-life pacts made by people bargaining for their freedom as borders are erected and both the freedom to move and the freedom to stay is forbidden to all but a privileged few.
The Wandering poses questions, rather than providing answers. The encounters between people and places may bring home the sad realities of life for many, but somehow Paramaditha retains a sense of playfulness and spontaneity that makes this novel fantastically readable. For a novel premised on a Faustian pact and peppered with allusions to Greek mythology and Indian philosophy, sections like the blow imbue liveliness into references that otherwise might be slightly stuffy.
‘How will I be able to reach you when you’re travelling?’ asks Demon Lover. He looks despondent.
You stare at him, stupefied.
‘For God’s sake! Stop snivelling. Since when does a devil need a visa?’(6)
The Qur’an quoting, Cerberean-chihuahua toting Hecate is another good example of this novel’s light-hearted reimaginings of well-known myths and symbols, which provide a necessary counterpoint to the grimmer elements of the story.
In leafing through the book in readiness to write this review, some names and places leapt out at me that I did not encounter on my first reading. This is surprising, as I was diligent in my attempts to locate and travel along all of the offered narratives. I’m interested by these stories I’ve not read, and interested to consider why I’ve not reached them. Are some strains of the narrative too far out of my comfort zone that I subconsciously avoided them? Is not reaching these stories indicative of some truth about my own identity, about the limitations of myself and where I’m willing to go, what opportunities I’m willing to run with?
Paramaditha’s novel allows for a uniquely individual experience, and one which might be borne from the reader’s cultural, financial, generational or other background. An individual’s experience of this book is likely to be as diverse as one’s experience of the world – an admirable feat, and one in which it’s worth immersing oneself. The Wandering may have had some teething issues, but it’s strong enough, creative enough, joyful enough and certainly ambitious enough that I’m already looking forward to Paramaditha’s next book.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a sessional academic and doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Her work explores the representation of nonhuman animals in contemporary literature. Her work appears in Southerly and Mascara Literary Review.