Princes by night by Jeltje Fanoy, Island Press Cooperative 2015, was launched by John Jenkins at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne on March 27, 2015
Jeltje Fanoy briefly described her new book, Princes by night, in these terms: “And now, finally, and years later, this collection of poems based on my family’s experience in the former Dutch Indies.”
Jeltje’s family migrated to Australia in 1963, first settling in Melbourne, then the North Sydney suburb of Lindfield.
Princes by night is clearly autobiographical, but not narrowly so. In one of its many dimensions, it is as much about the process of remembering, as it is about specific memories.
More than this, it insists upon always engaging with a much larger reality than the purely personal. The entire energy of the book flows outward, a widening connection with key places; and with people too, all sympathetically grounded in their own personal reality, their unique life context, and historical moment.
Princes by night contains 40 poems, and their average length is about a page and a half. The poems are all related, and inter-related. Collectively, they tell a story, indeed many stories.
To start with, the book’s cover shows an old-fashioned telephone, dangling invitingly from the clouds. (Incidentally, good-hearted humour is another thread which unites this book.) This image refers to the very first poem, titled ‘Hey father…!’ in which the poet is woken from sleep by her Dad, as he joyfully telephones her: from the hereafter.
In a way, that is what a vivid memory can feel like. Like a re-union across space and time. The book itself is a sort of family re-union, with, the living and the dead all brought back together, and meeting here, in its welcoming pages.
An early poem seems foundational, setting the stage for subsequent poems. In ‘The unnamed relatives’, Jeltje and her father discuss family photos, some set in the Dutch West Indies, where generations of the family, including cousins, aunts, grandparents, servants and cooks, were all part of a former colonial military and administrative world.
The title, Princes by night, refers to Jeltje’s cousin Jaap and his brothers, who would escape from their authoritarian father, and by night:
…cross over to the batik-patterned universe,
…to the Indonesian kampong
at the back of the house, across
the vast expanse of cultivated lawn,
bare-footed, and in their pyjamas,
to where the servants lived.
On the other side of this precise cultural and class divide, far from “…the cool Assistant Regents’ House”, and its “…towering mosquito-netted opulence”, a servant named Zain impressed the boys with his skills in oratory, while Zain’s wife served them fiery, spicy and delicious local fare.
This was a revelation for the young escapees, who would then be entertained with funny stories, and listen spellbound to tales from the Kumbang Hitam, tales accompanied on the genggong (or Balinese-style jaw harp).
Now, Kumbang Hitam means ‘black beetle’, a large earth-burrowing insect, spectacularly obsidian-carapaced, associated with mysticism and sorcery, and regarded in the mythology of many peoples as an intermediary between sky and earth, between reality and dreams.
Appropriately here, the mysterious black beetle is an intermediary between cultures, which can seem reciprocally dream-like, one to the other.
The poem goes on to say, how the boys started roaming into this parallel cultural world, avoiding church and study:
Feeling like exiles
during the day,
and princes, in stealth,
at night, the brothers
led a double life…”
Unfortunately, Jaap’s father (Jeltje’s uncle) got wind of things and cracked down heavily on the little princes by night, confining them to a special military-style, training school, and so their reign as part-time, nocturnal royalty came to an abrupt end. Thereafter, we are told, there was
any opportunity, for Jaap,
to speak, unobserved,
to any Indonesian servant”.
In other poems, too, some of the half-suppressed or surrounding ethos of colonial violence can well up, as if volcanically, into otherwise serene domestic family relationships.
We know terrible atrocities were committed by early Dutch planters and plunderers, particularly in Aceh, but this fact is certainly not dodged. Indeed, an ancestral Fanoy wrote an authoritative expose, a plea for humane policy.
Memories remain mixed in Princes by night. Many have a positive, even joyous, up-close immediacy; and then, and even perhaps in the very next line, subside almost back into silence, as part of a far-away almost never-was past. The rhythmic occurrence of both these registrations of memory is subject matter of some highly reflective and effective poems, such as ‘Far away (talking) Blues’.
In ‘Eating katjang story’ (‘katjang’ is Indonesian for peanuts) we are told how Jeltje’s grandfather made a crystal set radio, and: “…it would take ages to tune in / to far-away, strange-sounding signals…” Such an apt trope, I think, for Jeltje’s own accurate re-tuning-in to an obscure and exotic corner of the now, seemingly long-ago-faded Dutch empire! But, as she affirms, history is ever with us.
In another poem we also learn how Jeltje’s grandfather, after his much-loved wife died, then locked himself in his study, drinking beer and playing the same song on a wind-up gramophone, over and over again, for almost a year: Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’, sung by Josephine Baker.
At one point in the book, Jeltje’s father says he might know more Indonesian history than that of Europe. He would also recite: “…Indonesian myths / and legends to the household staff.” (‘Stories about food’.)
That Jeltje’s ancestors were cross-cultural inhabitants of diverse and disparate worlds is affirmed everywhere. In some ways, they appear forbears of a cross-cultural modernity, one – optimistically – now a celebrated norm.
The poem ‘Lampu dingding story’ mentions a kerosene lamp, with mounted mirror behind it, hanging in a children’s bedroom at night. (The mirrored light, the light of historical time, reflected hauntingly here; while the real lamp is so well-described, it leaps concretely back into being, across years of lost time.)
By this lantern light, the children’s Baboe (or Babu, Indonesian for child-minding servant, or Nanny) tells Indonesian tales, and makes ghostly faces, by pulling at her eyelids. But, as she tells the children, to break a ghost’s spell, they only need to shut their own eyes. Then, Baboe: “… slept on a mat in front of their beds // so they had nothing to fear.”
There are some touching portraits of these various Baboes. In one poem, a Dutch journalist who telephones Jeltje’s mother, confesses somewhat dramatically that her Baboe was the only person she ever loved.
Eventually, we learn how Jeltje’s father left Indonesia during the war years, to fight with the Resistance against the Nazi occupation of Holland. After many close escapes, he joined the exiled Dutch Navy. But his ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo, and later repaired at Cockatoo Island, on Sydney’s Parramatta River.
At the end of fighting in Europe, Jeltje’s father then returned to Indonesia. Around 1947, however, he began to suffer terrifying hallucinations, including night terrors of giant rats. The poem ‘What if (1947)’ confirms how he was under enormous pressure:
…still duty bound,
facing a vicious
the horrors of WW2…
Peace he fervently longed for proved elusive. And we are told, in ‘Stories about food’, how he had to carry
…his own father,
now skin over bone,
on his back, after WW2,
out of the gates of the
Japanese Internment Camp…
After all these ordeals, Jeltje’s father was administered electric shock treatments (E.C.T.) by the Dutch Navy, and granted an Honourable Discharge.
He returned again to Holland (Jeltje herself was born in Amsterdam) before the family moved to Australia. His earlier stay in Sydney, apparently, had left lasting memories, and Jeltje’s father now believed – with an almost celebratory optimism – in making a peaceful life afresh. Unfortunately, he then suffered increasingly from amnesia, probably due to the E.C.T.
Princes by night can be seen as a labour of love, with Jeltje attempting to restore, though its historically-re-echoing pages, the memory of her amnesiac father, to reinstate a lost subjectivity. Certainly her father’s portrait emerges as central to this book, amidst many significant portraits.
The Princes by night narrative is often pleasantly rambling and ragged, just like life itself; just as lived moments mostly are, in the course of their unfolding: life, onward-flowing, with closure and resolution only its retrospective glance backwards, and always open-ended as to further curtailment, further possibility…
This sparkling constellation of poems – each short and sweet, and seemingly simple on the surface – cuts deeply into memory and history: and very succinctly, employing that unique poetic dimension, of resonance. There is therefore – and necessarily so – much left unsaid, implied, partly sketched; all generously prompting one’s own research, and inviting completion of the historical jig-saw.
Finally, some poems pose puzzles and questions, while others leave clues and cues, thus suggesting ways for things to be resolved, as in classical story telling. But I won’t offer a spoiler, by explaining or revealing too much. Simply buy and read the book, and enjoy its fascinating journey.
– John Jenkins
John Jenkins writes poetry, and on music, travel and the arts. He authored, co-written or edited twenty-four books. In a previous lifetime he was a journalist and part-time academic. John is currently working on a book of short stories, and a non-fiction book on his favourite film directors.
Princes by night is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm