Chinese in Glass
A book full of clarity and suggestion
Stopping to look at the ordinary things in life, that is the typical attitude of the main characters in all three of Nicolette Smabers’s books to date. The female narrator attempts to define her childhood as an Indonesian and a Catholic living in The Hague. Yet the more accurate her description becomes, the more puzzling it seems to appear. Like the marbles which Edith Persoon takes with her after visiting her Aunt Dora in Chinezen van glas: the multicoloured signs inside are Chinese characters - says Edith - which have to be read under a magnifying glass.
In this novella the focus is mainly on the Indonesian side of the family. Edith, the main character, is confused; she has no place in history. She does not know what social group she belongs to, whether she is rich or poor, really or only nominally Catholic, and how Indonesian? This lack of a personal history, having to say that there is nothing to tell, is what the book is essentially all about. Smabers manages to express this by creating clear images to tell the actual story. This book comprises a string of images appearing as museum pieces behind glass, inaccessible. The death of the half-Indonesian father who refuses to talk about the past (perhaps because, as Edith discovers, he once had an affair with Aunt Dora and her son Carel might actually be his child) is described by Smabers as follows: “Six years later the doors were opened for us. It was as if our lives had been packed up tight all those years, vacuum packed, like coffee. Father’s death cut it open and all the contents surrendered with a sigh to the air from outside.” By describing the situation in this way Smabers avoids having to discuss those six years or getting bogged down in details. It is the precise use of language which gives the main character in Chinezen van glas something to hold on to. The fact that the father’s secretive silence might be nothing more than a screen for an everyday extra-marital affair and that Edith’s sister Mart later has a baby that may be cousin Carel’s child are disillusionments which never actually break the spell - meanwhile the delightful veil of illusion has provided a splendid show of linguistic skill.
This focus on the restrictions of a particular space is typical of Smabers’s work. It expresses the main character’s need for a sense of perspective, not to be in the centre of things but to be able to look at events from the outside. Everyday things become special, not because they are spectacular but because they are set apart. That makes this short novel fascinating literature.