The choose-your-own-adventure tale offers enchanting journeys through myth and folk tale, even if the fantastic options available are limited
The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha (translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein), Harvill Secker. 4/5 stars
Despite their reader-empowering name, choose-your-own-adventure books are more distinguished by the limits placed on the reader’s choice of path than any broad freedom of literary navigation. At most you will have three or four possible paths, and all are bound to lead to the end. What’s more, even though “you” will be the protagonist, typical second-person narration often sounds closer to a series of commands than to the ideal of you the heroine seizing and shaping the storytelling:
“If you want to report your loss to the police, turn to page 25”; “If you want to start a new life in LA, turn to page 352.”
Choose-your-own-adventure stories are not usually aimed at adults, but in the opening of Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering, we first meet “you” having sex with a desperately insecure demon – you rate the experience “nine out of ten”. You realise just how smitten this demon is – you are more seductive than any fallen angel – and you use this to bargain your way to a pair of magical red shoes that will transport you through the genre’s forking adventures and destinations.
And now we begin to know you: you, too, are desperate – desperate to escape the catalogue of mediocrity and failures that is your life, the single path laid out before you. I, the reader, can understand your ambition to leave Jakarta, not to return to Jogja with your parents, to use this enchanted footwear to full effect. I empathise (especially now, with so much of the world under Covid-19 lockdowns) with the fantasy of flying off to New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, Lima …
The Wandering is a journey through story, and particularly through folk tale and myth, as much as it is from place to place. One of the pleasures of this book is recognising the precise story in which you have landed. It’s a similar pleasure for we grown-ups to the joy of recognition a child may encounter in Shrek.
This energetic, generous book is playful with genre in the manner of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979). You bound (in these magical red shoes) through Western mythologies from the shoe stories of Cinderella and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Amélie and (you’ll never guess the name) Rumpelstiltskin.
The book’s game-playing humour is also evident in the places you don’t go and the people you are not: “all flights to Zagreb are currently grounded” and “The woman in the mirror is still wearing your black jumper, but she stays in place, no longer following your movements.”
“You” left Indonesia for the United States, and your journey follows cultural and other borderlines, with a critical eye pointing in each direction. It’s a Westerner’s extended kitsch joke to “kidnap” garden gnomes and photograph them in exotic locations, but “in your country, kidnappers take actual people, not garden gnomes, and the abducted are eliminated without being found”.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin brings to your mind not the Western history of genocide but an Indonesian inversion of its forms and names – the branding of communist rebels as “Gestapu” in the attempted 1965 coup d’état. When you travel, there’s baggage you take and can’t put down. You feel ambivalent bumping into someone from your country – even the word “Indo” grates – and why would you talk to someone in the US you’d never talk to at home?
The text itself seems to share your squirming, switching into a discomfiting first person. Your countryperson follows you home and introduces herself with your name. And she seems much too interested in your mirror, another gift from your demon.
You carry the expectations and wounds of your family: they believe you have won a scholarship to study in New York; your sister addresses you as Dik, Little Sis, reminding you “that she was older, that she knew more than you” and you couldn’t help but honour her as Big Sis.
The Wandering’s Indonesian title (Gentayangan) refers, the author notes, to a state of being between our world and beyond, a place of ghosts. We follow you West and East, and from North to South America. A story thread might end mid-book. A word from the thread not followed might reach out and seize our attention. At the book’s end, should we choose to proceed in such a start-to-finish manner, we come to five successive endings. But which, if any, should stop us?