#15: The Fish Girl, by Mirandi Riwoe

In W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, the narrator recounts the story of the titular dutchmen:

But there was nothing illusive, mysterious or fantastic about the captain, the chief officer, the chief engineer and the supercargo. Their solidity was amazing. They were the four fattest men I ever saw.

The story’s opening, a description of a colonial-era hotel in Singapore, and its concern with the friendship of these four dutchmen and their time spent tramp-shipping in Southeast Asia, evokes a very particular colonial period, rendered from a colonial perspective. Food plays some part in setting the scene—“It was a treat to see them at tiffin. Their appetites were enormous. They had rijstafel every day, and each seemed to vie with the other how high he could pile his plate. They loved it hot and strong.”—and the reader might be lulled into viewing the men as harmless—“They were the greatest friends, all four of them; they were like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another.”

‘The Four Dutchmen’ comes with a serious sting in its tail, which I won’t discuss here for those who haven’t read it. Indeed, my recommendation would be to start by reading Mirandi Riwoe’s 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella–winning The Fish Girl instead. The Fish Girl takes ‘The Four Dutchmen’ as source material and performs a remarkable postcolonial inversion of perspective. Indeed, while ‘The Four Dutchmen’ is written in the first person (which might typically bring the reader closer to the story), it’s a first-person narrator recounting events in the past tense—events with which he was only marginally involved, and the bulk of which he only learns after reading a newspaper story. The Fish Girl, on the other hand, while written in the third person, brings the reader deeply into the story of its protagonist, the Indonesian girl Mina, with a skillful use of evocative, sensory descriptions written in the present tense.

 

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