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.
Riwoe’s novella is divided into three sections, each epigraphed with a quote from ‘The Four Dutchmen’. These epigraphs demonstrate exactly why such a postcolonial inversion—or subversion?—is required. From the first: “One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese. They were so small and so gentle […]”; and the second: “The captain was always losing his head over one brazen hussy after another…”; and the third, with its use of the word “trollop”. It’s not just the monstrously misogynistic language that’s troubling here; this is also the most a reader of ‘The Four Dutchmen’ would read about what could—should—be the story’s key tragic figure.
The Fish Girl begins with Mina’s life in her home, an Indonesian fishing village where “in the heat of the day the women scale, clean and smoke the fish the men bring home”. A man comes, seeking cheap labour for a Dutch merchant’s kitchen, and Mina’s father offers her up. Food plays an important role, taking our senses to Indonesia and highlighting the differences between Mina’s home—where she “sniffs at the salty fish crumbled against her fingers”, her mother “chops kangkung to add to the fish”, her family “eat the rice and fish from banana leaves with their fingers”—and her new home in the Dutch master’s kitchen where she “eats well, tastes sauces and sweets she never knew existed”. Later, when Mina is with a local boy from her village, “the sweep of his hand becomes soothing, as if she might melt away like butter in a frypan”. When she is betrayed, “anger sears her chest, molten as simmering chilli sambal”.
I did have one stylistic qualm, and it’s probably just me. While I realise that comma splices appear all the time in fiction—and they can be effective—they felt somewhat over-used in some parts of the book. Considering it more deeply, the use of comma splices works here as a welcome contrast to the overwrought old-fashioned style of Maugham’s story, but at times they became a little too much for me and had me struggling to switch off my pedantic editor-brain. A subjective thing, of course, and definitely not something that took much away from the beautiful writing throughout. In general, the prose washed over me beautifully and allowed me to forget that I was reading, but this same style used a few too many times per paragraph became noticeably repetitive.
Mina’s coming of age in her new environment, and the experiences she enjoys in her new life, are tinged with the longing she feels for her family and village. As readers, we sense danger when her master’s friend, Captain Brees, takes a particular interest in her and gifts her a gold anklet, and especially so once we recognise him in the second epigraph: “the captain was always losing his head over one brazen hussy over another”. The Fish Girl brings Mina to life—in fact gifts her a life that the source material denies, a life in all its rich, beautiful, sensory detail; this is a short novella at 97 pages, but it packs in a lot, giving Mina a voice, and a much more realistically-told version of the ending, an ending that will break your heart and remain with you for a long time. I loved this book—five stars on Goodreads, whatever that actually means—and doubt this review does it justice, so: just read it.