My mother’s first novel, Games of the Strong, was published in 1982. It is mine, literally, since the dedication is “For Caitlin.” It used to be my favorite of my mother’s books. It isn’t anymore, for a few reasons. It seems young, and I appreciated that when I was a teenager. Neila is a young, unsure, isolated, in-love protagonist; she has no living immediate family; and she lives in an imaginary place that demands she do something dramatic. At the time, I liked fantasy and science fiction, and Games of the Strong is almost science fiction. It has been compared it to George Orwell’s 1984. The novel begins in the Complex, which is a totalitarian regime, and Neila is part of a secret resistor group.
The novel is in the first person and reads like a journal: “Today we set out before the sun rose.” The narrator has a teenage/early 20s tone, and I assume she is 19 years old for some reason. She is quick to love: “But my new family is good to me, and it is still astonishing to me that I have fallen in love with Lak, who is the eldest son.” The foster family is ostensibly loyal to the Complex. Neila thinks her parents were killed by the regime, though they were reportedly killed in a car accident. She manufactures drama, “I am fed up with resisting, with being lonely, with loving someone I cannot have.” (Have I just become a cynical and older reader with less patience for the angst of the young? )
A text quoted repeatedly within the story, “The Sacred Journey,” is inspired by my mother’s Indonesian studies and is adapted from Lampah-Lampaham R.M.A Poerwa Lelana. The novel’s world itself is inspired by her experience in Indonesia in the early 1960s (of which I know very little – and I didn’t ask my mother enough about it while she was alive). Neila works hard to learn about the Mountain people: “I have spent several years learning the language and manners of the Mountainers, and I have studied the sacred book. It is all extremely difficult for an outsider to comprehend.” Neila’s feelings of wanting to belong with the foreign Mountain people so badly that she tries too hard to fit in – and she never could – echo my mother’s attempts to become as Indonesian as possible.
Neila wants something else; she wants to escape, and the grass-is-greener trope is woven into Part I of the novel: “I think that my cousins at first will accept me as a close friend and then, after they get to know me, as a member of the family.” Unlike with the Complex and her foster family, where she feels like an outsider. The name Neila is “alien” spelled backward. She is named for the first time when Lak asks, “Neila, why don’t you feel you belong with us?” But, of course, with the Mountainers, she is still an outsider. If she doesn’t understand a joke, “It ruins the illusion of belonging that I am trying to create.” And even after a few days there she laments, “Why is it that I seem to be getting more and more awkward and shy?”
The most powerful bit for me was the odd almost suicidal moment at the volcano toward the end of Part I. Neila visits the sacred site of the volcano in the mountains. She throws in one of her mother’s scarves as an offering (makes me think of my mother’s basket of scarves on top of her dresser). Neila then goes over the edge herself, just a little but “inside the cone,” and becomes mesmerized by shapes she sees in the red molten rock. Her lone companion has to pull her out as she creeps lower. She even fights him, “I didn’t want to lose the shapes. I didn’t want to go back.”
I find elements of autobiography in Games of the Strong: Neila writes publicity releases and becomes an official translator and news writer . My mother studied journalism and worked as a journalist for many years in the late 1960s.
I also recall my mother and things associated with her: “We stopped like tourists in a rickety little roadside shop that sold delicate porcelain, spun silver, and handwoven cloth.” The cloth reminds me of the folded yards of Indonesian textiles I have piled up in my closet that my mother collected in the 1960s. (She didn’t do anything with them, maybe I will.)
And I can hear selections from my mother’s life philosophies: “I find that I am suspicious of good-looking men who are also both talented and successful. And I have never liked men who have large followings of women.”
I can hear echoes of my mother’s stories of left-wing New York society in the 1960s: The men do most of the talking, but talk enlightenment, thinking they are being something new, not traditional and segregated. And, with exceptions that seem strident rather than enlightened (ah, the curse of outgoing women), the women remain stuck because they think they have to be something specific: “Anny and I, since we did not have anything startling to contribute in the way of high policy or thinking or a glorious past to offer, leaned forward and nodded to show we were involved and meant well.”
The two reviews Amazon.com includes pan the novel (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/product-description/0207158452/ref=dp_proddesc_0?ie=UTF8&n=283155&s=books). I do think her later novels, which do not involve the invented world, are stronger. But Games of the Strong is still so well written. My mother sure knew how to craft her sentences. These reviews do miss the connection to Indonesia – but why would they know about that?