The Works of María Martoccia speak for themselves, and "Still Lutan" is no exception, as the reader quickly realizes that Lutan, in all her immobile glory, has sprung forth from the story and taken on a life of her own. Lutan lives and breathes with the same recklessness—the same intimacy, the same risk, the same self-preservation—as any other mortal. Even as she sits still, resolutely refusing to lift a finger, she is forever condemned to remain an active participant in the parallel realm of literature, the best of it.
Lutan showed me into a bright room with white walls and high ceilings. She didn’t seem surprised to see me show up at her door after three years and in a country where we were both foreigners. She just squinted slightly and murmured something between her teeth, as if annoyed by such tardiness. She didn’t show any interest in the reasons for my trip to Bangkok and she didn’t offer me tea, but I knew that the arrival of a guest didn’t disrupt Lutan’s routine in the slightest and it only put her in a bad mood for a little while. Then, without making any excuses, she sat down in front of the TV and continued watching a program. I wondered how much she understood. She spoke Hokkien, one of the five Chinese dialects, and she refused to study any other language. She thought that languages were like different accents that rubbed off on you over time. Her husband had told me this when I asked why Lutan didn’t sign up for an English course.
“She says the Brighton accent will come to her in a few years. We have to wait.”
And, as far as I knew, they had been in Malaysia for a year and a half; not enough time for an accent to have rubbed off.
The room was large with a black and white tiled floor. There were moving boxes everywhere and, in one corner, on a rug that said “Hotel Chang,” dozens of muddy shoes were piled up. To block the sun, without much success—the Penang sun always finds its way through as if it were made of more than just light—someone had placed clothes and towels in the windows: shirts, tablecloths, a suit jacket. The doors were open, the main entrance propped against a large rock, and the only decoration was a paper lampshade that dangled from a thin cord. A storm was coming in from the northeast; on its way it had already destroyed palm huts and drowned thousands of docile zebus, but now, exhausted, it had been reduced to soft gusts that rustled the tree canopies and provided a respite from the heat. Lightning flashed in the sky as if someone were taking photos from above. A drove of black clouds passed through the window with the suit hanging in it; a new smell floated in, a mix of wet earth and cellar, different from the sticky rotten smell of the heat. A few kilometers away, the jungle animals screeched with the blind fear of creatures who don’t remember that storms have an end. Lutan, seated in the lotus position, her hands on her tiny feet, so well sculpted that they seemed more like hands than feet, looked out the back door, certain that the wind would blow something in. And she wasn’t wrong. A bouquet of leaves and wilted flowers the size of a tennis ball swirled its way into the house and finally tangled itself around the leg of a chair. With uncharacteristic diligence Lutan went over to one of the moving boxes, took out a Buddha with the face of a monkey made of a dark material, three metal bowls, and a bottle; she then set up an altar in the corner. She served liquid from the bottle into each of the bowls, laid some of the wilted flowers out in front of Buddha, and knocked down the pile of shoes to kneel on the rug that said “Hotel Chang.” The prayer lasted just a few seconds. But that was all that was necessary; if God has a memory it must be eternal so the length of a prayer is insignificant; and if not, we’re lost, because his forgetfulness must be eternal too.
When she finished the prayer, with identical speed, Lutan brought out tea and some sweet and sour rice balls and sat at my side, in silence, cutting photos of the British royal family out of a calendar. I don’t know if the ceremony with the rice balls always comes after the prayer or if she was finally welcoming me without saying it. The order of events or motivation behind them seemed unimportant. I stretched and drank the tea, which smelled like jasmine. On TV, they continued to speak in a language neither of us understood; outside, a curtain of rain turned to steam as soon as it hit the ground. Little by little, my bad mood—product of the unusual welcome—lifted and I began to feel sleepy, which is the same as feeling at ease.
Malcolm’s words were coming true, uttered two years before, when the teachers of Brighton Polytechnic commented on Lutan’s personality. “Steve’s wife,” they said, “sits still for hours… Without saying a word… Steve comes home from work to find her in the exact same position as when he left that morning… The poor guy has to run out to get food . . . She’s not interested in anything… We invite her to a party and…”
Malcolm defended her vehemently. He said that we needed to examine the reason why it infuriated us that Lutan didn’t do anything and another thing, he added with the authority and mysteriousness that living twenty years in Indonesia had bestowed him, “One day you’ll see that Lutan does things.”
John, Malcolm’s fiercest opponent, responded that it was cliché to think that Easterners were actually doing something when they sat staring at the wall. He liked to contradict Malcolm and spark long debates in the teachers’ lounge as students came in and out with questions about their thesis. There was a period of time when the debate became one of the school’s main sources of entertainment and was talked about in the hallways like another part of academic life. Malcolm argued that it was cliché to think that we, Westerners, ever did anything. “We are obsessed with memory,” he would repeat. “We do everything to remember. In Asia, they’re much more practical. They know that everything is forgotten.” “Rubbish!” John would shout.
Even the secretary, an ugly blonde woman, intervened one time. She wanted to “help” Steve and had invited Lutan to the school swimming pool. Of course, Lutan refused. “Nothing pleases her,” the secretary concluded, as if swimming were the absolute measure of interest. Malcolm, when he heard about the incident, became furious. We thought he was going to hit the secretary or break the glass doors on one of the bookshelves. He shouted that it was ridiculous that we should expect Lutan to practice sports and buy food in a big supermarket. The blonde secretary sobbed, “But she has to adapt…”
Malcolm slammed the door and his words were heard in the rooms at the back, near the Language Department: “What does it mean to adapt? It’s unnatural to move away from the place you were born.”
Once Malcolm had disappeared, the secretary continued: “That woman is making Steve’s life miserable.”
One of the French teachers, an anorexic redhead, tried to calm her. “You can’t go to the Orient without paying a price.” I don’t know if she was referring to Malcolm or to Steve.
Malcolm was in his fifties; his suits had stains on them and he had long hair. He’d returned from Indonesia, where he’d lived for twenty years, without ever explaining why. He had brusque manners and regular attacks of rudeness. He wandered the stores on Sydney Street buying books on any subject related to the East and then loudly contradicted the contents. He spent hours redrawing the coastlines of faraway islands and in fits of fury he would rip out the pages of the expensive books he’d bought on Sydney Street “because they’re full of rubbish.” He ate in unhygienic restaurants that were systematically shut down soon afterwards and he ogled Asian-looking women on the train. Almost all the other teachers and the secretary openly disliked him. He’d earned a bad reputation, not for his lack of manners so much as for that quality that the English will not tolerate: he was the kind of man who liked only one type of woman. I think that British society finds this physically dangerous; perhaps they think there’s only a short step between stereotyping women and violent crime. Also, without a doubt, Malcolm was jealous of Steve, the teacher from Brixton who’d managed to return from Indonesia with a delicate wife interested in only one aspect of British society: Lutan had her mother copy Lady Di’s fashion. But we didn’t think that this frustration was the only thing that made Malcolm so contrary.
Now in Penang, in the middle of a storm, I saw that Malcolm’s words had a certain logic to them. We were the ones who were uncomfortable with Lutan’s stillness. If you considered her obsession with royal fashion, the altars she constructed for a funny-looking Buddha, and the hours she spent watching incomprehensible TV programs, she was as occupied as any mortal.
The rain increased and decreased its force randomly. Lutan, to my right, continued cutting out Lady Di and Princess Margaret’s dresses. Patterns designed for tall women that her mother in Indonesia would make miniature versions of.
“Lutan, don’t you think it’s an incredible coincidence that after two years without hearing anything from you I found out you lived in Penang because I got lost in the Chinese neighborhood of Bangkok?” I aksed.
Lutan held her scissors in the air next to a halfway cut out pink sun hat.
“A coincidence,” I repeated, in case the sentence had been too long for her.
“No,” answered Lutan. “You went into the British Council and asked for us.”
“Yes, yes, but I went in because I was hot, I didn’t even think that…”
Lutan lowered her invisible eyebrows: “When we travel it’s so difficult to know what is coincidence and what isn’t.”
Here we are, so she stayed still so that she could stay in control of action. Does coincidence exist for the immobile? Did I offend her by saying I thought it was incredible to see them again? The wind had already taken the black clouds somewhere else. The telephone rang. I looked at the thing as if it was something that didn’t belong there. It was Steve. He told me that he had a lot of work and that I should make myself comfortable and wait for him. He didn’t talk to Lutan and I wondered why in the world he’d called since he had no way of knowing I’d already be at his house. I returned to the sofa. Lutan was putting the calendar clippings into an envelope. I closed my eyes and woke up when Steve called a second time. In the meanwhile, I dreamed about something that had already happened to me, how I’d gotten lost in Bangkok and discovered Steve and Lutan’s whereabouts. When the dream ended I decided that this was going to be the version I would tell, the definitive version. Although I admit that it is slightly altered. I got lost in the Chinese neighborhood of Bangkok, that’s true, and I also asked about them at the British Council, but some more things happened in the dream. I’m using this version anyway though because I can’t stand for dreams to become something useless, something that can’t even serve as an excuse.
The dream began with one of those things that tell you you’re in a dream: the day was gorgeous but I knew that everyone else thought it was unbearably hot. It’s always those differences, those secrets about the reality that we endure or that others endure, that point to the fact that we’re dreaming. I took the ferry over to the Temple of Dawn. The river was choppy. The lily pads rode the crests of the waves and then ducked down under the water and got tangled up with all the trash. It was my last visit to Bangkok. I had already gotten on dozens of ferries to see the Reclining Buddha, the palace of the Emerald Buddha, the Golden Buddha, and the gardens of the False Buddha where the turtles and the twelve-year-old monks strolled somberly. The Temple of Dawn appeared on the right edge of the largest river, like buildings appear in dreams. Also, it had the shape and consistency of something organic that could keep growing infinitely. As we drew closer we could see the intricate detail of the roof outlined against a sky of an exquisite pink color. When the boat got close to the dock I jumped onto land and ran across a bridge. I wanted to get away from a couple who had smiled at me with the intention of starting a conversation. The entrance to the temple was crowded with fruit stalls and stands selling knock-offs of famous brands. I went up some stairs until I got to a dome. The stone walls were covered in carvings of grumpy gods and a grayish mold. On a terrace I heard some English voices saying: “This must have been magnificent in the nineteenth century.” Suddenly I found myself on the roof of the second dome, even though I don’t remember having moved. “I don’t want to go in the temple,” I thought. “Because all the temples are the same: a big room, Buddhas of all sizes, empty vases, a grandfather clock, elephant tusks, and some Australian sleeping behind a column to save three dollars on a cheap hotel.” I laughed at this last one. Then, I looked at all the walls of the temple. They seemed fragile, like they could be destroyed at any moment by an attack of divine fury. Back at the bottom, I saw a couple who was filming the details of a column. The video will seem disappointing to them later, I predicted. At the stands in front, an American woman was haggling the price of a Chanel shirt.
“It’s fake,” she said.
“But on you it’ll look authentic,” the seller seemed to respond. Dreams; you understand what others are thinking.
Suddenly I found myself in the shadow of a very large tree with aboveground roots. Nearby, some Japanese tourists were taking pictures with a sleeping boa constrictor. The owner of the animal was charging one dollar per photo and the Japanese, with faces like kamikaze fighters, formed a long line. In the background, a couple kissed until their lips bled and I said to myself: “Of course, that’s one of their customs.” As all this was happening, a dark-skinned man sat down next to me. He was wearing a khaki safari outfit and he was waving a black fan. We talked.
“Do you like the temple?” he asked me.
“I love it. Don’t you?”
“It’s okay, it’s like all the ones here…” he wore a huge ring, black, and he had the sleepy accent of Indians when they speak English.
“The Buddist temples aren’t convenient for me,” he said. He took a card out of his pocket and gave it to me.
Instead of getting a card, I received the fan. But economy of objects is normal in dreams. I looked at the fan, that was also a calling card, and I learned his name: Rajiv Okra…
“I’m the director of a company that sells temple offerings, and in the temples in Thailand there are just flowers and fruit…”
“And what else would there be?”
“In Tirumalai, where we have our headquarters…Have you been to Tirumalai?”
“No. Where is it?”
“Southern India. Are you Italian?”
“Do you have a president in your country?”
“And Tirumalai restaurants?”
“No, it’s such a shame.” The wind began to alter the landscape. Don’t ask me to explain how, but the landscape changed. In my dream there were no longer any Japanese or the big tree. “So, you were saying your company sells the offerings in the temples. How does that work? I don’t understand.”
“Thousands of pilgrims travel to Madras and other parts of Tirumalai and offer their hair to the god Vishnu. Almost five hundred barbers work at the temple shaving heads. It takes them forty seconds to cut the hair of a woman who has it down to her waist. My company buys the hair. By the ton.”
“And what does your company do with the hair?”
“We sell it to make wigs.” As soon as he said this wigs appeared all around us.
I said goodbye to the gentleman and got on the first ferry that passed. On the banks of the river there were little ramshackle wooden houses and people bathing. A large boat passed in front of ours filled with fishermen wearing silky turbans sewing nets in the sun. In the water, on the oil stains left by the motors, floated dead fish heads and fruit peels. A group of monks waved to us from a rowboat. We moved closer and they came aboard. Their eyebrows were shaven off and they wore saffron-colored tunics. One went down below to have a seat, the rest stayed on the deck. The light fabric of their tunics moved in the wind and wrapped around their thin legs. After passing some willow trees, the boat turned and we arrived at the dock. The monks disappeared among the trees. They seemed very animated, linking arms and chatting. I was disoriented. I followed some streets that seemed more European than Asian and suddenly I was in the middle of the Chinese neighborhood. There was an insane amount of movement but I knew it was impossible to turn around. On both sides of the street doors opened to an infinity of offices with writing in Mandarin and dark wood paneling, a sign of prosperity. In the offices, business was mixed with domestic elements; every once in a while an old lady appeared or a kid cried. On the sidewalks there were young women frying pieces of unrecognizable meat, balls of clear gelatin, and whole birds.
Porters with enormous loads went out into the middle of the street and blocked traffic, but no one did anything. The gutters were filled with trash. The shadows of the rats ran and hundreds of vendors with their mouths open wide shouted at me: Pig’s larynx? Nests of…earthworms? Then I fainted in front of a tall building, but the fainting didn’t stop me from walking. I instantly knew that the building was the British Council and that was a relief to me. I went in. The secretary was the blonde lady from the Brighton Polytechnic Institute and I asked about Lutan and Steve.
“Steve is calling you, Steve is calling you,” Lutan was gently shaking me.
“It’s dark. What time is it? How long did I sleep?” I sat up and saw that Lutan had a child in her arms.
“Steve wants to talk to you.” She pointed at the phone as if it were something she would never dare to touch.
“Thanks,” I said, without taking my eyes off the child.
Steve wanted to tell me that he was going to be longer than he’d expected:
“There’s a teachers’ meeting and I can’t leave. The director is here so I’ll explain later…”
“Don’t worry,” I said to him. “We’ll wait for you for dinner.”
“It would be a miracle if there were something to eat. I don’t think there’s anything in the fridge. You know Lutan was born surrounded by servants. But we could call Shi to come cook something for us. Lutan has her number. Is Lutan there?”
“Yes, she’s right here next to me. She has a baby,” I said, thinking that it would be news to him too.
“I can’t believe it. George is still awake?”
“You didn’t mention anything to me…”
“Yes,” Steve answered. “He was born last year in Jakarta. Good God! I hope she puts him to bed before I get home. I don’t want to be with a baby after a day like today.”
We said goodbye.
Lutan was putting a bracelet around George’s ankle.
“If he wants to be awake, he has to wear this,” she explained.
“What is it?”
She shook some bells in front of my face.
“A present from his grandma. Gold. So I hear where he is and I don’t have to get up. Naughty, George is naught-y,” Lutan repeated with her strong Asian accent.
George was very white, with almond shaped eyes, and he constantly pointed to things.
“I don’t understand him when he talks,” Lutan said proudly.
We went out into the garden. The storm had broken most of the flowers and they gave off an intense aroma, almost sickly sweet. Some parrots sat in a magnolia. George, at the foot of the tree, was trying to catch them.
“George is very bad,” said Lutan. “He always wants things that are up high.”
“Steve said we should call Shi…”
“I already called her,” said Lutan smugly. “She doesn’t cook very well but she can make something for us.”
“You don’t like the food here either?” I asked.
“Everything tastes the same. They don’t know how to eat spicy,” she affirmed with the same disdain she had used to classify the English food years back.
It got dark, the blinding light turned to a deep blue.
In the garden we could still make out the white flowers, the trunks of the trees, and a few meters away, the dirt road where a bicycle occasionally passed. George sat under the magnolia, perhaps waiting for the parrots to come down. We sat too, but on the front steps. A man shouted something from the gate. Lutan shooed him with a gesture, like someone scaring away a fly.
“What did he want?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably a door-to-door salesman. They sell ugly things.”
After a while a woman appeared; she had angular features and she was barefoot, with a basket under each arm and a dead hen hanging over one shoulder. George immediately ran to her and began to chatter.
“It’s Shi,” said Lutan. “George adores her. He loves the food here,” she concluded, as if George had the option of liking anything else.
Shi lifted George in her arms and headed towards the house. It seemed impossible that she would be able to carry everything.
Steve arrived late. Or maybe not. It’s hard to know how long we sat on the steps while dinner was being prepared for us listening to the sound of the crickets, the cicadas, and the occasional monkey rummaging in a neighbor’s trash.
“What a terrible day,” said Steve. “We were organizing the courses for the Cambridge First Certificate Exam. We have a new director, but we don’t have enough teachers.” Steve had gained weight since the last time I’d seen him.
When we went inside I was shocked at how Shi had managed to clean the living room, cook, and obviously, put George to bed. The moving boxes and the hanging clothes had disappeared. The shoes were arranged into pairs. In the center of the room she’d set out several pillows and a low table. Each plate had a flower next to it and there were candle holders with different colored candles, almost all about to burn out.
We ate a chicken curry with coconut sauce. Lutan picked out the pieces of chicken and repeated between clenched teeth:
“It doesn’t have any flavor at all.”
I recounted my dream down to the last detail; I was interested in recalling the tone that the secretary had used to inform me that they lived in Penang.
“They hate us in Bangkok,” Steve said. “We’re the only Asian branch that overshadows them. But I don’t know… The new director, Louis…” he looked at Lutan as if she might confirm his words.
Lutan was avidly sucking some peppers that she then spit back onto the plate.
“Louis?” she repeated.
“The fat man you met last week when we went to the embassy because they were celebrating the ambassador’s birthday. You told me he spoke Chinese very well.”
“Yes. He has the house that’s supposed to be ours. The house on the hill. With a gardener and a permanent cook,” Lutan answered.
Steve turned back to me:
“She’s convinced that his house should be ours. I already explained to her a thousand times that it’s the house for the director of the British Council, but she doesn’t understand.”
“And also, he didn’t speak Chinese that well,” Lutan concluded, as if the nicer houses of Penang should be reserved for people who spoke Chinese well.
“Well,” Steve continued, “what I wanted to say was that Louis isn’t exactly the director we were hoping for.”
“He worked in Colombia and it was a disaster. In just two years he managed to ruin them completely. In order to compete we need someone who knows how to do business with the Cantonese; they’re the cleverest.”
Lutan flared her nostrils in disgust every time she heard mention of the Cantonese.
The candles burned out and we were lit only by the light that came in from outside. Steve and I kept on talking about England, remembering old times in the Polytechnic and the prices of all the beers that he missed.
I don’t know when Lutan disappeared but when Steve and I said good night to each go to our rooms, she was no longer there amongst the pillows.
I left early the next morning with Steve. The sky was getting ready for another storm. On the way to the Council, Steve showed me the English cemetery, where almost everyone had died of malaria or some other tropical fever and the roots of the plants had destroyed the headstones and the crosses leaving the dead with no names or dates.
Lutan had been in front of the TV. In the same position as the day before, with her tiny feet in her hands. I said hello but she didn’t respond. As I made coffee in the kitchen, I thought that maybe she had been there forever, sitting on the couch in front of the TV, and that everything else, even my memories of Brighton, had been a mirage or part of a dream. But that’s just the way of a person who knows how to stay still and make others uncomfortable.
Steve left me in the center of Penang.
We decided we’d meet again that night and go out to dinner the three of us. There was a restaurant near the bridge that Lutan loved. “George will stay with Shi,” Steve shouted as a goodbye, as if the child had bothered us the night before.
I walked along the water and looked at the colonial buildings distorted by neglect. I crossed an amusement park and arrived inevitably in a Chinese neighborhood. A somber atmosphere replaced the Malayan mundanity. The faces of many of the men had the expression of a person who was about to take some drastic measure, or at least something that we, the Westerners, would see as drastic. I realized I was hungry. I decided to eat either something that was easy to identify or something that was impossible to identify. I chose the second option since the first would have limited me to a diet of bananas. In a store filled with bicycles a woman with a wide face was frying some triangles in an enormous pan. I asked her:
“Are you selling those?”
“Can I buy one from you?”