Shadowplay by Norman Lock

An uncanny tale of the limits and power of story telling, Shadowplay (Ellipsis Press, 137 pages) also works with a mesmerizing and subtle structure where the story repeats and folds into itself over and over again. Among Lock’s best work, it continues the self-conscious fascination and manipulation of the theme of “other” that appeared in works like A History of the Imagination and Land of the Snow Men. Here however Lock’s uproarious and dark-humored wit has been replaced with a different mode: that of a parable or fable. The alienation, vanity, occasional triumph, and seemingly inevitable destruction of the story-teller are almost classically illustrated in this compact and powerful tale.

–Eugene Lim, author of Fog and Car.

Guntur would tell stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — for months and years he would tell them until they were enacted in the room without need of shadow puppets. Possibly no other dalang had ever made a theater of his thoughts alone. When Guntur did finally take the puppets in his hands and once more had mastered them, he was no longer an ordinary dalang. His power over the wayang kulit, over the stories’ gods and demons, princes and warriors—over the time and distances of myth—had no equal. Supernatural powers were now his and sufficient to the journeys he undertook to find Candra. Night after night, Guntur (in the form of Arjuna) and Arjuna (in the person of Guntur) traveled through all the heavens and hells known to the devout and to the damned. Guntur sat crosslegged behind the story-screen, sounding in his mind the music of the rebab and gamelan; and in his mind (which was also Arjuna’s), he searched the darkness. As Rama had pursued Sinta to Rahwana’s castle, so did they now—Guntur and Arjuna—pursue Candra across rivers, over white deserts, and through bleak forests. They went on foot, in boats, and on the backs of elephants. They flew with Gatotkaca, the Flying Knight, above the Sudirman Mountains. Each night they advanced farther, stopping at dawn in exhaustion under a tree, in a cave or a tent erected in the desert against the desert’s heat. And when the light was gone once more from the sky, Guntur sat on the floor behind the story-screen and began his journey anew — Arjuna’s journey and his own.

The ways leading to the Land of the Dead are not straight. They move, they go forward and double back on themselves. They writhe hypnotically like white snakes of snow before the wind; like certain snakes, they devour themselves. The ways are like carpets taken up at the beginning of summer and laid down in the wrong rooms at summer’s end. Demons harry the wayfarers with snares, with fog and confusion. One can arrive in the afterlife by dark or lighted paths, but one cannot always be certain which of the two he has taken or if the path on which he set out is the same as he now finds himself. The ways leading to the Land of the Dead are strange and forbidding, and there is more than one fatal land.

Guntur came to understand that the ways are, in actuality, sentences composing — in his case — the story of his rescue of Candra, which was more difficult than Rama’s of Sinta, who had not been ravished by death but by a monster. Prince Rahwana had become enamored of Sinta, the beautiful wife of Prince Rama. Disguising himself as an old man, Rahwana erased with his own magic the magic circle Rama’s brother had drawn round Sinta to protect her in her husband’s absence. Rahwana took her by force to Alangkadiraja — his kingdom — and locked her in Alengka, his castle. Aided by the Monkey King, Prince Rama followed the monster and slew him with a magic arrow.

Guntur invoked Sinta’s story, hoping to repeat its happy outcome. But he failed. For a hundred nights, he and Arjuna traced her path from the Dandaka Forest, where Sinta and Rama lived out their exile, across the desert and into the mountains of Alangkadiraja. A hundred times they besieged Rahwana’s castle, a hundred times broke down Alengka’s great door, and a hundred times slew the monstrous prince with magic arrows. But Candra was never there. Candra’s story was not Sinta’s, and Guntur would not find the young woman in the brown sarong in Alangkadiraja.

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