Sunday, 24th November 2002, 5:10pm
An opinion by: Nette
 Max Havelaar

Max Havelaar by Multatuli

I knew that Max Havelaar is one of the great classics of Dutch literature, and that it was a good idea to read it in English translation, to avoid the pitfalls of reading difficult old Dutch (which I am not capable of anyway). But beyond that I really didn't know what to expect. Who knew that even the subtitle "the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company" is a witty reference to one of the multiple fictional authors of this work? Very daring, and that impression stayed with me as I continued reading this novel/political treatise that is so contemporary (first published in 1860) and unhindered by literary convention in its structure. Well, Multatuli tells us as much, since he regularly interrupts the novel to address and argue with possible critics of the book itself. But he is eloquent even when he does this, as can be seen towards the end of the novel:

I wanted to write in such a way as to be heard. And, just as someone who yells "Stop thief!" troubles little about the style of his improvised address to the public, so am I quite indifferent to the judgments people will pass on the way in which I have yelled my "Stop thief!"

‘The book is chaotic ... disjointed ... striving for effect .. The style is bad ... the writer lacks skill ... no talent ... no method'

Right, right ... all right! But ... THE JAVANESE IS MALTREATED!
For: the SUBSTANCE of my work is irrefutable!

He was to be disappointed in fact that instead many found his book very amusing, since he had not "aimed at ‘amusement' in defying death by poison for myself, for my staunch dear wife, and for our dear child!"

Multatuli is the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker and translates as "I have endured much". "Max Havelaar" is an autobiography of his experiences as a young civil servant in the Dutch colony of Java in 1856. There he discovered that corruption within the administration had gone so far as to condone murder, and in trying to do something about it, he was suppressed and exiled. This important work did much to change some of the policies of the time and reading the various introductions and notes adds yet another layer to an already complex story, placing the novel in its historical context.

It is a fine example of art as politics, and while it may nowadays be preaching to the converted the arguments contained are timeless and universal. On a personal note, I now feel less embarrassed by a short manuscript I keep in my sock drawer, (a novel on the woes of the pink collar ghetto) and feel proud now to think my instincts maybe have been similar to he who has endured much, however humble my effort.

I was also happy to get such sharp insight into the workings of the Dutch East Indies, as so many of the Indo-related novels I have been reading seem to assume we know all about it. Max Havelaar behaves so exactly as my Indo father often does that I felt I learned a lot about my family as well. No wonder everyone in Holland has to read this book in school! It is like the Dutch "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "Cry the Beloved Country".




Readers have left 1 comments

Boy that rlealy helps me the heck out.
Linda on Saturday, 27th October 2012, 10:16pm

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