Max Havelaar: a selfish, altruistic, mediocre, Dutch work of great Indonesian literature

Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, Multatuli, 1860

  • Indonesia, #3; Netherlands, #5
  • Paperback, received as a gift
  • Read May 2017
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Opening line: “I am a coffee broker, and I live at No. 37 Lauriergracht, Amsterdam.”
  • Recommended for: contradictarians

Max Havelaar is sometimes described as the Dutch Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was published to great uproar in the 19th century, and helped to bring about social upheaval (in the case of Max Havelaar, reform and regulation of Dutch rule in the Netherlands Indies–what would later become Indonesia). And, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it probably owes its fame more to its historical impact than to any great literary quality. That’s not to say that it’s terrible; it will certainly rank in the top ten Indonesian books I’ve read, but it doesn’t quite have the authorial mastery that I would expect from a purported classic of Dutch literature (And this is a work of Dutch more than Indonesian literature. Eduard Douwes Dekker, the author better known as Multatuli, was brought to Indonesia by his father at the age of nineteen, and lived there for approximately twenty years, working as a civil servant in the Dutch colonial administration. His life began and ended in Europe. However, I chose to read it with books from Indonesia because it offers a crucial insight into the Dutch colonial period, and gave me much-needed context for the later works of Indonesian literature that I read afterwards).

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Amsterdam, 2012

Much has been made of the book’s odd narrative structure. First we meet Droogstoppel, a humorless, narrow-minded, self-important coffee broker, who narrates the first sixty pages or so. Droogstoppel becomes the unwilling steward of the life’s work of a down-and-out acquaintance recently returned from Java. Stern, a young German student who is living with the Droogstoppel family, edits the manuscript into a book, the text of which comprises most of the bulk of Max Havelaar (though Droogstoppel occasionally breaks into the narrative to protest at its radical bent and romanticism). It’s a bizarrely convoluted way to present a story, and I couldn’t help but feel that Dekker might have been padding the narrative a little bit for want of material. This rambling sixty-page introduction to the story contains a five-page poem about a dying colonist who misses his mother, and a six-page list of the various titles of essays that Max Havelaar is purported to have written, with Droogstoppel’s commentary (which was charming and amusing, but bore almost no relevance to the rest of the book). The actual story of Max Havelaar, which is basically Dekker’s own story with the names changed, relates the dismissal of a mid-ranking colonial official for attempting to blow the whistle on corruption and cruelty in his district. Unfortunately, narrative tension is largely sacrificed to explanations of the structure of the Dutch colonial administration and polemics against the corruption and inefficiency of the regime (Dekker, apparently not trusting to his story alone to make the right impression, always feels the need to hammer the reader over the head with exactly what is wrong with any given situation and to go on, at length, about how truly abominably unjust and awful it is). I found myself actually relishing Droogstoppel’s interruptions, despite the fact that they do nothing to progress the narrative, because they were at least humorous, and the rest of the book is frankly tedious.

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Amsterdam, 2012

Maybe yelling is the right tactic when you’re bringing attention to rank injustice on a massive scale; maybe coddling and hand-holding your audience by clothing your revolutionary message in a brisk narrative is an unnecessary expedient. But such direct political messaging makes for fairly tedious reading, especially a hundred and sixty years later when the issue has been largely resolved (that is not to say that Indonesia is a corruption-free paradise today, nor that the relics of colonialism have ceased to be damaging, but the specific abuses of power in the hierarchy that Dekker knew are no longer applicable). Additionally, the purity of Dekker’s motives are somewhat suspect, since he contacted the Dutch Minister of Colonies before the book was published and offered not to publish it in exchange for his old job back, recognition of time served, a “liberal advance” and (to cap it all off) knighthood. Which makes his championship of the cause of the downtrodden subjects of the Dutch empire just the teeniest bit suspect. He ends his book with a literal threat, a promise to foment revolution among the Indonesian populace if conditions in the colony are not improved. His cause seems, somehow, just a little bit less impressive if you append the rest of his ultimatum. I mean, “Give me liberty or give me death…or else give me lots of money and recognition and we’ll call it even!” doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

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Amsterdam, 2012
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One thought on “Max Havelaar: a selfish, altruistic, mediocre, Dutch work of great Indonesian literature

  1. Interesting tale–not the book’s, but the author’s. It doesn’t sound like it ever crossed his mind that as a European he might not have been the best–or most effective–person to foment an Indonesian revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

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