Monday 10 August 2015

Multatuli "Max Havelaar"

Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) "Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company" (Dutch: Max Havelaar of de koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappy) - 1859

Eduard Douwes Dekker aka Multatuli should probably be called the Dutch Charles Dickens. At least, he's from the same era and is just as popular in the Netherlands as Dickens is in the United Kingdom.
His book seemed to have opened the eyes of many Dutch people at the time as to what colonialism really meant. "Max Havelaar" is also called "the book that killed colonialism" and was chosen as the most important book in Dutch literature in 2002.

There are other lists around in the meantime where it is still number three, following "The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch and "The House of the Mosque" by Kader Abdolah, two very influential and important works I highly recommend.

The book is translated (not just) into English but I read it in the original Dutch. In any case, I think it still has a message for us today, it is as important now as it was then. It's subtitle "Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company," does not really say a lot more about the book than just the plain title because it is a lot more about the life in Indonesia both for the local people as well as the colonialists back then than about the trading itself. It is a work about the oppression of Europeans over other nations, you can compare it to what we have done in Africa or even to slavery. The natives had no rights whatsoever and only worked to keep their own lives so they could create more money for their "masters". All sounds very familiar.

The author got his contemporaries thinking about what colonialism really meant. And he still has a voice today. Well done. Definitely a book worth picking up.

From the back cover:

"When Max Havelaar was first published in Holland in 1860, it ignited a major political and social brouhaha. The novel, written by a former official of the Dutch East Indian Civil Service under the pen name Multatuli, exposed the massive corruption and cruelty rife in the Dutch colony of Java. Max Havelaar is an undeniably autobiographical novel; like his hero, Multatuli--the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker--was an Assistant Resident of Lebak in Java; like Havelaar in the novel, he resigned his position when his accusations of corruption and abuse were disregarded by higher authorities, resulting in years of poverty for both author and fictional hero. Max Havelaar is told from several different perspectives; the reader first meets an Amsterdam coffee dealer named Droogstoppel, a man so obsessed with coffee that his every thought and action is governed by it. Droogstoppel has come by a manuscript from an old schoolmate who, down on his luck, has asked him to get it published. The schoolmate is Havelaar, and the manuscript relates his experiences as an idealistic and generous young civil servant who tries to protect the poor and bring justice to the powerless.

The central part of the novel details conditions in Java, particularly Havelaar's efforts to correct injustices in the face of a corrupt government system. That his efforts will prove futile soon becomes apparent, and there is something almost Greek in the inevitability of Havelaar's declining fortunes. Despite its tragic themes, Max Havelaar is savagely funny, particularly the chapters narrated by Droogstoppel, a character unmatched for his veniality, narrow-mindedness, or singular lack of understanding or imagination. Though Multatuli's masterpiece is nearly 150 years old, it wears its age well, and Roy Edwards's excellent translation offers English-speaking readers a wonderful opportunity to experience one of the Netherlands's great literary classics."

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