There is an interesting dynamic which occurs every time I read a Dutch book about colonialism. I am fascinated by these books, as literature seems one of the only avenues, even if in recent times not one that occurs frequently, in which the Dutch dare mention and discuss their colonial past. At the same time, I become hesitant almost from the start: What to think of word use, tropes, is there enough discussion, is there enough room for subversion of a heroic tale of the Dutch as humane colonialists working towards “civilisation”? Dare I write about these books, should I read them and leave things unsaid for fear of being wrong?
More than anything, writing about Dutch colonial literature makes me want to stress again and again how blogging for me is a learning experience, an exchange of thoughts, a process of “thinking out loud” where I am not an expert, and do not pretend to be one.
Last year, I organised a read along of Hella Haasse’s The Tea Lords where I dove head first into this confusion, with no notion what to say. There were hints in the comment section where the idea was raised whether Dutch colonialism was more benign than that of the English, and I was left a little speechless.. Should we compare colonial histories on their being more benign than others? One year later, I feel I am better able to situate why that question made me so uncomfortable. I think it has to do with the fact that the Dutch narrative of colonialism, throughout at least the twentieth century, was one that wanted to compare their own version of colonialism as more favourable than that of others, as “guides towards civilisation” more than oppressors. So if Haasse somehow evoked that feeling in some readers, it might be that some of that narrative is still reflected in colonial literature. Which makes sense, because it can still be found in some books on colonial history.
Then I read Lisa’s post on the book which managed to articulate some of what was going on in my mind, but that I never managed to put into words. And I felt even more doubtful of whether or not I should ever venture into the land of fiction about colonial times again. But at the same time, its themes cover much of my professional and personal interest and I want to learn more and be a better critic. So here I am, returning to the very theme with another book by Haasse. With another gentle reminder that this is a topic that fascinates me, but that I am always in the process of learning about. That these views articulated now might have changed since my writing them down, in a month, a year, or whenever from now.
The Black Lake – Hella Haasse
Previously published as Forever a Stranger
Translated from the Dutch Oeroeg by Ina Rilke
Portobello Books, 2012
first published in 1948
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The Black Lake is the story of a friendship between a Dutch child of a tea plantation owner, the unnamed narrator, and an Indonesian child of a servant, called Oeroeg. The two boys grow up together, at first ignorant of their inequalities, but as they progress in age the outer world makes them more and more aware of their difference in rank and they threaten to grow apart..
Writing a summary of The Black Lake is quite difficult, because as I have defined it above, and as many of the available plot summaries define it, both boys are unaware of the inequalities between them. However, reading the book, you have to wonder if it is not in fact the narrator who is unaware, while Oeroeg, living with his subservient status daily, is very much aware.. Throughout the book, Oeroeg’s thoughts and feelings are articulated and defined by the narrator, which makes that his own point of view always remains somewhat vague. Are these his opinions as perceived by the narrator, reflecting the Dutch viewpoint on Indonesians, or are Oeroeg and the Dutch boy close enough that these should be read as Oeroeg’s actual points of view? I am unable to say what Haasse meant to evoke in the reader, but this partial silencing of the Indonesian viewpoint and the questions surrounding the why of doing so (is it consciously or unconsciously done?) lend an interesting background to what occurs in the book.
In some ways, The Black Lake can be read as a final goodbye to Dutch colonialism, and the relationships that were imagined as friendly and equal by some Dutchmen and that now seem to be rejected by the Indonesians (which in itself portrays some of the skewed narrative going on). Published in 1948, one should remember that Haasse wrote this novella in the midst of the Indonesian war for independence that lasted from 1945 until 1949. Haasse did not know the definite outcome, and the book leaves the outcome unresolved, although it seems to lean towards a definite end.
This time around (I have read Oeroeg before) I could not shake the idea that Haasse’s characters in some ways represent the different perceptions behind Dutch colonialism, from the Dutch side at least.
There is the narrator’s father, who represents a business interests as a plantation holder. He and his friends, particularly on an expedition to the lake, evoke the narrative of masculine heroic adventurism tinged with loneliness, yet constantly negating the respect the surroundings somehow seem to evoke and putting their own experience and enjoyment first.
Oeroeg’s benefactor in later years, Lida, evokes the idea of wanting to help Indonesians better themselves, to reach their rightful place in society, to “raise them up”, to the detriment of her own income and welfare – reflecting the colonial narrative of the Ethical policy circa 1900. She is constantly portrayed as somehow naive in giving up so much for others, but also as better able to understand Oeroeg’s motivation, while also being “used” because it is on offer. It is probably not accidental that Lida is female and thus cast as the more feminine narrative of care taking.
The narrator himself is perhaps in the end the most naive. He imagines his friendship with Oeroeg as real and utterly equal, despite the inequalities of the outer world. Throughout the book, he realises that this might be naive, that Oeroeg has his reasons, and has had them for a long time, to not feel this same equality. And this is where the book message can be read as somewhat bitter. For is the conclusion then that no real friendship can exist between two people from different cultures, perceived as from different social standings? Is the message that colonialism’s inequalities are irrevocable, that nothing can ever be amiable afterwards? And why is the narrator portrayed as naive, which somehow makes him innocent, and Oeroeg as, in the end, unwavering and rigid, unable to feel because of the greater ideology he now adopts? Is it a criticism of the then existing idea that Indonesia’s independence could be guaranteed in friendly relations and under the Dutch royal crown, and thus condoning the more outright independence the Indonesians wanted? Or is it actually a Dutch rejection of “ungrateful” Indonesia that “we” have only wanted to help from the 1900s onwards, despite the cruel inequalities inherent in the colonial relationship?
And then there is the question of Oeroeg himself. He is in some ways the central character of the book, more so than the narrator himself, but as I have mentioned above, he rarely receives his own voice. Towards the end of the book, Oeroeg is more often quoted directly (again, as the narrator remembers it), which, if you read the whole book as an allegory for Dutch colonialism, could reflect the rise of nationalism in Indonesia, sometimes also refered to in Dutch as the “growing up” of the Indonesian population, literally, their becoming able to express their own opinions (mondig worden). But while he receives his own voice more often towards the end, his person seems to be captured in the narratives he was told by others and I wonder if he ever truly becomes his own person in the book, if he has true agency. In the perception of the narrator, he is influenced and guided by others, almost in a “couldn’t care less” attitude he is guided by the waves. First Lida, then the nationalist clubs. When the narrator hears Oeroeg speak about the work to be done, the narrator mentions that it was as if he was repeating something he had been told, as if he was not speaking in his own voice. In part, this may reflect the reality of anyone who gets caught up in political groups reflecting certain interest, but it might also cast Indonesian nationalism as radicalism, which reflects a certain Dutch colonial narrative and was often evoked at the end of the colonial period.
The Black Lake can be read in many ways, and there are many parts that lend themselves for in-depth discussion and possibilities to read it as both a very colonial and a very anti-colonial book. Yet I could not shake the feeling that it also reiterates certain colonial narratives about the Dutch-Indonesian relationship at the time. I have tried to pinpoint some of them above. One more thing needs to be mentioned which is the almost nostalgic way the environment, Jawa’s natural surroundings, are described. There is a longing and exoticism involved, a sense of a past paradise for the narrator, that is irrevocable changed upon his return after his studies in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, The Black Lake seems not to have been read by other bloggers, as I would have loved to discuss it with others. The novella, at around 100 pages, packs a lot, and can be read in a myriad of ways. On the one hand, I admire Haasse exceedingly, particularly as this is her debut. On the other, reading her books with a colonial setting, I am always left wondering if she might not have done more, raised more questions, allowed for more criticism – or if I am simply reading the books wrong. I will add that Haasse has returned to the themes in The Black Lake in a later novel, Sleuteloog (2002), of which I have not been able to find a translation and which I have not yet read myself.
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** I read the Dutch version which was published by Wolters-Noordhoff, 1992.