I discovered this very interesting book thanks to Dutch Lit Week which is organised by Iris from Iris on Books. Hella Haasse (1918 – 2011) is an eminent author from the Netherlands, whose oeuvre comprises many works set in what was the Dutch East Indies until Indonesian independence in 1949. She was born in Jakarta (then called Batavia) but completed her post-secondary education in the Netherlands and lived most of her life there. Oeroeg was her debut novel, published in 1949. She must have been writing it during the period of military and diplomatic conflict which followed Indonesia’s 1945 Declaration of Independence.
I had some doubts about Haasse’s magnum opus, The Tea Lords (see my thoughts here), but despite some reservations, I found The Black Lake (the title by which Oeroeg is translated) to be a less troubling book. It’s a novella of only 114 pages and I read it in an hour-and-a-half on my flight back from Queensland. A coming-of-age story penned in the first person, it captures the pain and bewilderment of a cross-cultural friendship that cannot survive the war of independence.
The unnamed narrator is the only child of a tea-planter, and as his parents’ marriage disintegrates, his friendship with Oeroeg becomes the most important relationship that he has. Oeroeg is the son of Deppoh, the Indonesian foreman, and Oeroeg’s family becomes a sort of second home where there is fun, laughter and games, unlike his own melancholy home. The boy’s naïve commentary suggests that the boys play as equals, but of course they are not. His father is embarrassed that his son is more fluent in the local language than he is in Dutch, and is not keen on the friendship at all. Very disparaging remarks are made about the locals, and while some are in context depicting the father’s racism, some are attributed to the boy-turned-adolescent, and to Oeroeg. The patronising tone of the first paragraph below is offensive, and I was stunned to see the second paragraph suggesting Javanese culture as worthless. I cannot imagine any Indonesian nationalist saying something like this, especially not about wayang which has a long tradition as a mouthpiece for political criticism through humour:
One thing led to another, and ultimately to a discussion during which I was kept on the defensive due to sheer ignorance on my part. I knew next to nothing about the upsurge of nationalist sentiment, the unofficial schools that were being set up, the ferment of unrest in certain sections of native society. I listened in silence as Oeroeg and Abdullah, all aflame, railed against the injustices of the colonial government, against the Dutch and against white people in general. Much of what they said struck me as unfounded or exaggerated, but I was at a loss for counter arguments. My astonishment grew by the minute: in his new milieu of radical students and young agitators Oeroeg had turned into an orator.
‘The desa folk, the common people, have been kept dumb for a purpose,’ he said vehemently, looking straight at me as he leaned forward across the table. ‘It was in your interest to prevent them from developing. But those days are over. We’ll see to that. They don’t need wayang puppets or gamelans, [Indonesian orchestra] and none of those superstitions or doekoens [herbalists] either – we’re not living in the empire of Mataram any more, nor is there any reason why Java should look like a postcard for tourists. All that stuff is just ballast. The temple at Boroboedoer [Borobodur] is nothing but a heap of old stones. Let them give us factories, and warships and modern clinics and schools, and a say in our own affairs’. (p. 103)
An accident caused by the irresponsible behaviour of the drunken Europeans orphans Oeroeg. Deppoh drowns trying to save the boy when the boat overturns on Telaga Hideung (the Black Lake) and when a replacement foreman is found the widow and the other children have to leave (and henceforth live in negatively portrayed slatternly poverty). In wholly inadequate recompense for the loss of the breadwinner, the boy’s father pays for Oeroeg’s education, and later, he is ‘adopted’ by Lida, a single woman who runs a boarding house and takes him on as a surrogate child of her own. The narrator is finishing his education in the Netherlands when the Japanese invade, and by the time he returns the war of independence has made his homeland a perilous place for the Dutch, and Oeroeg has loyalties which transcend his childhood friendship.
Written as it is from the perspective of a Dutch man looking back on his privileged youth in colonial Indonesia, the novella has obvious limitations: it is nostalgic for a lost world, it is obtuse about colonialism and it fails to offer much insight into Indonesian nationalism. But from what I can see at GoodReads it is widely read as a school text both in Indonesia and in the Netherlands, and generally rated highly by readers from both countries. My guess is that in the hands of capable teachers, classes would delve into the novel as much for what is omitted as for what is in the text.
However, although the novella’s naïveté is a topic for discussion in a post-colonial world, it was a debut novel, and written when that world was in flux. While my sympathies are with Oeroeg and his compatriots, I think this novella also shows that the human cost of any struggle for independence has victims on both sides. The unnamed narrator symbolises all those who lost friendships, albeit unequal ones, and lost their homeland and their nationality too.
The translation by Ina Rilke is excellent, and the book cover design by Michael Salu is perfect: it’s batik.
Author: Hella S Haasse
Title: The Black Lake (also translated as Oeroeg)
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
Publisher: Portobello Books 2012
Source: Personal library
Fishpond: The Black Lake