Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2014

The Black Lake (1948), by Hella S Haasse, translated by Ina Rilke

The Black Lake

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 1948.  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.

Update 29/9/16 I’ve just discovered that The Black Lake  (Oeroeg) is listed in 1001 Books Before You Die as Forever a Stranger…

Author: Hella S Haasse
Title: The Black Lake (also translated as Oeroeg)
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
Publisher: Portobello Books 2012, first published 1948
ISBN: 9781846273230
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: The Black Lake


  1. How interesting! I wasn’t in love with The Tea Lords either, but I do like what you have to say about this reading experience. I’ll have a look out for this novella.


    • I was more forgiving because it was a debut novel and because it was written contemporaneously with the impending loss of the colony when it was understandable that people might not have been aware that colonisation wasn’t justifiable. But I was rather put out by The Tea Lords, written so much later when such ignorance was unforgiveable – not just because of what was in it (and what wasn’t) but also because it’s considered to be such a great book by contemporary critics.


      • And, yet, it was solidly written and all the parts in working order, characters credible and voice consistent, so she is obviously a skilled writer. Agree completely that it is more of an issue of what wasn’t in the book (though obviously what IS in it is an essential part of that equation).

        Wouldn’t it be interesting to think of — you know how so often writers today make companion reads for classics — what a companion read for The Tea Lords would be like, how powerful that could be.

        Your thought on how frustrated you are with the lauding of the work makes me think of my experience rereading Gone with the Wind not long ago; I am still astounded at the adulation it receives but, then, when I was a teenager I was just as adoring.


  2. Hmm, yes, a companion choice, something from the Indonesian PoV? Perhaps The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer? I would also suggest Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rozal from the Philippines because it’s a great, very readable story in itself but is also the first example of an indigenous author expressing resistance to colonialism.
    LOL I read Gone with the Wind too when I was young and romantic, and I read it with images of the film in my head as well. Of course I loved it!



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