MAX HAVELAAR: OR, THE COFFEE AUCTIONS OF THE DUTCH TRADING COMPANY
translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay
New York Review Books, 336 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
“I call a man a fool if he dives in the water to rescue a dog from sharks.” This is our introduction to Max Havelaar—a champion of the people, even irrationally so. He is a Dutchman who stands with Indonesian farmers. He is a bureaucrat who pushes against the orders of his superiors. Havelaar is a rare figure of compassion in the midst of Dutch imperialism, one who has the temerity and know-how to make tangible change. And, despite all of this, Max Havelaar is a minor character in the novel that bears his name.
Max Havelaar is likely an unfamiliar title to most American readers, and the Netherlands in general is an often overlooked source of literature. But make no mistake: the world over holds Max Havelaar in high regard. I recently had the chance to talk to a born-and-raised Dutchman, and I asked him if the title rang any bells. “Of course,” he told me. “It’s a classic, everyone reads it.” Think along the lines of Pride and Prejudice. In his short but poignant introduction to this edition of the novel, Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer makes the bold claim that Max Havelaar is one of the most important novels of all time. There’s a reason this novel caught the attention of writers like Karl Marx and Thomas Mann, and there’s a reason that when Freud drew up a list of ten great authors, Multatuli stood on top.
Multatuli is the mononymous pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, the son of a Dutch sea captain. The name “Multatuli” stems of Latin and roughly translates to, “I have suffered greatly.” When he was just eighteen, Dekker sailed on one of his father’s ships to the Dutch East Indies where he worked in finance before shifting into a government position. After nearly twenty years there, he rose to become the Assistant Resident of Lebak, but, after disagreeing with the Dutch colonial system, soon resigned and returned to the Netherlands. A few years later, in 1860, he would publish a novel about a man who becomes the Assistant Resident of Lebak, only to become disgusted with Dutch imperialism.
Max Havelaar is a highly fragmented, nonlinear text. The novel features several narrators, depending on how you count, and the plot can quickly become cumbersome and difficult to follow. It begins with Batavius Drystubble, a coffee merchant in the Netherlands. He recounts the exact process of how this novel was written, all the while describing the highly political field of coffee brokering and how it requires the majority of his attention (“My business is my life” becomes something of a mantra for his narration). Along the way, Drystubble encounters an old acquaintance, Shawlman, who entrusts him with a packet of his writings, an eclectic mix of poetry and essays that Drystubble claims is the source material for the Max Havelaar portions of the novel. Of course, Drystubble is so engrossed in his work that he cannot possible spend his time writing, for his business is his life. Thus, he enlists Ludwig Stern, a friend of his son’s, to write some of the chapters regarding Havelaar. Only then, a sizeable chuck into the text, does the story of Max Havelaar begin.
The two narrators are not shy and frequently speak directly do the reader to voice opinions and curate information. The source material from Shawlman lingers overhead, and Drystubble and Stern routinely reaffirm that they must cut out certain details that won’t add anything to the novel. These metafictional moments make it feel more apt to group Multatuli along with early postmodern authors than with contemporaries like Hugo, Tolstoy, or Eliot. Multatuli constantly reminds us that he is writing a novel in the same way Italo Calvino reminds us that we are reading a novel. In the revised 1881 edition of the novel, Multatuli added an extensive network of endnotes, inserting everything from new details to personal opinions. He wanted the reader to know that the narrative is deeper than what exists on the page, and he did so in the same way that David Foster Wallace would in Infinite Jest more than a hundred years later.
You see, reader, I am searching for the answer to that how? Which is why my book is such a mixed bag. It’s a book of samples: take your pick.
While Multatuli should be commended for his efforts to restructure narrative, one must consider the downside of taking such risks—there are unfortunately many times where he sacrifices clarity for creativity. The narrators provide so much of their own commentary that it is often difficult to get situated as the reader is torn between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. The novel itself is so restless that the reader is never allowed to get immersed into a single narrative thread. To be frank, the style and structure of this novel read not quite unfinished, but a bit undercooked. For modern readers, there are many points where it may just seem easier to put down this book in favor of something a little more palatable. However, it is important to acknowledge that Multatuli wasn’t trying to write something beautiful and easy to swallow. There is no room for poetics in Max Havelaar because Multatuli’s goal was to inspire mutiny. The value in this novel is in what Multatuli says, not how he says it.
With that in mind, it’s crucial to understand Max Havelaar within its historical context: Multatuli may not have written with beauty, but he certainly wrote with contempt. When this novel was first published in 1860, European imperialism was more than three centuries old. The vast majority of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East were all under European rule. Any voices that challenged this system were usually mild enough to be suppressed. Max Havelaar is the rare exception. At every opportunity, Multatuli describes the faults of Dutch imperialism. Frequently, the novel digresses into essayish passages against the Dutch that are often more gripping than the surrounding narrative. Critiques are written with surgical precision, always attacking the Dutch and sparing Indonesians. There are no slurs or stereotypes in this novel. There is nothing that paints native Indonesians as anything “less.” On the contrary, Multatuli treats the minutiae of Indonesian life with utmost respect to show his countrymen exactly how equal they are. Unlike Mark Twain, Multatuli was able to write about an oppressed group without including subtle linguistic cues that reinforce their marginalization.
Part of what makes Multatuli so adept as an exponent is his remarkable understanding of why. He does not settle for simply stating that oppression exists. Instead, he clearly explains how oppression is a systemic condition. Through Havelaar, we learn about the tactics of Dutch imperialism that perfected their hegemony. Dutch imperialists effectively made native Indonesians subjugate their compatriots. In the imperialist system, Dutch officials would appoint natives, called adipatis, to control smaller stretches of land. The Dutch would subsidize each adipati’s lifestyle, making them rich. If an average farmer had any grievances, they would direct them towards the newly aristocratic adipati. The Dutch washed their hands of blame because their subjects likely never saw a Dutchman’s face. Indonesians could never effectively rebel against the Dutch because they thought their problems were internal. The Dutch created a perfect system of exploitation, allowing them to create famines in Indonesia, home to some of the most fertile land on Earth. This is just one example of abuse. Multatuli gives us dozens.
Any turmoil that is impossible to conceal is blamed on a small gang of malefactors who will no longer cause any trouble now that overall contentment prevails. If want or famine has thinned the population, it was surely the result of crop failure, drought, rain, or something of the sort, and never of misgovernment.
Of course, any time the narrative begins to describe the atrocities taking place in Indonesia, Batavius Drystubble interjects. This is business after all, isn’t it? And his business is his life (it’s no coincidence that the capital of the Dutch East Indies was Batavia). If the Dutch do not maintain their control over Indonesia, then the coffee industry in the Netherlands will certainly collapse. For Drystubble, one of Max Havelaar’s narrators, imperialism is necessary for economic survival. Any element of the novel that critiques the Dutch system is most assuredly written by Ludwig Stern. Max Havelaar, as magnanimous as he is, becomes less important as the two narrators vie for power over the message. Stern calls for change, while Drystubble calls for stasis. Multatuli highlights how the complacency in existing systems causes change to lag, even in the face of necessity. In the context of the novel, Max Havelaar is a past tense character. Despite the progress he personally made, he did little to affect the Dutch system that Drystubble and Stern live in in the present. Multatuli did not merely want to proselytize, he wanted to show that progress is a generational process.
At the end of WWII, European imperialism was vulnerable enough to be toppled, and Indonesia was one of the first nations in this new world liberate itself. In August 1945, before the Pacific War had fully ceased, Indonesia declared independence. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, cited Max Havelaar as a personally influential text. Many Indonesians today agree, which is remarkable considering the novel wasn’t translated into Indonesian until 1972. Indonesia was a model for a path to independence that other nations could follow, and within the next three decades most of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East would be politically decolonized. Much of the world outside of the United States understands Max Havelaar’s role in this domino effect. Reading this novel shows the absolute earliest stages of revolt in a way that’s still resonant. This is the undeniable importance of this novel. Few novels have had such a profound effect on global politics, and that feat ought not to be ignored. Max Havelaar may not be the most leisurely read, but, at the very least, it’s worth knowing the name.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.