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The following review appeared 17 May 2019 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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What well known nineteenth-century author shocked readers with anti-imperialist writings against his own country? Members of the Mark Twain Forum can answer that question quickly--but they are not likely to name Dutch author Multatuli, pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887), whose satiric writings on this subject were ahead of Samuel Clemens's efforts by forty years.
The first English translation of Max Havelaar appeared in 1868, and although there is no indication that Samuel Clemens was aware of the book, there are striking parallels between the themes of Max Havelaar and some of Mark Twain's writing. And while Mark Twain's frequent use of frame narrators sometimes seems needlessly complicated, this style of storytelling is taken even further in Max Havelaar.
The title character who is drawn from the author's own experience, is a colonial government administrator in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) in the 1850s who objects to the appalling conditions imposed on the indigenous residents of the tropical islands of Sumatra and Java--which includes forced labour, loss of property, and famine--who endure forced labour, loss of property and famine--in order to produce coffee, sugar and cinnamon for the benefit of Holland. Intelligent and sensitive, Max Havelaar is greatly bothered by having to swear an oath to protect his subjects while being tacitly required to overlook the criminal actions of his superiors and the native chiefs with whom they conspire. The exploitation of helpless labourers typifies the hypocrisy of Western imperialism for "the stately matron named Christendom" that Mark Twain summarized well in "A salutation-speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth."
The most satiric portions of Max Havelaar are narrated by Batavus Drystubble, a strictly-business Amsterdam coffee broker (hence the subtitle, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company). Drystubble has received the writings of an old and poor acquaintance named Shawlman. Drystubble reluctantly agrees to publish Shawlman's story about Max Havelaar, but cannot resist providing his own dismissive comments on the manuscript. Huck's first and last words in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn question the veracity of Mark Twain's narration in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The first words from narrator Drystubble reveal that he, too, will question the truthfulness of the stories that Max Havelaar will tell about oppression in Sumatra and Java:
I am a coffee broker and . . . it is not my habit to write novels or suchlike, so it was some time before I could bring myself to order a few extra reams of paper and commence the work that you, dear reader, have just taken up, which you must read if you're a coffee broker, or if you're anything else. Not only have I never written anything resembling a novel, but I don't even care to read the things, because I am a man of business. For years I've wondered what could be the use of such stuff, and I'm amazed at the shamelessness with which poets or novelists will dare to tell you some tale that never happened, and in most cases never could. In my line of work . . . I could never furnish . . . a statement containing even the smallest fraction of the untruths that make up the body of poems and novels. . . . Truth and common sense, I say, and I'll stick to it. For Scripture I make an exception, of course (7).
The best parts of Max Havelaar, the most Twainian parts, are narrated by Drystubble the coffee broker as he comments to the reader on the manuscript he has been asked to publish. Like Huck Finn, Drystubble does not recognize the irony of his own words. Whereas Huck is innocent because of his youth, Drystubble is middle aged and is more of a proto-Archie Bunker:
What do I care about those faraway people. . . . For as [Pastor] Waffler has said, God ordains everything so that righteousness leads to riches. "Look around you," he said, "isn't there a lot of wealth here in the Netherlands? That's thanks to the true religion. Isn't France rife with murder nowadays? That's because they're Roman Catholics. Aren't the Javanese poor? That's because they're heathens. The longer the Dutch people associate with the Javanese, the more wealth will come our way, and the more poverty theirs. That's God's will!" I am impressed by Waffler's insight into business. . . . Isn't this is a sign to follow the straight and narrow? To keep up full production over there and persevere in the true religion here? (223-4).
Drystubble places such high value on truth that he cannot tolerate poetry: "I have nothing against rhymes as such. If you want to regiment your words, fine! But don't say things that aren't true" (9). When he discovers a sentimental poem among Max Havelaar's writings, he begrudgingly consents to his publisher's request to include it, with his preface: "Lies and tomfoolery! I will refrain from offering my own comments, or my book will be too long. All I will say here is that the poem was apparently composed in 1843 or thereabouts, in the region of Padang, and Padang is not premium grade. The coffee, I mean" (26). Twainians cannot help but think of Huck's unknowingly ironic assessment of the literary talent of Emmeline Grangerford, who "could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think. . . . [S]he would slap down a line, and if she couldn't find anything to rhyme with it would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead."
Drystubble does not believe Max Havelaar's descriptions of forced, unpaid labour in West Java, preferring instead to believe the account of another former administrator (a more polished friend of his father-in-law), who has recently returned with a different account of his posting there:
The Resident and his wife were dear, generous people, who told us many things about their way of life in the East. It must be an agreeable place after all. They said their estate in Driebergen [Netherlands] was not half the size of their "grounds" in the interior of Java, where they'd needed a staff of more than a hundred for upkeep. But--and this shows how beloved they were--all those people worked for nothing, out of pure devotion (261).
Earlier, Drystubble's pastor Waffler has preached a sermon, in florid language worthy of the pastor in Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," asserting that the Dutch forcing the Javanese to work is beneficent and brings them closer to redemption: "God is a God of love! . . . that is why Holland has been chosen to save what may be saved of those miserable souls! . . . Dutch vessels sail the great seas and bring civilization, religion and Christianity to the wayward Javanese!" (120). By Mark Twain's time and the Philippine-American War, the language had not changed:
The Philippines are ours forever. . . . And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world" (United States Senator Albert Beveridge, 9 Jan 1900, qtd. in Zwick, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire, xviii).
The Twainian reader of Multatuli cannot help but compare two authors' approaches to imperialism. Multatuli clearly conveys his outrage--asking King William III, for example, if it is "your imperial will . . . that your more than thirty million subjects out there be mistreated and exploited in your name?" (289)--but his best satire is delivered through the unreliable narrator Drystubble. Mark Twain makes similar criticisms with greater artistry. (Multatuli, always a step ahead of his readers, anticipates the criticism.) Although Mark Twain was not speaking directly to the Philippine-American War while writing "The Chronicle of Young Satan" (Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts), the official indifference to abuse in the Dutch East Indies, and Multatuli's shocked reaction to it, brings to mind the chilling concision of Mark Twain's Satan when he declares people are "of no value." When Max Havelaar does not receive any official response to his reports of abuse, he would have sympathized with Theodor's horror of Satan who "destroys in cold blood a hundred helpless poor men and women who had never done him any harm! It made us sick to see that awful deed. . . . And we were witnesses; we could not get away from that thought; we had seen these murders done and it was our duty to tell, and let the law take its course. . . . we could hardly bear it, but he was as bland about it as if it had been so many imitation rats in an artificial fire" (50).
Max Havelaar ends with the author discarding the characters and addressing readers directly. Kurt Vonnegut's best metafiction has nothing on Multatuli.
Multatuli had indeed worked as a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies, and so his alter ego is not only Max Havelaar, but also Shawlman (the character who wrote and sent the manuscript to Drystubble). Shawlman's writings are presented via an omniscient narrator named Stern, a young apprentice who Drystubble has hired in order to please Stern's parents, whose firm is one of his good customers. Fortunately, these changes of narrative voices are handled with humour, such as when Drystubble periodically interrupts the story to assure us that he (Drystubble) will return to write a few more chapters about what we are really interested in-coffee--and that we can just skip the boring chapters written by Stern.
An excellent 1976 film adaptation of the novel (none of Mark Twain's full length works have received one as good), with Rutger Hauer in a minor role, wisely simplifies the confusion by removing intermediate narrators altogether. However, whereas the bigoted narrator Drystubble is the star of the book, he takes only a minor role in the film, and so the book is richly ironic in a way that the film is not. But even the film contains a Twainian touch in one scene when the family of Max Havelaar dines on canned cauliflower--a la Colonel Sellers, who feasts on raw turnips--because the idealistic Max has given all of his money to people he feels need it more, including even the corrupt chiefs.
As if the original book did not have enough layers of narration, another was introduced in 1881 when Multatuli added sixty pages of comments and endnotes to the text, most of which appear in this translation. These endnotes especially show that the author became embittered as he aged, much as would Mark Twain. Multatuli explains that he had not wanted to write Max Havelaar, but only did so after his private entreaties to superiors were ignored. In 1860 he had been optimistic that his book would effect change in the Dutch East Indies when, suddenly facing negative publicity, ministers of government feigned indignation and passed new laws against abuse. With the added experience of twenty years since the original publication, Multatuli realized there had not been anything wrong with the existing laws, other than that they were not enforced by the officials who had been sworn to uphold them. He could also report dishearteningly that it made no difference whether the government was conservative or liberal, and that the public always remained gullible--a story that, a century and a half later, sounds familiar to more than just Twainians.
A jacket blurb appearing on this 2019 translation repeats D. H. Lawrence's assertion in 1927 that Mark Twain and Multatuli shared the dynamic force of 'hate'--which may reveal only that Lawrence did not understand the two authors as we do today. The better descriptor is that the two satirists shared anger at politicians who are skilled at disguising their own hate in order to feed their greed. Despite a satiric talent comparable to Mark Twain, Multatuli seems to wield it without pleasure when he asks: "Why must outrage and sorrow so often wrap themselves in the motley cloak of satire?" (208). His question contrasts sharply against Mark Twain's better known affirmation, "Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand."
An essay by the late Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer that appeared in the New York Times in 1999 as "The Book That Killed Colonialism" is reprinted here as the introduction, and succinctly places the novel in historical context, describing two centuries of colonization by the Netherlands, mainly for spices. Pramoedya argues that Max Havelaar and Uncle Tom's Cabin shared similar fates, falling from popularity once the government addressed the problems they criticized. Multatuli mentions Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel several times, and he clearly hoped that Max Havelaar would have the same positive social effect in the Dutch East Indies that Stowe's novel would have in the United States.
Although it is arguable whether either novel truly had such direct results as their readers would like to believe, modern admirers of Mark Twain's opposition to Western imperialism will find much to enjoy in Max Havelaar, and will surely wonder if indeed Mark Twain ever owned a copy that has not surfaced. This translation is easy to read. The only potential confusion likely to be caused is by the multiple layers of narration, but not by the language itself. Because the Dutch original had a modern style and tone for its time, the translators have succeeded well in delivering an experience as close to the original as an English speaker can hope to have. This edition also contains a glossary of titles and foreign words in Malay (351-5) and a chronology of the author (356-7). Readers may wish that a map with both colonial and modern place names had been included, since they pervade the story.
This attractive and accessible new translation of Max Havelaar is highly recommended to lovers of satire.
Multatuli predicted correctly that the Netherlands would lose its East Indian possessions because of rebellions against its rule, though many more years would pass before Indonesia would achieve independence (to say nothing of its later political instability). When considering the brief lives of so many people in Sumatra and Java as described by Multatuli, Susy Clemens's question as a child sadly comes to mind: "What does the world go on, for?"