Labourer in a Dutch coffee and rubber plantation, Java, 1900. Photo : Anonyme/Prentenkabinet Leiden

Max Havelaar, more than fair trade

Published in 1859, the book that gave its name to the fair trade movement remains a classic work of fiction. Notwithstanding, or perhaps, because of its avant-garde style and continued attempts to wrong-foot the reader, Max Havelaar's portrayal of colonial oppression in Indonesia still has lessons for modern readers.

Published on 30 December 2009 at 16:49
Labourer in a Dutch coffee and rubber plantation, Java, 1900. Photo : Anonyme/Prentenkabinet Leiden

On 13 October 1859, Multatuli wrote to his wife: "Sweetheart, I have finished my book. At last, I have finished it." One and a half a century later, it is time to celebrate this most important work of Dutch literature [in which a civil servant recounts the oppression of Javanese workers on the East Indian coffee plantations]. Rereading Max Havelaar is like returning to a country not visited since childhood. Memories of crucial moments re-emerge unchanged, replete with details that were blurred or forgotten over the years. It is not a linear novel, but a tangle of shifting perspectives, overlapping stories, sudden transitions, and other literary pyrotechnics that were largely unprecedented in 19th century fiction.

As befits a cultural monument—which seems strangely familiar, even to those who have not read it—every few pages reveals yet another classic episode, which time has often separated from its context: from the surprising opening drama to the impressive conclusion, in which the writer airs his grievances in a direct address to the king of Holland ["More than thirty million of your subjects are mistreated and abused in your name."] And in between, we have the remarkable speech to the indigenous rulers of Lebak, the tale of the Japanese stonemason, and the moving story of Saïdjah and Adinda.

Little impact on public opinion

The avant-garde aspect of Max Havelaar is not a function of its language and has little to do with the poems Multatuli inserts throughout the story. It is the structure of the novel, or perhaps even its lack of structure, which continues to astonish contemporary readers. Here we have the story of Havelaar, a Dutch colonial civil servant, told by a German clerk Stern, who transcribes the literary exercises of certain Sjaalman, whose manuscript has fallen into the hands of money-grubbing coffee broker Batavus Droogstoppel… Nothing is as it seems, and the reader is continually thrown off track to the point where he cannot help wondering which point of view should take precedence.

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In view of its complexity, the novel did little to mobilize contemporary public opinion to oppose the exploitation of Javanese workers. Faced with an authorial voice, which demands nothing less than an ideal reader, capable of circumventing a series of narrative traps constructed from the ironic interplay of fiction and non-fiction to come to grips with a fundamental message, even 21st century readers well-schooled in the interpretation of modern and post-modern literature may find themselves lost.

It is therefore not surprising that Eduard Douwes Dekker [who wrote using the pen name Multatuli] proved to be a more convincing opponent of colonial injustice than his protagonist and literary alter ego, Max Havelaar. Havelaar never seems to transcend his quasi messianic role, whereas the real-life Dekker was not bound by any such constraint. As many commentators have remarked, Max Havelaar aspires to be propaganda, but ultimately the campaign for a better world fails to convince, and what remains can only be termed great literature—which is also why it remains a blessing for the readers of today.

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