GABY RUSLI WRITES (in a series of reviews on Indonesian classics still in print) — It is a well-known fact that many great revolutions started from the circulation of finely written, brave literature. For the Indonesian natives who were growing weary of endless backbreaking work and hunger, Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (1860) represented what many can only dare to repress.
Max Havelaar tells the story of Batavus Droogstoppel, a Dutch coffee trader in Amsterdam who had ambitions of writing a detailed book about coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. Not knowing how to write a book, Droogstoppel collaborated with his new employee, Stern. However, Stern was not interested in writing a book on coffee auctions and would only write if he were free to write whatever he wanted. Despite Droogstoppel’s objections, Stern wrote about a Dutch civil servant named Max Havelaar — a modest man with the purest intentions. Unlike his corrupt colleagues, he sought to reform the system and help Indonesian natives have a better chance of sustainable and independent lives. Though Havelaar eventually failed in his endeavors, his story exposed the colonial government’s corrupt and inhumane system to the world.
Multatuli is a pen name used by Eduard Douwes Dekker. The Latin word “multatuli” translates to “I have suffered greatly,” implying that Max Havelaar was created to give voice to the voiceless natives who were worked to death. Dekker’s experience working for the Dutch government in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and his trademark satirical voice made him one of the Netherlands’ greatest authors. Additionally, he was one of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud’s favorite authors and the inspiration behind many other writers, including Karl Marx.
While Max Havelaar was revered by many, Havelaar was merely doing what was rightly required from his position as a civil servant and as a human being. Many failed to see Dekker’s attempt to portray the sad and surreal reality for the enslaved native Indonesians where basic human decency was a rare commodity and not a standard. The common occurrence of such misinterpretation may be due to Dekker’s dense and dry writing style. Without utter commitment to allocate one’s full attention, one can repeatedly re-read the same pages before fully comprehending the intended meaning.
Dekker also pointed out one critical fact that changes one’s perspective: the enslavement of the natives was a part of a mutually beneficial transaction between the Dutch and Indonesia’s aristocratic ruling class. Dekker shifted the standard narrative that emphasized that a Dutch takeover of Indonesia was imminent as the former was an all-powerful force and the latter was unrefined and defenseless. He reminded the natives that their failure in fighting against the Dutch was not for lack of trying but because many of their own were fighting alongside the Dutch to maintain privileged status. Though Max Havelaar is anything but an exhilarating adventure novel, Indonesians should read Multatuli’s epochal work to understand Indonesia’s deep colonial past — not to mention modern Indonesia’s proclivity for corruption and intolerance. It is a historical book that inspires the courageous task of bettering Indonesia’s present and future.
New Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.