One of the most forceful indictments of colonialism ever written.
The central part of the novel details conditions in Java, particularly Havelaar's efforts to correct injustices in the face of a corrupt government system. That his efforts will prove futile soon becomes apparent, and there is something almost Greek in the inevitability of Havelaar's declining fortunes. Despite its tragic themes, Max Havelaar is savagely funny, particularly the chapters narrated by Droogstoppel, a character unmatched for his veniality, narrow-mindedness, or singular lack of understanding or imagination. Though Multatuli's masterpiece is nearly 150 years old, it wears its age well, and Roy Edwards's excellent translation offers English-speaking readers a wonderful opportunity to experience one of the Netherlands's great literary classics.
The book has not aged well. Contemporary cynicism--resulting from, in part, Watergate, Vietnam, a stream of revelations of various colonial regimes and a plethora of political scandals--makes the cursory information about the Dutch East Indian Civil Service under whelming. One has to repeatedly remind themselves that the original readers were idealistic about their government's intentions.
One can glean interesting social and cultural glimpses of the period from the bloated pages. This indirect benefit is one of the few reasons to read the book.
If the author had spent more time providing information about the colonies instead of rambling on and on with his self-aggrandizement, this book could have been an invaluable piece of history. As it stands, it is a testimony to the hubris of a flawed man.