... of the Modern Novel, Max Havelaar is a disaster. A hodge-podge. A clumsy polemic thinly disguised as an biography of a fictive hero ... until the final veil is cast aside and the 'author' reveals his still-masked face under the pseudonym Multatuli. But Max Havelaar ISN'T a Modern Novel. The rules don't apply. Though it was published in 1860, it's closer to an 18th C novel of 'sensibility', much like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy or A Sentimental Journey. Is it mere serendipity that the fictional scribe in Max Havelaar, the German student who assembles the notes of the Scarfman into a book purporting to deal with coffe auctions, is named Ludwig Stern? A critic might also trace Multatuli's peculiar narrative mayhem to another pseudonymous author, Stendahl, whose Le Rouge et le Noir and whose autobiographical Life of Henry Brulard are equally spasmodic in structure.
Multatuli in the flesh was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutchman born in 1820 who joined the East Indian Civil Service at age 18, rose steadily in rank during his years of service in Java, and resigned in protest against brutal colonial exploitation in 1856. The character Max Havelaar is indeed Dekker's avatar, but Dekker's career is narrated third hand: by Stern, who edits the manuscripts of Scarfman, who reports on the trials and tribulations of Havelaar. Odd structure? Well, it's even stranger yet, since the literary labors of Stern are commissioned by his coffee merchant host in Amsterdam, Batavus Drystubble, a pompous philistine who interrupts the very book he's commissioned with chapters of his own illiberal blather. And one of Drystubble's interpolations is the full text of a sermon by Reverend Blatherer, a Calvinist assertion of God's implicit favor for the rich and detestation for the hapless shiftless color-stained poor. Drystubble and Blatherer could easily be identified by a contemporary reader as foreshadowings of billionaire David Koch and any of the fundamentalist preachers of the extreme Right in American politics. Greed and self-righteousness have ye always with you!
But if Max Havelaar isn't a proper Modern Novel, perhaps it's a premature post-modernist novel, a collage of realia and fantasy, a deliberate `theater of the absurd' blending sentimental poetry, caricature, factual reportage, and confessional self-psychotherapy.
What it was for its audience -- the citizens of the Dutch Republic at the height of its colonial dominion over many millions of Javanese, Malays, and other peoples of the Indonesian archipelago -- was a shocking exposé of their callous treatment of their non-Dutch subjects. Dekker's purpose was not artistry; it was muckraking, and it had a modicum of impact on Dutch colonial adminstration in the short term. That the book also has enduring literary strengths is somewaht accidental.
Beyond its short term impact on Dutch and other European readers, the works of Multatuli had an extraordinary effect on the subsequent development of Indonesian literature and intellectualism. The novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, modern Indonesia's foremost author, are replete with references to Multatuli, and the stylistic peculiarities of Toer's books become less puzzling when one recognizes the enduring influence of Eduard Douwes Dekker.