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Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company Paperback – Sep 1 1995
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When Max Havelaar was first published in Holland in 1860, it ignited a major political and social brouhaha. The novel, written by a former official of the Dutch East Indian Civil Service under the pen name Multatuli, exposed the massive corruption and cruelty rife in the Dutch colony of Java. Max Havelaar is an undeniably autobiographical novel; like his hero, Multatuli--the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker--was an Assistant Resident of Lebak in Java; like Havelaar in the novel, he resigned his position when his accusations of corruption and abuse were disregarded by higher authorities, resulting in years of poverty for both author and fictional hero. Max Havelaar is told from several different perspectives; the reader first meets an Amsterdam coffee dealer named Droogstoppel, a man so obsessed with coffee that his every thought and action is governed by it. Droogstoppel has come by a manuscript from an old schoolmate who, down on his luck, has asked him to get it published. The schoolmate is Havelaar, and the manuscript relates his experiences as an idealistic and generous young civil servant who tries to protect the poor and bring justice to the powerless.
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.
About the Author
Multatuli is the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). After 18 years of civil service in the Dutch East Indies, he returned to Europe in 1856 a disillusioned man. The way the natives were treated by their own as well as by the Dutch rulers offended him so much that he resigned after a public conflict. In his novel Max Havelaar he recorded his experiences. The book was published in 1860 and made him an instant success. Encouraged by this public acclaim, he decided to pursue a career as a writer. He became a sort of national conscience, inspiring emancipatory movements such as freethinkers, socialists and anarchists. Multatuli's career as a writer lasted exactly as long as his career as an official: 18 years. Then, once more profoundly disillusioned, he decided to give up writing and took refuge in Germany, where he died in February 1887.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
I have often heard the wives of poets pitied; and undoubtedly, they cannot have too many good qualities if they are to fill that difficult post in life with dignity. Read the first page
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Top Customer Reviews
The novel aroused instant controversy in The Netherlands and eventually led to a series of reforms. The effects that followed the publication of Max Havelaar have been compared to those achieved in the United States by Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published only a few years before the Dutch book.
I have read Max Havelaar in the original. Roy Edwards has accomplished an accurate and sensitive translation, an admirable feat considering the difficulty of bringing to life in English the twists and turns of 19th-century Dutch.
R. P. Meijer has provided an illuminating introduction to the historical background of the novel in addition to a fine biographical sketch of Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), whose account of Max Havelaar's experiences is largely autobiographical.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The writer, however, isn't trying to make an objective unemotional description of the events in the East Indies, but he is arguing - making a treatise - for a different/better treatment of the people in the Indonesia, basing his treatise on facts and emotions (he stresses the parts which are undisputed facts in a very natural way). For this he uses al his (well developed) rhetorical abilities.
To give some examples of his rhetorical abilities and the working of the structure:
- at some point in the book he argues against painters which try to show the multitude of misery caused by a certain event, by painting the quantity involved. He argues that this makes people numb for the suffering shown on the painting. Why the writer tells this is unclear, until later when he starts telling a dramatic story about the injustice and suffering endured by an Indonesian boy. Then it becomes clear that this suffering is endured by many Indonesians, but instead of making you dazzle with numbers he tries (and succeeds) to make you feel compassionate with one individual. Only to make you realise afterwards that there are/were many individuals which are enduring the same suffering!
- and instead of stating with certain facts: `this is a fact', he makes himself angry about how shocking/outrages something is, only to afterwards state: `it is true: you can look it up here, or there'.
These are just two examples, but the entire book is a rhetoric masterwork!
However, readers expecting a balanced book will be disappointed. The writer didn't strive for consensus, he strove to make an as great as possible contrast between his ideals (good) and the Dutch merchantmen spirit (evil). The treatise worked much in the same way as the books/movies of Micheal Moore do today. Mixing emotion, fact and rhetorical ability (although Multatuli has greater literary abilities) to create a document that polarises society about great contemporary political issues.
I recently asked 8 Dutch university students if they had read it - the most famous book in Dutch literature. 7 had not. One had started but had thrown it away half finished because it was all so depressingly familiar. (Familiar as a picture of present day attitudes in the Netherlands).
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.
Max Havelaar, of the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company was written in 1860 by Eduward Douwes Dekker under the pen name Multatuli. The intrigue unfolds from the points of view of Droogstoppel, a stuffy Dutch coffee broker; Scarfman, an aspiring writer; Havelaar, an idealist and newly appointed Resident of Labak, Java; Blatherer, a preacher; Saijah, a young servant yearning for his love; and others, all affected by coffee markets. Interspersed are direct writings from author to reader. These asides are at times lengthy, quaint, or preachy. Not an easy read, yet intriquing enough to drive me to keep turning the pages. Indeed, the author himself describes his work as "chaotic, disjointed, striving for effect, bad in style, lacking skill.....but the substance is irrefutable." Most appealing are descriptions applicable today. Anyone who has ever been expected to report only the positive to corporate superiors, is bothered by products made by "millions who are maltreated or exploited in your name," or notices empires go to war more easily than mills are moved is bound to welcome this book. The novel hastened abolition of the Dutch Cultural System requiring compulsory growing of particular crops. Toer's characterization, if over the top, afforded me the opportunity of a brilliant read.