Faded Portraits: A Novel of the Indies

E. Breton de Nijs

translated from the Dutch by E.M. Beekman
Periplus 1999 [1982]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 http://dannyreviews.com/
The narrator of Faded Portraits begins with the death of his Aunt Sophie in Batavia in 1940, then goes back to describe her life and its intertwining with his own childhood and early adulthood. This account is to some extent autobiographical — E. Breton de Nijs is the pseudonym of Rob Nieuwenhuys — and leaves visible the framing reconstruction from memory, assisted by portraits and photos and letters, along with surviving landscapes and houses.

The narrator describes Aunt Sophie's background and that of her husband, his own mother's cousin, and their marriage and honeymoon. This is as much a portrait of the social world of their broader family, however, as it is a character study. Similarly, an account of the narrator's time in the Netherlands focuses on his abortive courtship of an Indies girl, but also conveys something of the out-of-placeness of Indies families in Europe, and their nostalgia for their warm "homeland".

Returning to Java, Aunt Sophie's childlessness leads to obsession with her nieces. One becomes almost a surrogate daughter, but tragically ends up competing with her for the attentions of the same man. And three half-Sundanese nieces, taken from a brother "gone native", have inflicted on them her need for power and her obsession with status, race and skin colour.

This material is involving, but is a bit scattered and lacks a unifying narrative. Faded Portraits is most effective as an elegiac evocation of lost youth and a lost era of Indies Dutch life. Nieuwenhuys started writing it in a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, when the end of the Dutch East Indies was discernible, and it was published in 1954 when that end had come.

The translator E.M. Beekman includes a general historical introduction to the Dutch East Indies, as well as more specific notes on Nieuwenhuys and Faded Portraits, originally published as Vergeelde portretten uit een Indisch familiealbum.

June 2009

Related reviews:
- Rob Nieuwenhuys - Mirror of the Indies: A History of Dutch Colonial Literature
- more Dutch literature
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
%T Faded Portraits
%S A Novel of the Indies
%A Nijs, E. Breton de
%R Nieuwenhuys, Rob
%M Dutch
%F Beekman, E.M.
%I Periplus
%D 1999 [1982]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 9625935118
%P 176pp