Mirror of the Indies:
A History of Dutch Colonial Literature

Rob Nieuwenhuys

translated from the Dutch by E. M. Beekman
Periplus 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 http://dannyreviews.com/
Nieuwenhuys' history of Dutch literature from the East Indies includes in its sweep not just literary works but also some travel narratives, observations on nature, parliamentary speeches, and journalism. The works and authors covered are chosen on the basis of quality, which is obviously subjective, but we get a feel for Nieuwenhuys' criteria here as he progresses.

The approach is largely biographical, focusing on individual writers and offering brief accounts of their lives, with short summaries and a little critical analysis of key works. Some historical and political background is also provided, and the result is understandable without a background in Dutch literature or the history of the Dutch East Indies.

Nieuwenhuys begins with the period of the Dutch East India Company, with sailor's tales and stories of exploration, some of which were extremely popular. New ideas came with father and son Willem and Dirk van Hogendorp, an administrator in Java who went on to become a leading critic of the Company, as both polemicist and dramatist. The British interregnum under Raffles was followed by the era of Van der Capellen from 1816 to 1926; these brought a cultural and scientific revival.

W.R. Baron van Hoëvell was a minister of the church in the Indies, but turned politician back in the Netherlands; his best known work is the travelogue Journey Through Java, Madura, and Bali (1849 and 1852). Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn wrote about natural history, culminating in a four volume work Java's Shape, Flora and Internal Structure (1852 to 1854).

Edwardes Douwes Dekker, author as "Multatuli" of Max Havelaar (1860), was the best known and probably most influential writer from the Dutch East Indies. As part of his analysis, Nieuwenhuys suggests that Dekker learned his "living Dutch" style in a correspondence with his fiancée. Roorda van Eysinga, H.N. van der Tuuk, A.M. Courier dit Dubekart and Alexander Cohen were "four eccentrics" who responded to or engaged with Multatuli. The novelists P.A. Daum and Louis Couperus are treated at greater length.

A high profile attack on the Indies by Bas Veth in 1900 brought responses from its defenders. The Ethical Movement influenced politics, while the period also saw major social changes such as the arrival of more Dutch women. Nieuwenhuys writes about the Javanese princess Kartini, who wrote in Dutch, and Arthur van Schendel's John Company, a historical novel about the early Dutch settlement in the Indies.

In the 1930s, Nieuwenhuys covers the novelist Madelon Hermine Lulofs and the Javanese intellectual Noto Suroto, touching briefly on the literary aspects of Indonesian nationalism and ideas of Federation. Among other writers caught between two countries, Nieuwenhuys writes at length about Edgar Du Perron, who was a critic as well as a poet and novelist.

The period of the Japanese occupation produced a range of writings, including prison camp narratives, as did the Indonesian struggle for independence. A long final chapter covers more recent writers: Maria Dermoût, Beb Vuyk, Johan Fabricius, H.J. Friedericy, A. Alberts, Hella Haasse, Aya Zikken and E. Breton de Nijs (Nieuwenhuys' own pseudonym), as well as a number of those who wrote about returning to Indonesia after its resumption of normal relations with the Netherlands.

Most of the writers covered will be unknown to English-speaking readers — I was only familiar with a few — but that should not put them off. Mirror of the Indies is a translation of Oost-Indische Spiegel, originally published in 1972, but has been reworked for an English-speaking audience, omitting some material but also adding some new material. The result should be accessible to anyone curious about colonial literatures or the history of the Dutch East Indies and the origins of modern Indonesia, even if they have no particular interest in Dutch literature.

March 2009

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- more Dutch literature
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
- more literary criticism
%T Mirror of the Indies
%S A History of Dutch Colonial Literature
%A Nieuwenhuys, Rob
%M Dutch
%F Beekman, E. M.
%I Periplus
%D 1999
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 9625935096
%P 336pp