Max Havelaar:
Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company


translated from the Dutch by Roy Edwards
Penguin 1987 [1860]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
A passionate and largely autobiographical attack on the injustices of the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies, originally published in 1860, Max Havelaar is a surprising success as a novel.

Its central story follows Dutch public servant Max Havelaar, appointed Assistant Resident of a regency in West Java, who attempts to prevent abuses of power by the native regent but is thwarted by government corruption. Accompanying this is an embedded short story about a Sundanese peasant boy Saijah and his buffaloes and ill-fated love.

This is thinly-veiled autobiography by Eduard Douwes Dekker, writing under the pseudonym Multatuli. And his narratorial intrusions are open and frequent: there is elaboration, for example in almost laudatory praise for the polymath and idealist Havelaar, and there is explanation of background necessary to understand the story, notably of the workings of government in the Dutch East Indies.

Framing this is an outer story set in Amsterdam, told in the first person by the sanctimonious, money-grubbing, and hard-hearted coffee broker Droogstoppel, a caricature of the worst traits of the Dutch bourgeoisie. He can't understand Havelaar at all and has no use for him except appropriation of his writings: the implausible conceit is that Droogstoppel's son and a German intern write most of Max Havelaar using Havelaar's notes, with Droogstoppel providing an introduction and occasional commentary.

This seems an unlikely recipe for a successful novel, but it worked in the Netherlands 150 years ago, where it contributed to changing government policy, and it still works today. Dekker's passion for justice overrides any self-serving elements, even if he isn't as idealistic as his hero. Comedy and tragedy are nicely balanced. And the apparently haphazard conglomeration of components works effectively together.

A precocious anti-colonial novel, Max Havelaar is a key work for anyone studying colonial literature or the history of the Dutch East Indies. But it is remarkably modern in outlook and could, I think, be enjoyed by those with no knowledge of its setting.

February 2008

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%T Max Havelaar
%S Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company
%A Multatuli
%M Dutch
%F Edwards, Roy
%I Penguin
%D 1987 [1860]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0140445161
%P 337pp