Thursday, 3 February 2011

Truth and Fiction on a Dutch Colonial Plantation

Review of The Tea Lords By Hella S Haasse

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 27/12/2010

The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haasse “is a novel, but it is not ‘fiction’”, writes the author in a vital note, tucked away at the very end of the book.  Factual histories often focus on the big figures – princes, revolutionaries and governors-general – and leave the lives of the bit players to writers of historical fiction.  The Tea Lords, straddling the strange gap between these genres, focuses on the “side-lights” of Indonesia’s colonial past – the lives, loves and losses of a dynasty of Dutch tea planters in the uplands of West Java.

            Hella S. Haasse is the grande damme of Dutch literature.  Now 92, she was born in Batavia (modern Jakarta) and spent the first two decades of her life in what was then the Dutch East Indies.  During a sixty-year career she has written many novels, some drawing on her own background in Indonesia.  But in The Tea Lords she has done something a little different.

            The book – originally published in Dutch in 1992, but only now available in a crisp English translation by Ina Rilke – spans the lifetime of Rudolf Kerkhoven, scion of an established family of planters in Java.  The book opens as the young, idealistic, and ambitious Kerkhoven completes his studies in Holland in the 1860s and returns to Java to be inducted into the mysteries of the tea trade.  But the core of the story lies in Rudolf’s struggles to establish his own remote plantation, Gamboeng, in the damp uplands south of Bandung, and in his marriage to Jenny, daughter of another old-established Dutch dynasty in Java.  

            All this makes for the bones of a conventional family saga – and indeed, that is how The Tea Lords is arranged, with a galaxy of cousins and uncles scattered over the green Javanese mountainsides, with sibling rivalry, overbearing patriarchs, and dark secrets.

            But Haasse did not simply invent these people.  A man named Rudolf Kerkhoven really did found a plantation at Gamboeng (tea is still grown in the area today), and really did marry a woman called Jenny, and the book is driven by large excerpts from their own letters and journals.  This original approach at times makes The Tea Lords a frustrating read. 

In her afterword Haasse notes that the quotations have not been invented; rather they have been “arranged to meet the demands of a novel”.  But this can lead to confusion – how much has the author meddled with the chronology? How often has she edited what appear as verbatim excerpts?  And in its attempts to combine aspects of both fiction and non-fiction, the book sometimes stumbles.  Passages about the technicalities of tea growing and the background of the main families, which in a history book could have been comfortably described, here have to be forced unrealistically into the mouths of the characters.  Thoughts and emotions, hinted at in the original letters, take a strangely flat tone when Haasse expands them, and the blurring of the line between real quotations and invented dialogue often leaves the drive of the narrative hidden behind a mist of ambiguity.  It’s hard not to feel that The Tea Lords would have been stronger as either pure fiction, or pure history.

            But despite this, the disjointed strangeness of the book’s structure manages – perhaps unintentionally – to convey the disjointed strangeness of the lives it depicts.  Whole generations of Dutch men and women – like the characters in this book – were conditioned to think of a far-off Holland as “home” while living out most of their lives on some steamy plantation in Java.  They did not consider themselves the active agents of a colonial project as we might regard them now, and in detailing their private concerns, their petty arguments, and their fears Haasse conveys this idea convincingly.  It is unfortunate that the Indonesians who feature in the book are little more than crude caricatures of loyal retainers and devoted maids, but the author didn’t have their letters and diaries to draw from, so this was probably inevitable.

            The greatest strength of The Tea Lords is in its atmosphere: if the conversations are sometimes stilted, the descriptions of the landscapes are anything but, and a powerful sense of the sheer, overwhelming greenness of the Javanese countryside pervades the book.  The portrayal of Jenny Kerkhoven’s fears, frustrations and eventual descent towards madness, meanwhile, offers an unsettling glimpse into the darker currents beneath the petty world of the colonial social scene. 

In the final third the book subtly changes pace.  Haasse begins to quote ever larger chunks from the archives, often without bothering to embed them in her own prose.  Yet as the 20th century opens and the key characters move towards old age they suddenly take stronger shape and become more sympathetic, and the terrible toll that plantation life has taken on their relationships and their happiness becomes clear. 

The Tea Lords’ unusual nature does at times make it a difficult book, and readers may well be left with many frustratingly unanswered questions about the real-life people who inspired it.  But by the time the book reaches its quietly sad closing scene – in the cool, green forest of Gamboeng – it no longer really matters whether it is truth or fiction.
© Tim Hannigan 2010

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