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Literature / Max Havelaar

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Max Havelaar, of de koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappy ("Max Havelaar, or the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company") is a classic Dutch novel by Eduard Douwes Dekker, under the Pen Name "Multatuli". Originally published in 1860, it is widely known today for two things. The first is its rabid anti-colonialist stance (which is not entirely accurate; see Post-Mortem Conversion below). The second is its complex, confusing structure: it features Anachronic Order, two Shows Within A Show, multiple Author Avatars, a Fourth Wall-breaking Author Filibuster, and a lot of Seinfeldian Conversation, besides playing fast and loose with The Law of Conservation of Detail and the boundaries between fiction and reality.

So what is it about?

The story begins when Batavus Droogstoppel, a wealthy coffee broker from Amsterdam, unexpectedly meets a former classmate of his, whom he has not seen in a long time. The man, to whom Droogstoppel refers as "Sjaalman" ("Shawl Guy") because he's wearing a shawl, appears to be rather poor and not very concerned with practical matters; thus, Droogstoppel considers him highly unpleasant company and tries to get rid of him. Two days later, however, Sjaalman delivers a large pile of his own essays on all manner of subjects to Droogstoppel's house, with a letter requesting that Droogstoppel fund their publication. Initially, Droogstoppel dismisses the idea out of hand, but gradually, he becomes convinced that some of these essays are important to the coffee trade (which is his work, and all he really cares about). He asks his young clerk, Ernest Stern, to write a book about coffee, based on some of Sjaalman's essays.

Stern starts writing, and this is where the real story begins. It takes place in the Dutch East Indies, and revolves around Max Havelaar, the governor of the small district of Lebak on the west coast of Java. Havelaar tries to do something against the injustices the peasants in his district suffer at the hands of the local nobility, but his efforts are thwarted at every step by his superiors. They figure that it's easier to keep the population in check if the local feudal power structure is left intact, and thus will do anything to remain friends with the nobility. As Havelaar grows increasingly frustrated, the tone of the book becomes more and more hysterical. In the meantime, Havelaar has some very Seinfeldian Conversation with his wife and his direct underlings.

This story is interrupted every now and then by a few chapters narrated by Droogstoppel, who disapproves of the direction Stern is taking with the book, and complains about the "corrupting" influence the poetically inclined clerk has on his children. Droogstoppel also uses a lot of Insane Troll Logic to show that the peasants of Java have nothing to complain about.

Cue the second Show Within a Show: Stern recounts the heart-rending story of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese lovers whose lives are frequently torn apart by the cruelly high tribute demanded by the nobility and the Dutch colonial administration, and eventually ended by the savage military campaigns of the latter.

Cut back to Havelaar's story, which reaches a climax as Havelaar prepares to arrest Karta Nata Negara, the most important nobleman in his district, for extortion. Havelaar's underlings and colleagues all refuse to testify against Nata Negara, afraid of being poisoned by his cronies (Havelaar's predecessor, who was likewise investigating Nata Negara's conduct, died under very suspicious circumstances). Havelaar proceeds regardless, and asks his direct superior, Slijmering, for permission to arrest Nata Negara. Slijmering is shocked, and meets with Havelaar in person to talk him out of it. Havelaar will not be moved, however; Slijmering now has to report Havelaar's suspicions of Nata Negara to the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, who is none too pleased. The Governor-General fires Havelaar, but offers him a similar position in another district; Havelaar refuses, enraged. He travels to the Governor-General's palace to plead with him in person, but is told, again and again for several weeks, that His Excellence doesn't have time to see him. Eventually, the Governor-General leaves for the Netherlands before Havelaar has had a chance to speak to him.

Multatuli now breaks the Fourth Wall and directly instructs his two narrators to stop, before 'taking up the pen' and launching into a now-famous Author Filibuster about exploitation and poor governance in the Dutch East Indies. He explicitly acknowledges that his book is an Author Tract, and dismisses all criticism of its style, plot, etc. with 'Yes, that may all well be... but THE JAVANESE ARE BEING MISTREATED!'

In case it isn't obvious by now: Multatuli's main goal, in writing Max Havelaar, was to put the suffering of the common man in the Dutch East Indies on the agenda in the Netherlands. Although few people paid attention to this aspect of the book at first, he certainly succeeded in the long run; by 1900, the Dutch government had adopted the "Ethical Policy" which stated that it was the colonial government's duty to support and educate the natives, rather than simply exploit them.

A large Dutch fair-trade company is named "Max Havelaar" after the character. Also, droogstoppel (which translates as "dry-stubble") became a Dutch word for a very boring and strait-laced person. It has now fallen out of use, however.

Max Havelaar provides examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: It is heavily implied that the story of Max Havelaar and that of Droogstoppel and Sjaalman take place within the same universe, and not long after one another; Sjaalman is Max Havelaar, who has returned to the Netherlands after being fired as a governor and is now trying to get his writings published. However, the novel starts with a sizable part of Droogstoppel's story, and then jumps back and forth between the two.
  • Author Avatar: Both Sjaalman and Max Havelaar are this.
  • Author Tract: Pretty much the entire point of the book is to condemn real-life colonialism. In the end, the author comes in and dismisses his characters and says his message (the exploitation in colonial Indonesia) out loud. He admits he didn't care about the style of the book, as long as it was read.
  • Bowdlerise: The very first publisher removed all references to real existing locations and conflicts so that the book would lose lots of political impact and made the book very expensive so that only the rich would be able to buy it. It is only after the copyright changed publishing hands that an uncut version was released.
  • The Determinator: Havelaar goes to great lengths to stop the exploitation of Javanese peasants; neither fear of poisoning nor all the Obstructive Bureaucrats of the Dutch East Indies will faze him. He is often contrasted with his rather spineless underlings, superiors and colleagues, who are unwilling to step on the toes of the nobility.
  • Downer Ending: Havelaar does not accomplish his goal of improving the peasants' lot. In the end, he can't even get the Governor-General to speak with him, let alone to do something about the injustices he has seen.
  • The Dung Ages: The Javanese peasants live in these. Case in point: at one point, a nobleman summons a large group of peasants to do forced labour, without providing food or lodgings; an enraged Havelaar mentions that 'these people eat sand and sleep on the road'.
  • Either/Or Title: "Max Havelaar, or the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company". Also counts as a Short Title: Long, Elaborate Subtitle.
  • Framing Device: Stern writes the story of Havelaar.
  • Interactive Narrator: At the very end of the story, Multatuli himself interrupts Stern and Droogstoppel, shoos them away and gives the reader his message directly.
  • Never Trust a Title: There is no mention of the Dutch Trading Company or its auctions anywhere in the book. Multatuli intentionally chose the misleading subtitle, so as to deceive anyone interested in the coffee trade (the Real Life versions of Batavus Droogstoppel) into buying and reading the book. Multatuli's intent was, after all, for his message to be heard, so he wanted the book to be read by as many people as possible. One reader fell for this and then wrote an open letter in which he complained that the book wasn't actually about coffee auctions.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Everyone involved in governing the Dutch East Indies. Except, of course, Max Havelaar. Although some of them are shown to be well-meaning people who are simply afraid of being murdered if they cross the local nobles.
  • Post-Mortem Conversion: Most people who have heard of the novel (and even some who have read it) think it is an 'anti-colonialist' rant. It's not. Multatuli had no qualms about colonialism in general; what he was protesting was mostly the feudal exploitation of local peasants by local nobles, and the unwillingness of Dutch colonial bureaucrats to carry out their ''official duty'' of protecting the people against such injustices.
  • Proud Merchant Race Guy: Deconstructed rather savagely with Batavus Droogstoppel. He is grumpy, uncultured, strait-laced, miserly, über-conservative and, above all, intensely hypocritical.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The Governor-General tries to deal with Havelaar by reassigning him to a district where he can cause less "trouble". Havelaar, understandably, refuses.
  • Roman à Clef: Eduard Douwes Dekker really was the governor of Lebak. He did try to do something about feudal exploitation, and it did get him in trouble with his superiors. The part about his predecessor dying in suspicious circumstances wasn't made up, either. However, he invented new names for everyone... except for Karta Nata Negara.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: On everything from tourism to fine art to history. Havelaar's companions are frequently dumbfounded by the odd connections he makes between seemingly unrelated topics.
  • Show Within a Show: Both the story of Max Havelaar and that of Saïdjah and Adinda are supposedly written by the character Stern.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: How Multatuli interrupts Droogstoppel:
    Shut up, you terrible product of filthy avarice and blasphemous pseudo-friendliness! I created you... you grew up to a monster under my pen... I find my own creature disgusting: choke on coffee and begone!
  • Strawman Political: Many of the arguments Droogstoppel uses to dismiss... well, anything, are rather obvious Insane Troll Logic.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Havelaar (and, by extent, his wife and son) are frequently in dire financial straits because of his generosity. This applied to Douwes Dekker in Real Life, as well.
  • Workaholic: As mentioned before, Droogstoppel doesn't care about anything except his work.