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A fierce indictment of colonialism, Max Havelaar is a masterpiece of Dutch literature based on the author's own experience as an adminstrator in the Dutch East Indies in the 1850s.
A brilliantly inventive fiction that is also a work of burning political outrage, Max Havelaar tells the story of a renegade Dutch colonial administrator’s ultimately unavailing struggle to end the exploitation of the Indonesian peasantry. Havelaar’s impassioned exposé is framed by the fatuous reflections of an Amsterdam coffee trader, Drystubble, into whose hands it has fallen. Thus a tale of the jungles and villages of Indonesia is interknit with one of the houses and warehouses of bourgeois Amsterdam where the tidy profits from faraway brutality not only accrue but are counted as a sign of God’s grace.
Multatuli (meaning “I have suffered greatly”) was the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, and his novel caused a political storm when it came out in Holland. Max Havelaar, however, is as notable for its art as it is for its politics. Layering not only different stories but different ways of writing—including plays, poems, lists, letters, and a wild accumulation of notes—to furious, hilarious, and disconcerting effect, this masterpiece of Dutch literature confronts the fixities of power with the protean and subversive energy of the imagination.
About the Author
Multatuli (the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker; 1820–1887) was born in Amsterdam and served as a colonial official in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) for almost twenty years. His protests against abuses in the Dutch colonial system led to tension with his superiors and eventually to his resignation in 1856. He hoped that the novel Max Havelaar (1860), by bringing the problems to public attention, would lead to meaningful reform and his reinstatement as a senior official. The book was a great success and provoked public and political debate, eventually leading to changes in colonial policy, and Multatuli became a celebrated author. Yet he argued that these changes did not truly address the issues he had exposed, and was disappointed that Max Havelaar had not propelled him into an illustrious career in public administration or politics. He eventually concluded that Dutch colonialism was doomed to fail. Multatuli’s social criticism continued in his later work, such as the popular play School for Princes (1872) and the semiautobiographical novel Woutertje Pieterse (1890), about a young boy in late eighteenth century Amsterdam. Today he is regarded as Holland’s greatest writer of the nineteenth century and the father of contemporary Dutch literature. His many admirers have included D.H. Lawrence and Sigmund Freud.
Ina Rilke is a translator of Dutch and French and has received the Vondel Translation Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and the Flemish Culture Prize for her translations. She lives in Amsterdam and Paris.
David McKay is a translator of Dutch literature living in The Hague. He received the Vondel Translation Prize in 2018 for War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) was born on the Indonesian island of Java. He is best known for the novels that make up his Buru Quartet, which relates the struggle of Indonesia to liberate itself from the Dutch. Among the honors he received were the PEN Freedom to Write Award and the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
“D.H. Lawrence shrewdly understood Douwes Dekker as above all a satirist and ironist. He wrote...‘The great dynamic force in Multatuli is as it was, really, in Jean Paul and in Swift and Gogol, and in Mark Twain, hate, a passionate, honourable hate.’...Max Havelaar amply confirms this estimation and shows the reader how hatred creates a narrative bridge across two continents...A call, not for an antifeudal insurrection of natives against their abusive chiefs, but rather for the overthrow of colonialism itself.” —Benedict Anderson