Indonesia mon amour.

Sleuteloog by Hella S Haasse. 2002. French title: L’anneau de la clé. Not translated into English. 186 pages.

 This book is part of my EU Book Tour and also my participation to the month of Dutch Literature hosted by Iris. I thought it was my first Dutch book but I remembered later that I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and books by Robert Van Gulik. Anyway. Hella S Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She has written more than 20 novels, all translated into French but only a few of them are translated into English. She is known for her historical novels and the influence of her childhood in Batavia on her work. She is compared to Marguerite Yourcenar. Rien que ça.  

But back to Sleuteloog

Herma Warner was born in 1920 in Batavia. She is now over 80 and is about to leave her home to live in a nursing house. She and her late husband Tjeerd belong to the last generation of Dutch born in the Dutch West Indies. They were forced to come back to the Netherlands after Indonesia became independent (1949). Both of them spent their lives studying the history and the art of their native country. A journalist contacts Herma. He wants to interview her about the past of an activist named Mila Wychinska. The now called Mila was Herma’s best friend Dee, from her childhood in Indonesia. Herma is reluctant to give information, to remember some painful moments of her past. She gives in and starts writing what she remembers. Soon, she’s overwhelmed by her memories of that friendship and of the Batavia of that time.

When I was reading, I thought about the Pied Noirs (The French settlers in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). I also thought of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, for the description of life in the colonies inAsia. I haven’t read it, it is on my TBR but Guy reviewed it. Colonialism had to be fought and all the colonies deserved their independence; it wasn’t fair. That’s history at the scale of a nation. But if we come to history at the scale of a human being, it must have been hard for people who were born there to leave everything behind and come back to a country they didn’t really know. They seemed to miss their town, the climate, the plants, the food and many other things and to feel uprooted. Herma evokes a lost paradise and she was happy to go back to Indonesia for her work.

I suppose Hella S Haasse managed to describe the society of that time and the different attitudes of the Dutch settlers towards the upcoming changes. Some were so optimistic that it was almost stupidity. Some supported the natives in their fight. Some hoped to find a middle ground. I only assume it is a vivid picture of the end of colonialism because I found this book difficult to read for several reasons. My first problem was the characters. Dee’s family tree isn’t big but I had problems remembering who was the son, brother, sister or mother of whom. I suppose I’m not the only one who get confused since there is a family tree at the end of the book.

I know nothing about the history of Indonesia and I struggled to understand what happened before and after the independence. Hella S Haasse chose a non-chronological way to tell Herma and Dee’s story. Herma recalls specific moments and relates them. She goes back and forth in time and it really reproduces the way our mind works. She leaps from one memory to another, letting her mind wander. It’s certainly a good device from a literary point of view. But for an ignorant reader like me, it didn’t help learning something about Indonesia and put events in the right order.

As I’m not Dutch, I don’t know what happened to white people after Indonesia became independent. I assume they were shipped back to the Netherlands. I got that there was something about being a mixed-raced person. Some could choose to become Indonesian and stay there and others had to go, according to some criteria I didn’t catch. I suppose it is part of Dutch history as the fate of the Pied Noirs is part of French history. Without the Dutch background, I didn’t catch all the nuances and missed something about Herma and Dee’s relationship.

Then, there was the irritating constant use of Indonesian words in the text, sometimes several in one page. As a consequence, the translator added a lot of footnotes and it broke the flow of my reading. I understand that an Indonesian word is useful when it covers a notion or a reality without a French word for it. But why write becak when the word cyclo pousse (1) exists? Does that mean that cyclo pousse doesn’t exist in Dutch, leading Hella S Haasse to use the Indonesian word and then the translator to keep the Indonesian to remain faithful to the text? Or are these words commonly used by Dutch people like the French know some Arab words after the Pied Noirs came back to France?  

I think a foreword by the translator explaining the historical context would have been really helpful. I also wonder to what extend it is autobiographical. And then after those difficulties, there was the story. This is a friendship between two people who are very different in character, one really wild and rebel while the other is quiet and respectful of the established order. Rather common. It reminded me of The Last of the Savage by Jay McInerney and I already had a feeling of déjà-vu when I read this one.

All in all, I think it’s a good book in general but not for me in particular. Now I’m reading Max Havelaar and perhaps I should have read it before Sleutehoog. It could have helped for the historical context.

  1. June 16, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I haven’t read this particular book from Hella Haasse, but I fo recognize your problems compared to In a Dark Wood Wandering: characters of which their relationships to each other are hard to remember, as well as knowledge of the historical context that is assumed. As for the use of Indonesian words in Dutch texts when writing about Indonesia. I think it was common at one time. Most of the Dutch books I read about Indonesia do so. However, I do not think most people at the moment know any of these words, maybe back in the fifties some did, but I wonder if all Dutch people than understood those words. Maybe it is to keep a more “realistic” feel of the book? Or maybe it feels natural for a Dutch person who has spent time in Indonesia? Or maybe it is to avoid describing Indonesia in a comprletely “Dutch” way? I don’t know, really. Overall, French and German quotes are often kept in that language, some writers seem to be a fan of using the original quotation, so maybe Indonesian was once considered as commonly understandable as German and French? (While I can guarantee not everyone understands the German and French either).

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. Thank you for participating!


    • June 16, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Thanks for your comment. I see my being French isn’t the only problem.
      I don’t like when writers write for a sort of intellectual elite who will be the only one to understand what they really mean. That’s not my view of literature.
      I need to go to your blog and read what other people have chosen.


  2. June 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I recently read The White Woman on the Green Bicyle by Monique Roffey. It was basically cut into two sections: the first section describing a British/French couple’s arrival and life in 1950s Trinidad and tnen 50 years later, the couple still there in Trinidad. I thought the book did a good job of showing tht corrosive results of Colonialism. The British husband loved being the ‘white man’ and developed a taste for prostitutes. The wife hated it there and understood at the very core of her being that they were not welcome. She wants to leave. He doesn’t. He wins. They stay. Not a good situation at all.

    In The Sea Wall, I expected the characters, at least the brother and sister, to long to go back to France. But they didn’t. It was as if it didn’t occur to them. They knew they wanted to leave their ramshackle plantation but that was about the extent of it.

    For a great film that focuses on those who remain behind: Isabelle Huppert’s White Material. It’s about French coffee planters cought up with a civil war. (A Claire Denis film).


    • June 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      I don’t know about the situation in Dutch East Indies. In Algeria or Tunisia, from what I understand when I hear people who were born there, there were people acting as “the white” (dominating, with money…) and others living among the natives. (like Camus for example). Those were heartbroken when they left, not grieving over the loss of a social position but certainly missing their childhood country. Whatever the situation, leaving behind the country you were born in and thinking you’ll never come back must be painful. It’s hard to leave your childhood behind.
      That situation of “white way of living” in developing countries still exist among expatriate employees.


  3. June 16, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    I really agree with what you say about colonialism and that it is a two faced tragedy so to speak, Those who were born there, like the pieds noirs, when they were kicked out, that must have been extremely painful To them it was their home country as well.
    As a cultural anthropologist I would say it is good to have the Indonesian words if they are explained. I think it gives more authenticity and also mirrors the reality of the bilingual who will do a lot of so-called code switch, especially second generation people. But should that be applied for literature if your reader? I have seen it done and liked it but I don’t know whether she overdid it. It does sound a bit artificial.
    I think there seems to be a general story telling problem in her writing.
    To be honest I’m not too tempted to read her right now.


    • June 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm

      Thanks for your comment about the Indonesian words. I hadn’t thought about the bilingual situation. The Indonesian words are explained by the translator. It’s just less fluent to read.
      According to Iris’s comment, the words aren’t known by the average Dutch. (unlike “bled” for a French, for example)


  1. June 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm
  2. July 24, 2011 at 9:04 am
  3. September 22, 2011 at 10:10 pm

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