Beekman’s Indies

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1596, a travel book was published in Amsterdam. Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario signalled the beginning both of Dutch colonial expansion to the Spice Islands of South East Asia (present-day Indonesia) and of Dutch colonial literature. Fifty years later, in 1646, this was followed by Willem Bontekoe van Hoorn’s Journael, a skipper’s log which has become one of the most enduringly popular works of Dutch colonial literature. And now, in 1996, a fitting tribute to these two pioneers has appeared in Beekman’s masterful book on Dutch colonial literature from the East Indies, Troubled Pleasures.

Beekman is well known to readers of The Low Countries through his article on this literature in the first yearbook (The Low Countries 1993-94: 90-100), and as editor of the Library of the Indies, which has made the major works of Dutch Colonial Literature of the East Indies available in English translation in twelve beautiful volumes, each with an excellent afterword.

His new book is a solid monograph on this literature, containing a series of scholarly studies of sixteen major authors and their works, ranging from Bontekoe’s Journael up to the mid-twentieth-century works by Alberts, Friedericy and Maria Dermoût. Their works are discussed in the context of cultural and political history, and Beekman is very good on the cultural legacy of European and Dutch colonial expansion, and on the interaction of the Dutch with the Javanese and many other Indonesian peoples in the historical context of the Netherlands East Indies.

Beekman’s main thesis, as stated in the Introduction, is that Dutch colonial literature of the Indonesian archipelago has its roots in the Mariner’s Journals of the early Dutch explorers. In particular their use of a plain and artless, demotic Dutch and their realism and curiosity, their sense of adventure and individualism have become vital ingredients of later Dutch colonial literature. But the key to this literature, in Beekman’s view, is its Romantic sensitivity to the great themes of History and Memory, Nature, the Individual, Imagination and Morality. Dutch East Indies literature, for all its realism, does more than just depict the real world; it is a moral art, which confronts us with reality and with the moral issues that arise in the real world.

The first of Beekman’s sixteen authors is the seventeenth-century ‘Pliny of the Indies’, Georg Rumphius. His descriptions of the natural curiosities of the Moluccas, and of the local lore relating to it, provide Beekman with the opening theme for a long series of fascinating excursions into the natural history, the flora, the fauna, the shells, the sea life and the vulcanology of this tropical archipelago. The literary significance of this is brought home to us when we note that it was a copy of Rumphius’s Ambonese Curiosity Chamber (D’Amboinsche Rariteitskamer, 1705), coloured in ‘most deliciously’ by Maria Sybilla Merian, that inspired Augusta de Wit’s novel God’s Little Magicians (Gods goochelaartjes) of 1932.

The next author Beekman discusses is the eighteenth-century chronicler Valentijn, a great liar and literary thief, but above all an excellent teller of stories and anecdotes, whose encyclopedic history of the East Indies of 1724-1726 has proved as inexhaustible a source for later writers as Rumphius’s work; witness, for example, the enchanting stories and novels by Maria Dermoût.

Valentijn and Rumphius are followed by six authors from the nineteenth century, each highly individualistic in character and voice. We witness Junghuhn’s explorations of Indonesian nature, Multatuli’s passionate fight against colonial injustice, Couperus’s evocation of the magic and mystery of the East, Cohen’s rebellious depiction of life in the colonial army, Daum’s cool, Naturalist portrayal of Colonial Society, and finally the Indonesian countervoice of an inspired young Javanese woman, Kartini. The twentieth century is covered by a discussion of eight classics of Modern Dutch Literature: Edgar du Perron, Beb Vuyk, Maria Dermoût, H. J. Friedericy, Vincent Mahieu, Rob Nieuwenhuys, Willem Walraven, and A. Alberts, whose works open a window on another world, once real, but now completely vanished.

Beekman’s canon undoubtedly presents what is best in Dutch colonial literature. But clearly, this deals only with the tip of the iceberg, and does not include other important novelists such as Madelon Székely-Lulofs, Johan Fabricius and Hella Haasse, nor the essayist Rudy Kousbroek, the poets Lucebert and G.J. Resink, or the popular works of colonial fiction discussed in Frances Gouda’s Dutch Culture Overseas (1995).

Throughout, Beekman offers perceptive literary interpretations of the works under discussion. He has an excellent grip on the relevant analytical perspectives, e.g. Tzvetan Todorov’s work on Literary Imagination and the representation of the colonial ‘Other’. Of particular interest is Beekman’s use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogue structure for an analysis of the polyphony of dissonant and contradictory narrative voices that one can observe in the structure of Multatuli’s famous novel Max Havelaar (1860). Beekman also explores a number of comparisons with works of American literature, not just the well-known comparison of Multatuli’s Max Havelaar to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also some highly enlightening parallels between, for example, Junghuhn and Thoreau as philosophers of nature, and between the often violent colonial world of Daum, Couperus and Du Perron and that of Southern authors such as Mark Twain, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Interestingly, Beekman presents Dutch colonial literature not simply as an exotic vehicle for Dutch imperialism, but rather as an imaginative literary exploration of human contact and its moral complications under colonial conditions. In this respect he makes an important contribution to the field of postcolonial studies, and his literary perspective adds significantly to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993).

Dutch colonial literature of the East Indies did not end with Indonesian independence in 1945-1949. Indeed, as Beekman notes, it continues to live and grow, most remarkably in Jeroen Brouwers’s novel The Flood (De Zondvloed) of 1988, which achieves a final transformation, of ‘the Indies as a construct of the imagination’. Brouwers’s novel may commemorate the passing of an era, of a world, of a way of life, but it is this literary transformation which, in Joseph Conrad’s words, confers upon those vanished worlds ‘the permanence of memory’.

Troubled Pleasures is a wonderful and glorious book, both in its general conception and in its detail. It is written in a lively and personal style, highly readable and very well researched. The extensive and erudite notes at the end of each chapter and the solid bibliography bear witness to Beekman’s excellent scholarship. The book will be of great interest to anyone studying Dutch or Comparative Literature, the colonial expansion of the Dutch, or the history of Indonesia. Without any doubt it is the crowning achievement on Beekman’s lifelong involvement with Dutch colonial literature.

By Reinier Salverda

First published in The Low Countries, 1996

E.M. Beekman, Troubled Pleasures. Dutch Colonial Literature from the East Indies 1600-1950. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; 629 pp. ISBN 019-815-8831.