Monday, May 2, 2011

Oeroeg - a novel that is a site of memory

Since the early 1930s a Dutch organization called the “Collective Propaganda for the Book” has had the wonderful habit of giving away a new work of literature during a 10 day long so called “Week of Books”. Nearly a million copies of the “Week of Books Gift”, a specially commissioned novella, are given away and on the Sunday of the Week of Books one can travel for free the length and breadth of the Netherlands by train for free if one has a copy of the free Book Gift instead of a ticket. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the book appeared anonymously and the reading public could enter a competition and submit their guesses as to the identity of the author.

In 1948 nineteen novellas were submitted anonymously to the committee that would eventually choose the winner. The committee chose a novella by the name of Oeroeg, which had been submitted under the Malay pseudonym of Soeka toelis (Like to write). Consequently, 145,000 copies of Oeroeg were given away as the Book Week Gift. Over 24,000 readers participated in the competition to guess the author, though how many had the correct guess is not clear. It was to prove to be the most successful Book Week gift ever. The novella has been reprinted 50 times, has been anthologized on numerous occasions, has been included in pre-university school exams and has been the subject of Master’s thesis and Doctoral dissertations; it formed the basis of a successful movie in 1993 and in October 2009, to celebrate an event called “The Netherlands Reads” one million copies of Oeroeg were distributed free of charge in Dutch libraries and schools while in Jakarta an Indonesian translation was presented. By now it would seem that every Dutch and Flemish household must own a copy of what has become an undisputed classic of Dutch language literature. Indeed one could argue it has become the single most successful piece of Dutch prose of the 20th century.
The anonymous author of Oeroeg turned out to be the little known 30 year old Hella S. Haasse. Born and raised in the Dutch East Indies but an inhabitant of the Netherlands for a decade, Oeroeg was her debut novel. She would go on to author over twenty more novels, as well as collections of short-stories and works of non-fiction. She would win every major literary prize in the Dutch world and a clutch of foreign prizes. Today she is generally regarded as the Grand Dame of Dutch Letters.
Hella S. Haasse
Yet, despite her long and illustrious career as a writer, it is her first slim novella of little more than 60 pages, for which she is best remembered, not least because of the social and historical significance of the book. For Oeroeg is not simply a work of literature; the historical context in which the novel was written and the historical conflict that it came to embody has meant that Oeroeg has become what the French historian Pierre Nora has called a lieux de memoire, a place “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” That is to say, Oereog is now more than a novel: like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York or the War Monument that marks Dam Square in Amsterdam, it is a place where national memory has become anchored and embodied, while at the same time, it remains the site of battles and conflicts regarding national memory and, ironically, national forgetfulness.

When Oeroeg was published in 1948 the Netherlands had become enmeshed in what would turn out to be a nasty and ultimately futile war of decolonization. The disastrous German occupation of 1940-’45 involved the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens, including the near total destruction of the county’s large Jewish community. The Japanese occupation of Dutch East Indies of 1942-9145 included the imprisonment of the entire white Dutch population (the totoks), and great hardship for Dutch citizens of mixed Indo-Dutch relationships (the Indos). The end of the war brought peace to the European Fatherland, but the Japanese surrender was quickly followed in the Dutch East Indies with a violent uprising led by nationalist youths. Totoks in the camps now found that their former captors, the Japanese, had almost overnight become their protectors against Indonesian nationalist violence. The Indos outside the camps, unprotected, became the main targets of nationalist violence during this so called Bersiap period. British troops attempted to stabilize the situation, unleashing military attacks that caused great numbers of casualties among Indonesians, until the Dutch were eventually able to return an army to their colony. By 1946 the Dutch hoped things would soon return to at least a semblance of the pre-war situation. But Indonesian nationalists led by Sokarno and Hatta had other ideas and in 1947 the Dutch began what they euphemistically called a “Police Action”. This would be followed by a second Police Action in 1948. Nevertheless, after 100,000 fatal causalities among the Indonesians and about 5,000 among the Dutch, the government of The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.
Dutch Police Action
It is against this background of instability and violence in the Dutch East Indies that the novella Oeroeg, which is set in the Dutch East Indies and tells the tale of the childhood friendship between a Dutch boy and his native Indonesian friend called Oeroeg and how this friendship collapses as they grow older and Oeroeg becomes an Indonesian nationalist, found its way to the Dutch reading public in 1948. A novel set in the war of decolonization appears in the middle of the war of decolonization. It couldn’t have been more topical.

The book opens with words that can hardly but strike us today as being prophetic: “Oeroeg was my friend. If I think back to my childhood (…) Oeroeg returns to me” and “Oeroeg is burnt like a seal into my life (…) more than ever at this moment when every contact, every meeting has been reduced forever to the past.” Furthermore: “Maybe I am stimulated by his (Oeroegs’) irrevocable, incomprehensible otherness, that secret of spirit and blood, that for child and lad created no problem but that now seems all the more tormenting”. The young narrator paints a picture of life in the Indies that borders on the Rousseauesque, with Oeroeg being the admired embodiment of the young Noble Savage while the narrator feels ashamed of his own ‘freckles, and my reddening and peeling in the sun and I envied Oeroeg his even dark colour”.

The narrator’s father is the chief of the tea plantation and he worries about his son’s relationship to the local Oeroeg. “You are going native (Je verindischt), that worries me”. No doubt the Dad suffered from the common worry of Dutch colonials, described by Stoler and Strassler as “the contaminating influence of servants on European children.” But the narrator and Oeroeg find and befriend another Dutch adult, the plantation manager Gerard Stokman, who loves the wild nature of the Indies, who has “sold his heart to Java, the hunt and the outdoor life.” One day Gerald tells the narrator: “To be different – that is normal. Everyone is different to everyone else. I am different than you. But to be worth less or more because of the colour of your face or because of what your father is – that is nonsense.”

As teenagers the boys remain best friends and Oeroeg is one of the few natives to receive a good secondary education. During these years we learn that Oeroeg “did his best to undo anything that reminded him of the past. He only spoke Dutch, his clothing was obviously western (…) he did his best to pass for a half-blood” But the narrator adds: “Neither clothing nor attitude could make him what he was not; one of us.”

Oeroeg gradually discovers he can never become Dutch. Instead, he steadily migrates towards the new anti-Dutch nationalism, and the boys grow apart. The narrator travels to Holland for his studies just before the outbreak of World War Two, survives the German occupation without incident, is then called up for his military service and is sent back to the Dutch East Indies to help quell “the disorderly situation there.” He finds himself in the vicinity of his childhood home, dressed in Dutch military uniform, visits a small lake, the Telaga Hideung, which holds strong memories for him, as it was here that years earlier Oeroeg’s father had drowned while saving the narrator’s life. Then, amazingly, he comes face to face with Oeroeg, now an armed Indonesian nationalist. The confrontation could have been fatal, but Oeroeg disappears. The novel closes with the narrator’s words, like the opening words of the novel, uncanny in their sense of presentment: “It goes without saying that I didn’t understand him. I knew him, like I knew Telaga Hideung – as a mirrored surface. I never fathomed the depths. Is it too late? Am I forever a stranger in the land of my birth, on the ground from which I never want to be moved. Time will tell”. Of course time did tell, and within two years of the publication of Oeroeg the Dutch had lost their colony and Hella Haasse, together with 300,000 other totoks and Indos, found herself permanently transplanted, away from the land of her birth.


  1. A beautifully-written review but I'm curious: did you read it in Dutch? Astonishingly, Oeroeg seems never to have been translated into English. (I'm glad the June 2011 History Carnival brought me to your blog). Judith

  2. Thank you very much Judith. Yes, I read it in Dutch. Where translations are concerned, the English speaking world is probably the most insular in the world. However, I think there is a translation of Oeroeg, published by a university press, but it is within a collection of other translations from Dutch, not a volume on its own.

  3. The death of the author, today at the age of 93, shocked reading, writing and publishing the Netherlands.

  4. Thanks Marinus for letting me know.

  5. Nice review.... As Indonesian I watched the movie manytimes on TV but now I would like to read the novel. my Dutch is so bad, any suggestion where I can find the English translation ? Been searching on amazon and book depository but didn't find any result. Thank you

  6. Thank you Tari. There is, in fact, a very little known translation of Oeroeg from Margaret Alibasah published by Oxford University Press USA in their Oxford in Asia Paperbacks series from 1996. The title is "Forever A Stranger and Other Stories". I hope you get hold of it and enjoy it.

  7. Indonesian edition that I know published by Gramedia Pustaka Utama 2009