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|
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|
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.