Originally published in Haasse’s native Dutch as Oeroeg in 1948, this novel has classic status in the Netherlands but seems to be comparatively unknown among English-speaking readers. Without knowing any of that, I bought it three years ago in a translation by Ina Rilke and have only just got round to reading it, discovering a short but poignant novel that explores the consequences of Dutch colonialism in what is now Indonesia. Haasse herself was born in Batavia (now Jakarta) and so her tale has a ring of authenticity about it, as it follows the friendship of two boys: one the son of a wealthy Dutch plantation owner in Java; the other, the son of the estate’s Indonesian manager.
There is a subgenre of books which specialise in golden-hued recollections of childhood, in which darker themes simmer disturbingly beneath the surface. The Go-Between is one that comes to mind, and The Black Lake has much the same quality of tarnished innocence. And yet the context of The Black Lake is far more troubling, because it deals not just with one tragic relationship, but with broader questions of colonialism and the interactions between the Dutch and the Indonesians. Broadly speaking – and I say this without being remotely expert in either – the tensions, discomfort and emotional scars seem to be comparable with those arising from British colonialism in India. It’s certainly a subject that was still very painful at the time of the novel’s publication, but initially, at least, the story invites us to lose ourselves in an apparently idyllic childhood.
Our narrator is an only child and, with an absent father and a lonely mother, is left to run wild for his first few years. The world in which he lives has a timeless colonial quality and we could almost be in the 19th century, save for the trains and cars which indicate that we’re in the 1920s and 1930s. Oblivious to the tensions between his parents, the narrator forms a close friendship with Oeroeg, the estate manager’s son. They spend hours going on fantastical adventures in the gardens, exploring the forests and rivers, savouring the lush, tropical landscape, and dreaming of what they will be when they grow up. For the narrator, their bond is simple:
Oeroeg was my friend, practically my sole companion since birth, the only living soul with whom I had shared every phase of my existence, every thought, every experience. But he was more than that. To me Oeroeg signified life in and around Kebon Djati; he signified our mountain forays, the games we played in the tea gardens and on the stones in the river, our train rides to school – the alphabet of my childhood.
But the narrator is naive. As he grows up, he begins to realise that the house-servants don’t think it right for him to be such close friends with a ‘native’ boy. Nor do his parents’ friends feel it’s appropriate. And, as the two boys come to an age where they have to start thinking about schooling, and the future, the narrator has to begin to confront the different destinies that society has formed for him and Oeroeg – destinies that don’t take into account their own dreams, their talents or their individuality. When tragedy strikes Oeroeg’s family – swiftly followed by a disturbing upheaval in the narrator’s own – the two boys are bound even more closely together, but they’ve already been set on a path that threatens to crush their friendship beneath the expectations of the world.
The story is told in the first person, which emphasises Haasse’s skill in allowing us to see things that the narrator is too young or innocent to understand. His mother’s restless friendship with his tutor, Mr Bollinger, rings alarm bells with the reader long before it spirals into crisis for the narrator; likewise, the narrator’s complacent acceptance of Oeroeg’s friendship screens more troubling questions about how one-sided this friendship might actually be. Does Oeroeg actually have a choice about whether to run around as the chosen companion of his father’s boss’s son? Does he see his position as friend or servant? We simply don’t know. And it’s striking that, as the two young men grow up, the narrator remains almost wilfully naive, clinging to a dream of childhood closeness, while Oeroeg becomes politically informed, in the smouldering climate that leads to postwar struggles for independence.
I get the impression that the narrator is, to some extent, Haasse herself and that the lost innocence is also hers: this feels like a paean to an exotic, lost, dreamlike land which never existed except in a child’s heart and can now never be recovered. It’s the story of a struggle to understand one’s country after it proves to be a different beast from that one imagined; and the sense of dislocation and loss that comes from one’s past being – sometimes literally – expunged. No, it isn’t entirely unproblematic in today’s culture, because it doesn’t give the oppressed people a voice – we see through the colonist’s eyes – but nor is it a blissful, blinkered view. Like The Jewel in the Crown, it charts the gradual decay – and sudden, shocking collapse – of imperial powers in the wake of the 20th century’s new drive for independence and self-determination and, as such, it offers a fascinating glimpse of a colonial power that I, for once, wasn’t familiar with.