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MLN 121.5 (2007) 1169-1189

Searching for Max Havelaar:
Multatuli, Colonial History, and the Confusion of Empire
Darren C. Zook
University of California, Berkeley

Must everything in modern Dutch literature begin and end with Multatuli?1 So much has been written on Multatuli and his work, and so many different things have been attributed to his influence, that his presence in modern Dutch literary history nearly overwhelms both his contemporaries and those who have followed after. Only a decade or so after his death, Multatuli's novel on Dutch colonial rule in the Netherlands Indies, Max Havelaar, had become nearly required reading and something like a badge of identification for both radical and mainstream political groups in the Netherlands.2 Gerard Brom, writing in 1931 about the influence of the Indies on Dutch culture, could only wax poetic about Multatuli and his work: "so great was the influence of Max Havelaar for life in the Indies, and so great was its significance for Dutch culture," that the book's presence had become "a fact that no writer could hope to avoid."3 Even Queen Wilhelmina (r. 1898–1948) found inspiration in the writings of Multatuli when she began to entertain the idea of writing the story of her own life as part of the moral and material rebuilding of the Netherlands in the post-war years.4 Other writers speak of Multatuli as the "true Prometheus" of Dutch literature, the observance of whose literary "cult" is nearly a matter of "religious duty" for Dutch literati.5 Multatuli's influence has indeed been immense, both in Dutch literature and in the literature of empire, but one wonders at times if the stories of the life and work of Multatuli had perhaps taken on a life of their own and become a [End Page 1169] mythology supplanting the more mortal facts of literary history. The luminous edifice of Multatuli's literary archive may at first glance appear unassailable, yet as I shall argue here, it is possible, indeed imperative, to search for alternative readings of Max Havelaar.

The standard reading of Multatuli's Max Havelaar relies on two central elements. The first is the belief that Multatuli, and particularly his novel Max Havelaar, represented an ethical, anti-colonial voice that stood up for the oppressed and helped eventually to bring about not only a more compassionate era of Dutch rule in the Indies but also the end of empire altogether. The second is the idea that Multatuli's writing style, and again the focus here is on Max Havelaar, represented a radical break with the past and finally freed Dutch literature from the crusty confines of traditional style and made possible the emergence of a truly modern Dutch literature.6 By way of revision of these standard readings, I will offer two counter-arguments: one, that Multatuli and Max Havelaar collectively represent not an anti-colonial voice at all but rather an exhortation for a reformed and strengthened empire; and two, that Multatuli's style was not as radically innovative as some have made it out to be. Viewing Multatuli through the lenses of Dutch modernity and colonial (literary) history, it appears that the man and his work have become emblems of a process of which they were perhaps not consciously or directly a part.

Multatuli and the Ethics of Empire

Multatuli's novel Max Havelaar is something of puzzle.7 It begins with the story of a character named Droogstoppel, a "Dickensian" caricature who is the epitome of what Multatuli felt to be the merchant mentality: utterly unimaginative, and opposed to, if not mystified by, the complexities of artistic creation and the ambivalence of uncommodified ideas and entities.8 Early in the novel, Droogstoppel meets by chance the mysterious character Sjaalman, who, having derived Droogstoppel's address from his business card, delivers to him a parcel of texts—indeed, a veritable archive—written by someone (Sjaalman, it turns out) who obviously had extensive experience in the Dutch East Indies and who obviously...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 1169-1189
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-05
Open Access
No
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