Portobello, £15.99, 341pp. £14.39 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Tea Lords, By Hella S Haasse, trans. Ina Rilke

Reviewed by Paul Binding

He was eager to be appreciated, indeed to please, but often had the impression he was not really well-liked... Being the eldest son, and in a sense also in loco parentis to his brother, he counted on recognition for his efforts to behave in a more serious, sensible fashion than was normally expected of a young man." But his brother tells Rudolf that he is considered "an opinionated prig", while his parents, out in the Dutch East Indies, fail to esteem him as they should.

When, in 1871, having completed his studies at Delft - less brilliantly than expected – Rudolf Kerkhoven joins his influential, well-to-do family in Java, he determines to vindicate his own opinion of his merits. His father is reluctant to accord him due responsibilities on their principal estate, so Rudolf takes over a wild uplands property, Gamboeng, to convert it into a successful tea plantation. Though otherwise told chronologically, this wonderfully designed novel opens with Rudolf's confrontation with Gamboeng. Its precipitous, lushly-clad contours establish themselves firmly throughout the novel.

Does Rudolf's subsequent life – we take leave of him in 1918, past 70 and mindful of death – justify this ecstatic embrace of his future? Yes, and no. Some of those qualities that distinguished him as a virtuous but somehow unlovable youth assist him. He is unsparing of self and time in his acquisition of knowledge about different strains of tea plant, to which crop he adds quinine, increasingly in demand. He can put up uncomplainingly with a Spartan lifestyle, even when a married man conscientiously rearing children. With his workforce he is something of a martinet, lacking the common touch possessed by his distinguished relations in Java's colonial establishment. But he's also fair, industrious and personally courageous.

His unflinching morality never leads him seriously to question the Dutch presence in (and exploitation of) the East Indies, any more than he would abstain from killing wild animals. Or waive his conjugal rights. His young sons, growing up in circumstances to match most boys' dreams, think him the greatest man in the world. But his wife, we learn, does not. Java-born, Jenny is aware of life's darker forces as its indigenous peoples are, and as Dutch-educated entrepreneurs like Rudolf are not. This awareness and its denial form a major theme in Dutch colonial literature. The depiction here of Jenny's psychological deterioration is both subtle and powerful.

Hella Haasse's The Tea Lords stands in a Dutch tradition which includes Multatuli's seminally shocking Max Havelaar (1860) and the work of Louis Couperus (1863-1923). Translated into graceful prose, this morally challenging work, constructed from documents and letters, has already become a novel by which others, inside and outside its tradition, can be judged.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones