The Black Lake, By Hella S Haasse

Shades of grey in the innocence of a colonial childhood

Emma Hagestadt
Friday 12 October 2012 13:20

When it was first published in the Netherlands in 1948, Hella S Haasse's debut, Oeroeg, alerted Dutch readers to the consequences of their continued colonial presence in Indonesia. Charting the friendship between the son of a Dutch settler and a local boy this understated novella – newly translated by Ina Rilke under the title The Black Lake – wears its message and metaphors lightly.

Brought up on a tea plantation in the Preanger highlands, the novel's narrator recalls how as a child he became fast friends with the son of his father's foreman, a boy called Oeroeg. As in so many stories of colonial childhood, he describes these early years as a time of Rousseau-esque innocence, spent roaming the jungle foothills and eating pancakes in the servants' quarters. It's only as the two friends reach school-age that the Dutch planter and his wife become aware that their freckly offspring can only converse in Soendansese.

Tragedy arrives early on in the novel and is hauntingly described. At a drunken swimming party, Oeroeg's father drowns trying to save house guests from a weed-infested lake. In recompense, the young Oeroeg is semi-adopted by the plantation owner and educated alongside his son. The narrator's emotional estrangement from his own parents is set against Oeroeg's struggles to make his way in a white man's world.

With the outbreak of war the narrator leaves for Europe, while Oeroeg, strangulated by his futile attempts to assimilate, joins the anti-Dutch nationalist movement. When next the two friends meet it's on the shores of Telaga Hideung – the mysterious lake where Oeroeg's father lost his life. This time they are staring at one another down the barrel of a gun.

Haasse, who died last year, regularly revisited her own colonial girlhood for inspiration. Her 1992 novel The Tea Lords, the intergenerational history of a Dutch East Indian clan, was written with the same unostentatious charm that made her Oeroeg such an instant classic. This is a writer more interested in shades of grey than black and white.

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