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

Reviewed by Paul Binding

Friday 07 January 2011 01:00

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.

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