Set sometime between the two World Wars, Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake is narrated by a boy growing up on a plantation in the Dutch Indies. With parents too distracted by work and their own unhappy relationship to pay much attention to their son, the boy spends his childhood among the native servants, speaking better Soendanese than Dutch and exploring the jungle with Oeroeg, his best friend and constant companion.
Oeroeg’s name is the book’s somber refrain, the heart of half its utterances, a word that overshadows even the narrator’s own name, which we never learn. Already as a child, Oeroeg is mysterious, taciturn, and seemingly imperturbable: the one person the narrator feels close to, and yet still unknowable. At the beginning of this short, subtle novel, the narrator states that Oeroeg represents the image of his youth, “as though my memory were one of those magic pictures we used to buy, three for ten cents,” and that it is this relationship he now feels compelled to examine.
At barely over a hundred pages, The Black Lake’s story moves quickly, but its power builds slowly. Readers may be deceived at the beginning by Haasse’s unadorned style; they will think that they are reading a simple story, and will therefore be all the more enchanted by the affective complexity the novel ultimately achieves. As the narrator describes the childhood and adolescence he shared with Oeroeg, what emerges is an unassuming but utterly convincing picture of colonial life—the jungle of the island and the mind, painted in broad and careful brushstrokes.
Like her narrator, Haasse was born just after the First World War and spent most of the first twenty years of her life on Java. She went to the Netherlands in 1938, and though she remained in Europe for the rest of her life, in her books she returned again and again to the landscape of her youth, frequently meditating, as she does in The Black Lake, on whether friendship between a European and a native child was possible. Like her narrator, she must have had a life marked both by the colonial experience and by Indonesia’s struggle for independence, and like her narrator, she must have wondered what the people she grew up among really thought of her.
Despite the similarity between the author and the protagonists’ experiences, The Black Lake does not read as particularly autobiographical. Only in the luminous passages describing the jungle, the night, the ghosts in the black lake—particularly well rendered in Ina Rilke’s marvelously nuanced translation—do we sense the voice of someone who knew the landscape and loved it. At one point, for example, the narrator and Oeroeg go on a hunting expedition in the forest:
… where the majestic tree crowns high overhead intermingled to form an uninterrupted green roof, impenetrable to the sun. We felt as if we were making our way through the murky light of an aquarium. There was a pungent odour of damp leaves, of layers of vegetation decaying slowly in black soil. There were ice-cold trickles of clear water in the undergrowth, tiny streams as wide as a man’s hand, rivulets coursing through a bed strewn with grey stones polished smooth by the water. All around us was the splash of falling water, and the air felt saturated with droplets.
The novel was published in Dutch as Oeroeg, but its English title has the advantage, not only of being easier on Anglophone ears, but also of emphasizing the role of nature in the story. The two pivotal moments in the novel occur at the eponymous lake, Telaga Hideung, a place used as a swimming pool by the Europeans and considered haunted by the Javanese. As a child, the narrator experiences a trauma there that further entwines his life with Oeroeg’s; as an adult, the lake becomes the location of his final, enigmatic confrontation with his friend. The black lake is the book’s understated heart of darkness, unintelligible to Europeans but also actively antagonistic to them. Twice in his life, the narrator is rejected by the black lake, finally leaving him a stranger in his native land.
Within its beautifully observed coming-of-age story the novel puts forth a critique of imperialism whose toughness may reveal itself only after the pages have been closed. The Black Lake was originally published in 1948, a full year before Indonesia achieved its independence, yet it displays all the intelligence of hindsight. Haasse writes with remarkable historical prescience, simultaneously exposing the injustices of colonialism and the rampant ignorance that kept it in place. The narrator frequently writes that he did not understand the events of his life as they occurred, and indeed, he can be alarmingly oblivious, misreading all the signs of fracture and turmoil that run through his life and that of the budding Indonesian nation-state. He is blind both to his mother’s infidelity and to the caste system that holds the value of his life far above Oeroeg’s—but as the child of wealthy Europeans, he can afford to be blind. This dubious privilege permits the narrator’s political consciousness to awaken much more slowly than Oeroeg’s, who, by contrast, has spent his life in oppression. The discrepancy between their worldviews, which cannot have been atypical, makes the violence of the independence struggle appear tragically inevitable.
Haasse herself suffers from no such blindness. On the contrary, she possesses a rare intelligence completely unhindered by arrogance. The Black Lake is refreshingly free of both commentary and melodrama, and yet the stakes are never in doubt. Haasse poses, with quiet gravity and unfaltering insight, questions about the values and possibilities of colonialism that have not diminished in urgency or importance. The place she leaves her narrator—in radical doubt between imperialism and indigeneity—is where, in some sense, we still are today.
Long celebrated as the “grand lady of Dutch literature,” Haasse is finally making her way toward an English readership. Her magnum opus, The Tea Lords, was published in 2010, and The Black Lake joins it now as an ideal introduction to her work. Both novels appear in Ina Rilke’s fluid translation, which captures both the restraint and the lushness of Haasse’s prose.
Madeleine LaRue is Social Media Manager of Music & Literature magazine. Her criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, The Coffin Factory and Music & Literature, among other places. She lives in Berlin.