For a course on 19th century Dutch literature, I had to read Multatuli’s classic Max Havelaar. For anyone who is not familiar with this book: Max Havelaar tells the story of a Dutch government official in Indonesia, which was once a Dutch colony. He tries to stand up to corruption and the abuse of the people of Java, but gets fired because of his criticism. This book made a huge impact in the Netherlands and started a bigger movement to stop these horrible practices in Indonesia. Nowadays, it’s seen as one of the big classics of Dutch literature and Multatuli is perceived as a hero because of all he accomplished.

I have to say, the book was beautiful. It was very well written and I loved Havelaar’s activism. At the end of the book Multatuli addresses the reader and the Dutch king directly, to call for a better treatment of the inhabitants of Indonesia. Because of this, Multatuli tends to be seen as this noble guy who only wants what’s best for the natives. Well, I’m not buying it.

The story of Max Havelaar is based on the life of Multatuli himself, and he’s not very subtle about that. For example, when Havelaar explains how he got fired before, he refers to documents we can actually find in archives, only they are about Multatuli. So every time Havelaar explains to us why he is innocent of something, it’s actually Multatuli talking about himself. So apart from getting better treatment for the people of Java, his book is also meant to clear his own name.

Now, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A book can have more than one function. The problem however, lies in some little facts from when the publication of the book was being prepared. It was clear that the book would be very controversial. Multatuli made a list of conditions, and if those conditions would be met he would retract his book from publication. So what were his conditions?

  1. He wanted a new, high job at Java.
  2. He wanted that the years that he was fired would count for his retirement.
  3. He wanted money.
  4. He wanted a knighthood (Dutch lion). (Alles is taal geworden, p. 544)

Not a word about better treatment for the people of Java. To me, that makes him a hypocrite. But, what does this mean for the book?

Now, let’s a little theoretical. There once was this big literary critic, Roland Barthes, who said: “The author is dead”. By this, he meant that he didn’t want to analyse literary works with the intentions and biographical details of the author in mind. The author should be ignored, and it’s only the story that matters.

Most of the time, this is a useful way of looking at literature. When you’re not bound by biographical details and intentions you may come to some wholly different and interesting interpretations. But for me personally, I find this hard to apply to Max Havelaar, because the author so obviously meant for it to be personal. He wanted to clear his own name, and at the end he personally addresses the reader and the king. This author definitely did not want to be dead. And knowing that he’s also such a hypocrite, what does that mean for the book? The story doesn’t get any less beautiful, but to me, the political intentions of the book lose their strength, knowing that he didn’t care that much about it (or at least not as much as he cared about a knighthood).

I’m interested in the opinion of my readers. What do you think?

Rectification: after a lot of discussion about this subject, a friend of mine found the letter Willem van den Berg and Piet Couttenier, the authors of Alles is taal geworden, use for their claim that Multatuli was willing to retract his book if his conditions were met. However, this letter does not state that he was willing to retract the book on those conditions, they were conditions for selling the book to a publisher other than his first choice. We have not yet found any evidence for Multatuli not wanting to publish and my statement that he would be a hypocrite is thus so far incorrect. We are continuing our research and I will update you as soon as we reach a conclusion.

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