By Myoung-suk Chi
Multatuli, meaning "I have suffered much", was the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887), born in Amsterdam the son of a sea captain. In 1838, he accompanied his father to Java, where he entered the Netherlands East Indian Civil Service. Although this young official who was endowed with an independent but recalcitrant nature was frequently involved in disputes with his superiors, his career steadily advanced and he held posts in various places. Although he had received no higher education or specific training, he, as a self-taught man, seemed to earn recognition for his outstanding capacities.
In 1856, he was appointed Assistant-Resident of Lebak in West Java, and it was here he felt ready to carry out his mission: namely, to put things to rights, to remove the oppression from which the population of Lebak suffered. However, within three months he had resigned from the service and left Lebak. Back in Europe, there were years of wandering and poverty, during which he struggled in vain to obtain rehabilitation for himself and justice for the Javanese. In 1860, Max Havelaar, in which were recorded and narrated the series of events around the Lebak case that "have taken place", was published. Douwes Dekker himself was, of course, the embodiment of the hero of the novel, Max Havelaar.
A man of action
There are many anecdotes that shed a light on Douwes Dekker's personality. Brimming with romantic heroism and a sense of adventure, he wanted to be and was indeed a man of action. For instance, once he jumped impulsively into a river just to save a dog. At other times, he bought slaves in order to set them free, and because of this gesture he and his family suffered great financial hardship. Whenever he received remuneration for his lectures or other activities, this ministering angel hastened to orphans, beggars, the homeless, alcoholics, prostitutes, in short to all his friends in need. This man of action, who hankered to follow Christ as the chosen protector of the poor and the minorities, was also a dreamer, a inveterate gambler: he was an habitué of the casino where he lost all his money and ran into debt. There is a wealth of evidence which reveals him as an egocentric, an eccentric, and a highly complex personality. He was a hot-headed fighter: in a theatre he once suddenly gave three men in the audience a beating, as they had made vulgar comments about the appearance of an actor. He was taken to court and convicted of disorderly behaviour. He even seemed to betray a tendency towards paranoia: he once notified the police that his own son conformed to the description of a certain wanted criminal. Of course, this enraged his completely innocent son who never forgave his father. In short, at the same time he made many enemies and friends at the same time, among whom female supporters figured prominently. His work is as colourful and fascinating as his personality.
Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, an autobiographical novel was written with a dual purpose in mind, as the writer has said: improvement in the position of the Javanese and his own rehabilitation. Even if such concrete outcomes were no more than pious hopes, the success of Max Havelaar was enormous, and overnight an unknown civil servant was transformed into the most famous writer in the Netherlands. Immediately after its publication the book stirred up heated discussions. The government even held an official inquiry into the Lebak affair featured in the novel, concentrating on the factual truth. However, the book goes far beyond an indictment of Dutch colonial policy of the 1850s. In the course of time, the accent has shifted slowly but steadily away from the controversial historical facts to the undisputed literary value of the book, and nowadays appreciation of it is focused mainly on its style and composition. At first glance, the book may appear to be a medley of styles and incongruent composition. For the Dutch reading public it was the very first book in which a everyday colloquial style is presented alongside the more formal literary style, with matter-of-fact passages abutting sentimental poems; dry official documents and letters juxtaposed with emotional outbursts, straight out sarcasm is mingled with irony. Hidden beneath its chaotic appearance there is a coherence, a well-constructed unity. The various styles are used highly functionally and effectively in the characterizations and they link up the various perspectives. The book begins with the narrator Droogstoppel, the Amsterdam coffee broker.
Alter egos and antipodes
Droogstoppel (Drystubble or Dry-as-dust) is a caricature of the worst possible philistine who characterizes himself by what he says and how he says it. He recounts how he happened to meet an old schoolfriend, Sjaalman (man with scarf, because of his shabbiness having to make-do without a wintercoat). Next, the narrator Stern, a recently employed clerk from Germany who agrees to write up a "Havelaar story" with Sjaalman's material, is introduced. Stern (the star as symbol of the Romantic) idealizes his hero as the personification of Justice and Truth. Stern's view is at variance with that of Droogstoppel and opposes it.
Multatuli himself takes up the pen at the end of the book. He acknowledges that all characters are his creatures, and he kicks them off the stage. This all in order to confront us with the problems of conscience: how can one justify the abuse and exploitation of the thirty million Javanese? This use of the various perspectives is indeed a very effective way in which the real author Douwes Dekker, behind the scenes, can present his alter egos: Stern (as the young Dekker), Max Havelaar (as the colonial officer), Sjaalman (as the retired ex-officer), Multatuli (as the writer). To him, their antipodes are Droogstoppel, the Reverend Wawelaar (derived from "wawelen", meaning "to twaddle"), Slymering and their ilk. They are all caricatures of the heartlessness, hypocrisy, narrowmindedness and immutable prejudice of "a pirate state [that] lies on the sea, between the Scheldt and Eastern Friesland!"
Finally, a Korean translation of Max Havelaar, already available in thirty-three other languages, has seen the light of day. There is probably no need to explain why I was eager to introduce Multatuli to the Korean public. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a series of publications about the multi-facetted artist he was. He was not only a novelist, but also the first columnist in Dutch literary history. He wrote plays, poetry, and a great many letters. More than this, he is a great thinker whose Ideas (Ideeën) have been published in seven volumes. Yet his mind was too undisciplined to construct a philosophical system. He was a fighter against the religion he reviled, but he remained a believer in striving for and thirsting after the Ideal. He was a rationalist, wed to a romantic idealist. He favoured Reason, but regarded the Heart as equally essential. This complex of characteristics makes him an inappropriate subject for categorization into any Western literary school. It is maybe time to approach his works from the point of view of his relationship with the oriental cultural heritage. For example, one reason for such an approach being that his concept of the ideal shows a distinct affinity with oriental ideas of harmony with nature, while the thematic motto of his works "man's calling is to be man" is nothing less than a search for the balance between nature and culture. To me, he is clearly a writer who sympathized deeply with and truly tried to absorb oriental culture.