I had never fathomed the depths: Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake


English-language readers haven’t had much exposure to Hella S. Haasse. If The Black Lake (originally Oeroeg in Dutch) is any indication, that lack of access is a shame. Until the Granta imprint Portobello Books brought out The Tea Lords in 2010, it had been fifteen years since a new title appeared in English. Now Portobello has employed translator Ina Rilke’s fluid rendering of The Black Lake to further remedy the situation. As an object, this new edition (the book was originally published in 1948) is slim and handsome. As a work of fiction, it’s clear why the book is regarded as a classic in the Netherlands.

Haasse was born in Jakarta – it was then known as Batavia – in 1918, a fact which accounts for her authority in rendering Indonesia through a child’s eyes, in the years between the wars. The situation in the novella is simple enough: a young Dutch boy whose father owns a tea plantation in Indonesia befriends Oeroeg, the son of servants who work on the plantation. The two are very young when the book begins. The Dutch boy’s parents treat their friendship indulgently for a time, before the boys are old enough to go to school, and he remembers that period as an idyll, long days of shared play and easy acceptance of one another. Haasse doesn’t stay with this arrangement long enough for it to become tiresome or for the reader to suspect that the author’s view is as blinkered as her protagonist’s. The inevitable changes come, though not in the expected form: Oeroeg’s father dies. It fosters a sense of the family’s obligation to Oeroeg, and they decide to pay for his schooling. The circumstances of his death, coupled with their reaction, carry the scent of guilt, but there’s no indication of resentment on Oeroeg’s part.

Haasse allows other tensions to bubble to the surface in their own, good time. The boy’s mother carries on an illicit relationship with his tutor, Mr. Bollinger, until finally she and his father separate and divorce. His friendship with Oeroeg endures, despite his parents’ expectation that he will turn his attention elsewhere. His parents, it turns out, aren’t alone in their view: “So I was all the more surprised to find, as time went on,” he observes, “that the familiarity between Oeroeg and me and my parents was frowned on and ridiculed by our servants.”

Those first cracks gradually widen. Distance grows between him and Oeroeg, though he takes pains to avoid it, and then to avoid acknowledging it. His father suggests that Oeroeg will likely begin work upon finishing primary school, and adds, “You surely do understand, don’t you, my boy? You’re European, remember.” But he doesn’t remember, certainly not in the way his father expects him to. The boys eventually part ways. Of an outing to a nearby mountain lake  they mythologized when younger, the boy observes that past wonders, “no longer took our breath away…I glanced at Oeroeg and saw the same discovery in his eyes. A sense of finality. We were children no longer.”

There’s little indication that Oeroeg shares the narrator’s regret at the distance which grows between them. The depth of the narrator’s regret is difficult to gauge in its own right, primarily due to the extent of his naiveté during at the time of the events described in the book. Haasse does remarkable work there. Her narrator avers that, “I am describing the events as I experienced them at the time,” and though he shows Oeroeg’s maturity outstripping his own, a real understanding of where he’s fallen short never quite coalesces. Yet it turns out that’s an asset rather than a failing here. The Black Lake is effective as an indictment of the actions and consequences of a colonial regime, but it’s effective precisely because it proceeds from the guileless perspective of a young man whose family benefits so richly from the arrangement. His is a sentimental education, unfinished. He doesn’t arrive at a wholesale critique of colonial doctrine, or even detailed objections to specific policies. Instead, he revisits a youthful friendship, surveys the disconnect between his older self and that long-ago friend, and concludes, “I knew him as I knew Telaga Hideung, as a reflecting surface – I never sounded the depths.” It’s a sin of omission, one the reader will work harder to avoid after The Black Lake.

–John McIntyre


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