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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hidden Force

Louis Couperus

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To purchase The Hidden Force

Title: The Hidden Force
Author: Louis Couperus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1900 (Eng. 1922)
Length: 230 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Hidden Force - US
The Hidden Force - UK
The Hidden Force - Canada
The Hidden Force - India
Die stille Kraft - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: De stille kracht
  • Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
  • Revised and edited, with an Introduction by E.M.Beekman (1985)
  • Now available in a new translation by Paul Vincent (2012)

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Our Assessment:

A- : rich, engaging story of Dutch colonialism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/9/1996 R.V.
The Independent . 3/11/2012 Boyd Tonkin
The NY Rev. of Books . 11/8/1994 Ian Buruma
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/1/1922 Louise Maunsell Field
Pacific Affairs . Spring/1986 Peter Carey
The Spectatror . 2/9/1922 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(S)ein Buch, ein schönes Beispiel des damals allgemein beliebten Exotismus, schildert, ästhetisch nun relativ herkömmlich, die -- offenbar berechtigte -- Angst der Europäer vor dem, was unter der tropischen Ruhe dort in Java sich an alten furchtbaren Kräften verbirgt." - R.V., Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Eerie, lush, psychologically acute, this Dutch masterpiece from 1900 (in a fine new translation by Paul Vincent) is one of the great novels of the colonial era." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(O)ne of the masterpieces to come from the colonial experience. (...) The translation of the book under review, first published in 1922, is not great, but Couperus's precious, elaborate, sometimes quite bizarre prose seems less dated in English than in the original Dutch. (...) The Hidden Force is a story of decay, fear, and disillusion. (...) His insight into the tragedy of European colonialism made Couperus a great writer. And his sympathy for the hybrid, the impure, the ambiguous, gave him a peculiarly modern voice. It is extraordinary that this Dutch dandy, writing in the flowery language of fin–de–siècle decadence, should still sound so fresh. But we can only be grateful. For now that the dreams of ethnic purity are making a comeback, his voice is more urgent than ever." - Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

  • "The novel, with its vivid, dramatic plot, its admirable character drawing and its finely sustained theme, is also a perfect mine of information concerning the methods and customs of the Hollanders in Java, but information which is always incidental to the story." - Louise Maunsell Field, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This last example of the Dutch author's method shows the same strongly developed instinct for psychological analysis which has already placed him in the front rank of contemporary novelists." - The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Hidden Force is set in Java around 1900, and centres around the family of Van Oudijck, the resident (essentially the man in charge) for the district of Labuwangi in the Dutch colony. Not yet fifty when the book begins, he is successful and good at his job (he's been resident here for some five years) and likes his life; he's not even that eager to get a promotion and move up to being the resident in Batavia (Jakarta) or a similarly important place -- and he dreads the thought of retiring in the Netherlands, where he would be pretty much a nobody, and know no one. He does have a weakness of sorts: as he explains: "I can't live without a woman" -- which is problematic because he does not appear to choose wisely.
       Divorced, he has four children from his first wife: Theo, who has had a few jobs, but none really stuck, Doddy, who is and always has been in love with Adrien 'Addy' de Luce, and the two young boys, René and Ricus. Van Oudijck's second wife, Léonie, step-mom to the kids, is quite the character, and Van Oudijck definitely does not see her for what she is. Indeed, Van Oudijck lives in blissful (or willful) ignorance of most of what is going on in his household: everything looks fine, but beneath the surface .....
       For one, Léonie likes to get and fool around, and she's not picky. She has an affair with Addy. And she has an affair with her stepson Theo -- at the same time.
       Some of the characters -- notably Léonie -- seem almost ridiculous, but Couperus has a fine touch in taking what seems absurd and making a believable figure with it. Léonie is described as someone of "almost superhuman indifference" with an "utterly barren soul":

she lived there in her egotism, in the comfort with which she had selfishly surrounded herself, in her rosy dreams of cherubs and in such love as she was able to gather.
       She is amoral but not really (or at least usually) bad: "She never spoke ill of others, out of indifference", for example. Her husband trusts and loves her completely; he doesn't even consider (for the longest time) that she may be getting up to inappropriate things behind his back -- though he is constantly getting letters denouncing her and accusing her of horrible things (many of which she is, in fact, guilty of). But then he constantly gets letters denouncing most everyone .....
       Other characters are also well-drawn, including the empty vessel that is Addy:
Addy did not seem to possess a modicum of intellect or imagination, and was incapable of uniting two ideas into one composite thought. He merely felt, with that vague good nature that had settled on the entire family. For the rest, he was like a beautiful animal, degenerate in soul and brain, but degenerated to nothing, to one great nothing, to one great emptiness, while his body had become like a renewal of race, full of strength and beauty, while his marrow, his blood, his flesh, and his muscles had become one harmony of physical seductiveness, so perfectly and stupidly beautiful, that its harmony had for a woman an immediate appeal.
       Addy gets around, too, and certainly seems to have met his ideal match in Mrs. Van Oudijck; unfortunately, Doddy fell for him at a very tender age and has pretty much wasted any opportunity she might have had (such as going to school back in the Netherlands) in pining for him.
       Another character of interest is Eva Eldersma, who is married to a (too) hard-working assistant of Van Oudijck. She is frustrated by her husband's focus on his work, but unlike most doesn't go in for the easy affair she could have (she, too, has a devoted admirer), and instead tries to make the best of life here, putting on entertainments and the like. It is her open-houses that attract the crowds, not the indifferent Léonie's. But even Eva's efforts only go so far, and she too is overwhelmed. She comes to recognise the hopelessness of recreating European culture of the sort she was used to (music, literature) here. The big blow is the rainy and hot weather, which literally rots and destroys almost everything -- but the rot of course goes much further than the physical. But it takes a lot for her to finally complain:
     "We're idiots here," she continued, "we Europeans in this country ! Why do we bring all the paraphernalia of our costly civilization with us, considering that it will never last ? Why don't we live in a cool bamboo hut, sleep on a mat, dress in a kain pandjang and a chintz kabaai, with a scarf over your shoulders and a flower in our hair ? All your civilization by which you propose to grow rich ... it's a Western idea, which fails in the long run. Our whole administration ... it's so tiring in the heat.
       And, indeed, The Hidden Force is a story about the futility and cost of colonialism. Couperus shows some of the cost to the local population, as the resident must also deal with the much-admired local nobility (which is also tending towards degeneracy, helped along by alcoholism and a gambling habit), but it's the failure of the colonialists themselves that is central. They suffer, they are bored, and while they can get together for a good cause the larger picture is one of growing decay (moral and otherwise).
       Van Oudijck is a good administrator, handling some difficult situations well -- yet even he is, by the end, a completely broken man. Eva, too, leaves Labuwangi -- her husband having been more simply broken, by overwork -- and on her way home visits Van Oudijck, who has once again latched onto a woman and makes do as best he can -- a fitting scene showing what their world has come to .....
       There's also a 'hidden force' at work in the book -- or several. One is of a supernatural variety: bad, weird things happen: sightings of a ghostly hadji in a white turban, messages from table-turning (like a ouija board), something really unpleasant in a bathroom ..... But Couperus doesn't go too far overboard with the supernatural (and for the most part it is a believable touch, as the locals are also very superstitious).
       Still: "But under all this show the hidden force lurks" -- and it's not only a supernatural one, but one that is similarly powerful in that the Dutch have no way of countering or fighting it.
       Couperus firmly believes that colonial rule only reaches the surface: the East Indians (in Java and elsewhere) seem to have been subjugated --:
But, down in its soul, it had never been conquered, though smiling in proud contemptuous resignation and bowing submissively beneath its fate. Deep in its soul, despite a cringing reverence, it lived in freedom its own mysterious life, hidden from Western eyes, however these might seek to fathom the secret
       Certainly, Couperus does a good job of showing the inability of even the best-meaning Dutch to do right, as when Eva wants to take in one of the daughters of her maid -- an experiment that lasts only two days, after which the mother takes the girl back (because Eva called the girl 'Melati' rather than her given name, Mina ...). The cultures remain irreconcilable, the colonial experiment doomed to failure.
       Couperus winds things up rather quickly and a bit awkwardly, as the characters disperse, with some too quickly out of mind and sight (Theo, for example). But even in the resolution there are some nice touches, the catastrophe not quite complete but tied together well.
       Couperus does occasionally get carried away, and a few of the ideas stray a bit too far, but his rich characterisation and the clever way he goes at presenting colonial degeneracy make The Hidden Force well worthwhile. And it is all quite engagingly written.

       Note that in his Introduction E.M.Beekman mentions:
     In the original Dutch, Couperus's unorthodox syntax is replete with neologisms. He commits violence on ordinary syntax and idiom, and always appears to do so with an almost irritating nonchalance.
       Teixeira de Mattos' translation (revised and updated by Beekman -- who notes: "the reason his translation was kept is chiefly due to his congruence of tone with the original and to a similar, somewhat archaic, diction") isn't quite so violent and reads fairly fluidly and well -- though occasionally jarringly. Despite some oddities, it seems quite adequate in this revised form.

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The Hidden Force: Reviews: Louis Couperus: Other books by Louis Couperus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Louis Couperus lived 1863 to 1923.

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