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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Max Havelaar


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To purchase Max Havelaar

Title: Max Havelaar
Author: Multatuli
Genre: Novel
Written: 1859 (Eng. 1967)
Length: 320 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Max Havelaar (Penguin Classics (tr. 1967) - US
Max Havelaar (NYRB (tr. 2019)- US
Max Havelaar - UK
Max Havelaar - Canada
Max Havelaar - India
Max Havelaar - France
Max Havelaar - Deutschland
Max Havelaar - Italia
Max Havelaar - España
  • or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Roy Edwards
  • The Penguin Classics edition has an Introduction by R.P.Meijer
  • Previously translated by W.Siebenhaar (1927), with an Introduction by D.H.Lawrence
  • Now also in a translation by Ina Rilke and David McKay (2019), in a New York Review Books Classics edition with an Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
  • Max Havelaar was made into a film in 1976, directed by Fons Rademakers and with Peter Faber in the title role and Rutger Hauer as Duclari

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Our Assessment:

A : spirited, powerful both in its literary approach and as polemic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/9/1996 R.V.
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/11/1927 Simeon Strunsky
TLS . 17/3/1927 Arthur Sydney McDowall
TLS . 8/6/1967 Michael Thorpe

  From the Reviews:
  • "Multatuli schreibt auf verschiedenen Wahrnehmungsebenen in ganz verschiedenen Stilen, und man merkt gar nicht genau, ob nun gerade deshalb oder ob trotzdem sein polemischer Impetus so unüberhörbar ist. Man weiß am Ende nicht einmal genau, ob das ganz wundervolle Durcheinander nun Raffinesse oder die Naivität der großen Leidenschaft war. Das ist eines dieser Bücher, die in unserm Kopf alles in Unordnung bringen, was wir uns so zu unsrer Bequemlichkeit zurechtgebaut haben, alles kriegt gewissermaßen Löcher und Risse und wird durchsichtig -- ja, für was nun: für die Wahrheit ? " - R.V., Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The literary professional -- and his readers -- will find it an excellent example of that nineteenth century fiction technique which knew how to combine artistic creation and social advocacy, a secret which contemporary craftsmanship has not quite mastered." - Simeon Strunsky, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But this motley is, in fact, its flavour. It is not only a modern satire but a "mixture" of the old Latin sort; and its variety brings every resource into play with a singular power of assertion. (...) His book is still vivid because it is the whole of the man and flashes an intense light of the real on shams and unreality." - Arthur Sydney McDowall, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Like Burmese Days, Max Havelaar is so sound morally that one sorely regrets its vulnerability to carping criticism." - Michael Thorpe, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Anyone who has heard of Max Havelaar likely thinks they know what to expect. It is known as a novel about Dutch colonialism in what is now Indonesia. As D.H.Lawrence wrote in his introduction to the 1927 translation by W.Siebenhaar:

     On the surface, Max Havelaar is a tract or a pamphlet very much in the same line as Uncle Tom's Cabin. Instead of 'pity the poor Negro slave' we have 'pity the poor oppressed Javanese'; with the same urgent appeal for legislation.
       In fact, this aspect of the novel only eventually surfaces: it doesn't reveal itself immediately, as Multatuli goes through some remarkable contortions in getting there. Indeed, the novel is striking from the start because of Multatuli's indirect, creative, and very playful approach -- beginning with an extended epigraph, a fragment from an 'unpublished play' (which, as translator Roy Edwards points out in a note, is likely all there ever was of this particular drama). (The fragment is also the source of the proverbial (in Holland) "Barbertje moet hangen" ('Babbie must hang', describing -- so Edwards -- "a situation in which a particular scapegoat is to be made to suffer at all costs".)
       The book proper begins with the writer -- or at least the first would-be writer -- introducing himself:
     I am a coffee broker, and I live at No.37 Lauriergracht, Amsterdam. I am not in the habit of writing novels or things of that sort, and so I have been a long time in making up my mind to buy a few extra reams of paper and start on the work which you, dear reader, have just taken up, and which you must read if you are a coffee broker, or if you are anything else.
       Batavus Droogstoppel is incredibly sure of himself and very (self-)righteous. He also seems a very unlikely author, with little respect for versifiers and the like:
     Truth and common sense -- that's what I say, and I'm sticking to it. Naturally, I make an exception for Holy Scripture.
       Yes, Max Havelaar is a very funny and very subversive text, and Droogstoppel the guide who unwittingly leads readers to something entirely different from what he planned. For Droogstoppel's plan is to present a book titled and on The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company -- and that's certainly not what either he or the readers end up with.
       Two things conspire against the original plan. First, Droogstoppel meets someone he knew in his youth, a man whose name he doesn't give, referring to him solely as 'Scarfman' (though he clearly resembles both Max Havelaar and Multatuli). As a boy Scarfman came to Droogstoppel's rescue: with Droogstoppel about to get beaten up by a Greek shopkeeper the younger boy:
gave the Greek a punch, and I was saved. Later on, I heard that the Greek had given him a drubbing, but because it's a firm principle of mine never to meddle with things that don't concern me, I ran away immediately. So I didn't see it.
       Yes, Droogstoppel proves principled (in this and similar ways) throughout his life -- and in this is, of course, presented as the typical Dutchman of the times (among other things: always willing to turn a blind eye ...). It is not a flattering portrait.
       Scarfman doesn't seem to have fared too well, but to Droogstoppel's chagrin takes this chance encounter to impose on him, sending over a big parcel and asking Droogstoppel to consider fronting him the money to pay for the publication of some of his work. Yes, Scarfman is a writer. But of course, Droogstoppel just has to read: "Ever since I was a child I have expressed my emotions in verse" to be quite put off. And he certainly isn't going to spend any of his money on helping this misguided soul get published -- but he does look over what the parcel contains. And though he doesn't take it seriously, he does list (for some six pages !) the titles of the "dissertations and essays" included (offering also the occasional comment about what he finds) -- such as:
On the gravity of light.
On the decline of civilization since the rise of Christianity. (What ?!)
On Icelandic mythology.
On Rousseau's 'Emile'.
On civil law in commerce.
On Sirius as the centre of a solar system.
On import duties as ineffectual, offensive, unjust and immoral. (I never heard anything about this.)
On verse as the oldest language. (I don't believe that.)
On white ants.
On the unnaturalness of schools.
       It's all not Droogstoppel's cup of tea (or coffee), but Scarfman does write a good hand, so he considers giving him a job. And he's still having trouble getting started on his own book .....
       Meanwhile, Droogstoppel has also hired young Stern -- purely in the hopes of keeping the Stern-family's business (reasoning that "old Stern can't very well transfer his business to Busselinck & Waterman while his boy is in our office"). Stern is something of a dreamer and romantic -- and he "has literary leanings". And he is willing to write Droogstoppel's book -- under certain conditions, including that Droogstoppel can't change a word of what Stern writes (though he "should be entitled to write a chapter myself from time to time, so as to give the book an appearance of respectability" -- which he does). The final condition is:
11. (Stern emphatically insisted on this.) That I should send Scarfman a ream of paper, a gross of pens, and a bottle of ink.
       The resulting book, then, is the story of Max Havelaar, and it's no great leap to believe that it is Scarfman, not Stern, who actually writes the story -- and that Scarfman is, in fact, writing his own story.
       Droogstoppel is, of course, flummoxed when he sees the result: this isn't what he had in mind at all. He pops up a few more times, but by then it's too late:
     Oh, to be sure, if I had guessed how he was going to write the book which is going to be so important to all coffee brokers -- and others -- I'd have sooner done it myself. But he's backed up by the Rosemeyers, who are in sugar, and it's that that makes him so brazen.
       But as a businessman (and one who agreed to the conditions that prevent him from interfering), and as a man of principle, he's stuck with this:
As you know, I am a coffee broker -- 37 Lauriergracht -- and my profession's my life. So anyone can understand how little satisfied I am with Stern's work. I had hoped for coffee, and he has given us ... Heaven knows what !
       Heaven knows what, indeed. The book Stern presents to Droogstoppel, chapter by chapter, is the story of the newly appointed assistant resident of Lebak, Max Havelaar. (Adding insult to injury, it's a part of the Dutch East Indies where they don't even grow coffee .....)
       Havelaar is in his mid-thirties, and a remarkable character. Too remarkable, it might seem, but in the way he is presented -- in how he deals with everything, especially as he first arrives to take up his position -- very realistic. But he is described as, for example:
A poet in the highest sense of the word, he dreamt solar systems from a spark, people them with beings of his own creation, felt himself lord of a world which he himself had called into existence ... and yet, immediately afterwards, he was perfectly capable of carrying on, without the slightest dreaminess, a conversation about the price of rice, the rules of grammar, or the economic advantages of an Egyptian poultry farm. No science was wholly foreign to him.
       He's also terribly helpful, handing out money to those he sees in need and helping where he can -- and this, of course, is a great weakness. Especially given the fiscal irresponsibility and untenable conditions in the colonial system. Not surprisingly, Max has gotten himself into situations that defy even the best intentions.
       Multatuli daringly creates a character who is both a visionary dreamer and yet also a bureaucrat (and a very efficient one). It's an unlikely mix, but Multatuli's no-holds-barred style and approach allow him to pull it off -- even as he claims, for example:
     If anyone should remark that the originality of Havelaar's style of address was not altogether indisputable, since his language recalled that of the Old Testament prophets, I would remind him that I have already said that in moments of exaltation he really became more or less a seer. fed on the impressions communicated to him by a life in forests and mountains, and by the poetry-breathing atmosphere of the east, he would not have spoken otherwise even if he had never read the sublime poems of the Old Testament.
       The story of the assistant resident does become an exposé (of a colonial system completely out of kilter) and a polemic. Multatuli balances it with a more traditional narrative, but the polemic does win out. And in a way this, too, is convincing, so outrageous are the conditions (and so frustrating Havelaar's attempts to right them). It comes as no surprise that Multatuli himself finally explodes the book:
Havelaar wandered about, poor and forsaken. He sought ...

Enough, my good Stern ! I, Multatuli, take up the pen. [...] It is enough, Stern, you may go !
       Another layer is as easily dismissed, as Multatuli spews:
I created you ... you grew into a monster under my pen ... I loathe my own handiwork: choke in coffee and disappear !
       One of the stories related along the way is that of Saïjah, a typical, terrible local fate, sketched out in its basics, with some heart-tugging parts. The narrator admits that some of the details may be invented or embellished -- but the essence (which is tragedy) is truth:
I know, and I can prove, that there were many Adindas and many Saïjahs, and that what is fiction in particular is truth in general.
       Ultimately, Multatuli doesn't believe fiction is enough, believing that it can't contain all that he is trying to convey, the true magnitude of what colonialism has wrought. He admits: "I want to be read !" He wants to attract attention with his book, he is desperate for notice -- not for himself or his literary efforts, but for the problems he's addressing. And that's why he also undermines the fiction, why he doesn't allow the book to remain a simple, cohesive whole, imagining the obvious criticism (because he's calling for those criticisms):
     'The book is chaotic ... disjointed ... striving for effect ... the style is bad ... the writer lacks skill ... no talent ... no method ...'
     Right, right ... all right ! But ... THE JAVANESE IS MALTREATED !
     For: the SUBSTANCE of my work is irrefutable !
       It's a daring approach to social and political fiction; the fact that it still can impress, when all these literary tricks have grown far too familiar, is testament to Multatuli's abilities.
       Ironically, a contemporary reading of Max Havelaar likely finds it more impressive as literary creation rather than socio-political commentary, as Multatuli's picture of those times -- while still shocking -- has become more historic curiosity, and far less immediate than it was to the audience the book was originally intended for. But in any reading, it remains a remarkable work of fiction.
       Multatuli almost undermines his undertaking with the comic tour de force that is the section ascribed to Batavus Droogstoppel, raising expectations of a certain kind of novel that are then not met. Yet from the pitch-perfect voice of this satire, Multatuli shifts gears radically after some sixty pages to the realistic description of Havelaar's arrival to take up his post -- and as easily holds the reader's attention by again showing a complete command of the material, even though something entirely different (both in fact and intent) is being presented. And yet this, too, is not sustained, as the pressure of the polemic Multatuli wants to unfurl comes to bear on (or to crush) the narrative, ultimately completely exploding it.
       Max Havelaar is consistent only in Multatuli's critical certainty, but otherwise it is almost a model of inconsistency. In a way this makes the book frustrating, as it never continues to be what the reader might have grown accustomed to or wish more of, and yet the madness of Multatuli's method -- and his manifested anger -- is perhaps the only possible approach, given the subject matter.
       Unusual, occasionally frustrating, often brilliant -- and very funny --, Max Havelaar is a book of its times that has (somewhat surprisingly) nevertheless transcended them. The parts perhaps now outshine the whole, but it is still well worthwhile.

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Max Havelaar: Reviews (* review of more recent Rilke/McKay translation): Max Havelaar - the film: Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker): Other books by Multatuli under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Multatuli (actually: Eduard Douwes Dekker) lived 1820 to 1887.

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