As a chap who has written his own novel (The Coffee Story!) about the coffee trade, it is to my great shame that I had never heard of Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company before it was given to me by a friend. Regarded as a classic in The Netherlands, it is a novel that seeks to expose the exploitative colonial policies of the Dutch East India company in Java, and is credited by many with being one of the main catalysts for the nationalist movements that led to the end of Dutch Colonialism.
But it is not its political influence that fascinated me about Max Havelaar, commendable as this influence is (boo colonialism!). The book works at a deeper, stranger level – it is, I found, a deep and deeply strange book. Its author Eduard Douwes Dekker was not only seeking to expose the corruption and oppression inherent in the Dutch colonial project. He was also attempting to argue his own case, having resigned from his position in the governmental service in Java in protest over the corruption occuring there.
But rather than tell the story as a simple first or third person narrative, Dekker creates one of the more fabulous pieces of novelistic architecture I have ever encountered. To begin with, Dekker adopts the pseudonym Multatuli, meaning ‘I have suffered much’. This author then begins his novel in the first person voice of Batavus Droogstoppel, coffee trader, who has no truck with fiction or poetry, and speaks with force against both their lack of literal veracity and their tendency to corrupt the mind.
Droogstoppel encounters an old school acquaintance, down on his luck, who he refers to as ‘Scarfman’, due to his lack of proper attire. Scarfman pleads with Droogstoppel for financial support, which is mocked by the putative narrator, a position he never recants. Droogstoppel does, however, come into possession of Scarfman’s notes about (amongst a dazzling array of essay topics of Borgesian variety and pith) his time in the government service in Java, in which the narrator, as a coffee trader, has an interest.
He wishes for these notes to be turned into a book, and employs the son of a German business associate (‘in sugar’) to write it for him. The new narrator Stern (a nod to the author of Tristram Shandy?) writes both floridly and sympathetically, much to Droogstoppel’s disgust. A further layer of complexity is added by the fact that Stern is a German speaker, so his Dutch needs editing, which is done by Droogstoppel’s son and daughter (and, possibly, by Scarfman), each of whom intervenes in the narrative.
When Stern’s prose becomes particularly purple Droogstoppel himself intervenes, apologising to the reader and taking over narration, before yielding again to Stern, whom he hopes has learnt his lesson. Finally, in the last few pages, Multatuli, who is Scarfman, who is Havelaar, who is Dekker, sweeps in angrily and states his own political and authorial position as well as justifying the novel and its complicated structure. Reversing Droogstoppel’s argument for literalness, he argues that the only way to capture the truth of his experiences was precisely through the narrative gambit that is fiction.
This is, therefore, a novel about novels, a deconstruction and celebration of the novelistic form a hundred years before deconstruction. The plurality of voices, the dissonance of their motivations, and the russian doll structure of the framing devices makes a whole that is at once deeply chaotic and deeply coherent. It is a mad book in the way that Hadrian the Seventh is mad. It is also very funny, incredibly passionate, and full of concern – even worry – for the justification of its premises, with fiction being at once called into question and defended, overtly and covertly. It is absolutely dazzling.
And, like all good books, it’s about coffee. Who could ask for more?