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Revenge in the Indies

The Hidden Force

by Louis Couperus, translated by Alexander Teixera de Mattos
University of Massachusetts Press, 254 pp., $15.95 (paper)

In 1900, when The Hidden Force was first published, Holland was at the height of its power in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. In 1899, the sultans of Acheh had been defeated and the whole island of Sumatra brought under Dutch rule. The smaller islands, such as Lombok, the Moluccas, and the Lesser Sunda Islands, were subjugated in the 1880s and 1890s. And Java already had been colonized for some time before that.

As it turned out, complete Dutch control over its Asian colony was only to last for about fifty years. But of course nobody could have known that in 1900. To the Dutch governors, planters, businessmen, administrators, police officers, scholars, geographers, soldiers, bankers, travelers, railway engineers, schoolteachers, and their wives, 1900 must have felt like the best of times.

It was also just then, at the very peak of Dutch power, that an idea of nationhood began to emerge among native intellectuals. A Javanese feminist, Radeng Adjeng Kartini, advocated education for women. And in 1908, her friend Dr. Sudara founded the Budi Utomo, the first nationalist association, inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi. National independence was not their immediate aim. They wanted a bigger say in the way they were governed. And there was growing sympathy for this view in Holland. The “liberal” policy, which meant the liberty of Dutch planters to exploit the colonies as they saw fit, was replaced by the “ethical” policy, which took a fuller account of native interests. But full independence would only come after World War II, during which the Javanese shook the foundations of European rule by showing the white imperialist, so to speak, without clothes.

In fact, the Europeans always were vulnerable. Colonial rule, in Indonesia as well as, say, India, had to be based to some extent on bluff; the idea of European supremacy had to seem natural, and for it to appear that way the Europeans themselves, as much as the native populations under their control, had to believe it to be so. As soon as the colonialists lost faith in their natural right to rule—a loss which Nirad C. Chaudhuri, speaking of the British in India, once memorably characterized as “funk”—the colonial edifice, built over time, often haphazardly, would begin to rot, slowly, at first imperceptibly, but relentlessly, until the whole thing came toppling down. Perhaps it is so with all authoritarian systems. Loss of nerve was certainly a factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire. So perhaps Mountbatten and Gorbachev had something in common.

But in the Dutch East Indies in 1900, I suspect, only a sensitive novelist, passing through, would have been able to pick up the smell of decay, or, at any rate, to put that smell into words. Louis Couperus was such a novelist. And The Hidden Force, written during a year-long stay in the East Indies, is one of the masterpieces to come from the colonial experience. It is still regarded as a great book in the Netherlands. Couperus was very famous in Britain and the US as well, during his lifetime: fifteen of his books were translated; Katherine Mansfield and Oscar Wilde were among his admirers. But he has been largely forgotten outside Holland. I don’t know why. 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 reason is not just that the translator was unable to reproduce the luxuriance of Couperus’s style, but that the Dutch language itself has changed far more than English has since 1900.

The Hidden Force is a story of decay, fear, and disillusion. It takes place in Labuwangi, an imaginary region of Java. The writer’s vision of Dutch colonialism is that of a solid Dutch house, slowly crumbling in hostile, alien soil. The Dutch characters, even Van Oudijck, the chief local administrator, or Resident, of Labuwangi, initially so “practical, cool-headed, decisive (due to the long habit of authority),” are defeated by the hidden forces of the land they rule. The nature of these hidden, or silent, forces is indistinct. It is not quite black magic, associated with Javanese mysticism, although that plays a part. Couperus, a romantic of his time, believed in supernatural forces. He is quoted in E.M. Beekman’s illuminating introduction: “Ibelieve that benevolent and hostile forces float around us, right through our ordinary, everyday existence; I believe that the Oriental, no matter where he comes from, can command more power over these forces than the Westerner who is absorbed by his sobriety, business and making money.”

One character in the novel who commands such power (but power over little else) is the Regent Sunario, the native aristocrat whose family had ruled the region for centuries. Van Oudijck detests him. Sunario is the heir to a long line of local sultans. The Dutch administration kept these nobles on as vassal rulers with colorful ceremonial trappings, and some administrative duties, such as tax collecting. Van Oudijck, an “ethical” administrator, respected Sunario’s father, a Javanese of the old school, but sees Sunario as “a degenerate Javanese, an unhinged Javanese fop,” an “enigmatic wajang puppet,” gambling and indulging in native hocus-pocus. Sunario, for his part, views the Dutchman as a crude, base, foreign infidel, who has no business upsetting the sacred bonds and privileges of ancient aristocratic rule.

Couperus, in this book at least, is in no way an apologist for colonial rule. Quite the contrary. His descriptions of Van Oudijck’s priggish love of order, hard facts, and hard work, and the same man’s patronizing view of natives and contempt for half-castes, so typical of Dutch colonial administrators, are full of mocking irony. Van Oudijck’s disdain for the Eurasians is not always personal. His first wife had Javanese blood, and he loves his two children, even though his daughter, Doddy, looks and speaks like a typical Indo-European. It was the idea of the “Indo” that Van Oudijck cannot abide, the idea of something less than pure. Van Helderen, a Creole born in the Indies, warns the Dutch wife of a civil servant that the native population, “oppressed by the disdain of its overlord,” is likely to revolt at some point. He sounds remarkably prophetic. She, Eva Eldersma, a bored, artistic Dutch woman trapped in the colonial life, had sensed something foreboding in the air. She thinks it is the strangeness of the landscape, the climate, the people, whom she doesn’t understand. And he says to her: “You, as an artist, feel the danger approaching, vaguely, like a cloud in the sky, in the tropical night; I see the danger as something very real, something arising—for Holland—if not from America and Japan, then from the soil of this country itself.”

There is no doubt that Couperus felt the danger on his travels through Java. And remember, this was written when Dutch power was unassailable. But Couperus was not a prophet. So a vague sense of unease, of something being out of kilter, must have been palpable. There must have been a feeling, among at least some of the Dutch, of walking on treacherous ground, which could suck you in, however sturdy your big Dutch boots might be. To describe this feeling as guilt would be wrong and anachronistic. It might have been closer to a sense that the Europeans had bitten off more than they could chew, or a nagging awareness of the hollowness of their bluff.

Van Oudijck resists such feelings until near the end of the book, when he, too, is defeated by the silent forces of the East, forces manipulated, perhaps, by his opponent, the puppet-like Sunario. The struggle between the two men is a struggle between two types of power:one is supposedly rational, open, bureaucratic, and the other is magical, shadowy, mysterious, The hidden force of Sunario is associated with the night, with moonlight, while the power of the Resident is exercised mainly in daylight. As Beekman points out in his introduction, the Resident’s ceremonial sunshade, or pajong, is often described as a “furled sun.”

One is reminded of V.S. Naipaul’s descriptions of Trinidad, where the black plantation slaves would turn the world upside down at night. Then, hidden by the dark, they would call up half-forgotten remnants of African magic to transform their abject existence as slaves into a glorious parallel world of kings and queens. Naipaul describes this as a pathetic fantasy, and Couperus writes about the hidden force as something quite real. But both writers, like Conrad, are sensitive to the horror that lies behind it.

The conflict between Van Oudijck and Sunario comes to a head when the behavior of Sunario’s brother becomes impossible. He gambles and drinks, and instead of efficiently carrying on his tax collecting and other duties, steals money from the treasury to pay his debts. The Resident decides to take the unprecedented step of dismissing him, which would mean a frightful loss of face for an ancient noble family. The Regent’s mother, a princess, is so outraged that she throws herself at the Resident’s feet and offers to be his slave, if he could only forgive her son. But Van Oudijck stands firm. He cannot afford to compromise. Principle is principle. Adecision, once taken, must not be revoked. For he “was a man with a clear, logically deduced, simple, masculine sense of duty, a man of a plain and simple life. He would never know that under the simple life, there are all those forces which together make the omnipotent hidden force. He would have laughed at the idea that there are nations that have a greater control over that force than the Western nations have.”

Then horrible things start to happen. The Resident’s young wife, Léonie, as promiscuous as she is narcissistic, finds herself being spat on with blood-red sirih juice, apparently from nowhere, as she stands naked in her bath. (Couperus’s description of slimy splatters dribbling down her breasts, her “lower belly,” and her buttocks shocked his Dutch readers; in the original English translation such passages were bowdlerized.)Malevolent spirits stalk the Resident’s mansion. Stones sail through the rooms. Sinister figures in white turbans appear and disappear, like ghosts.Glasses shatter, whisky turns yellow. The Resident’s family leaves the haunted mansion in terror. Even his servants flee from the house. But the Resident stays put, working on his papers, ignoring the noises, the broken glass, the soiled beds, the hammering overhead. He has these disturbing events investigated, “punctiliously, as if he were investigating a criminal case, and nothing came to light.”

The Resident and the Regent come to a kind of agreement in the end—what agreement, the reader never knows—and the torments stop, but, like Dutch supremacy itself, the Resident’s authority begins to disintegrate even as it reaches its peak. And, again as was the case with the Dutch colonialists, the subversion, the fatal loss of nerve, occurs inside the ruler’s own heart.

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