Cover of a later printing
|Publisher||Vereeniging ter Bevordering van de Belangen des Boekhandels|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||79 (1st edition)|
Oeroeg is the first novel by Hella Haasse. First published anonymously in 1948, it has become one of the best-known Dutch novels and a staple of literary education for many Dutch school children. The novel, a Bildungsroman, is set in the Dutch East Indies, and tells the story of an anonymous narrator growing up on a plantation in the Dutch colony West Java. His childhood friend is a native boy of the same age, but of native descent. As the narrator grows up he finds himself becoming estranged from his friend, as a result of the political and racial circumstances of colonial life. After having served in the army during World War II, he returns to his native land, only to be told that this is not where he belongs, and that he must leave.
Background and publication
Oeroeg was published in 1948, at a time of great anxiety in the Netherlands over the future of their colony in the East; after the end of World War II it became clear quickly that Indonesia would be independent one way or another, and that the Netherlands would have to reconsider their status as a colonizing nation and, thus, the attendant claims of intellectual and cultural superiority. Author Rob Nieuwenhuys writes that post-revolution Indies literature was often called a "literature of longing and homesickness", with childhood memories a common theme.
The immediate impetus for the publication was the 1948 Boekenweek, the annual event held to promote Dutch literature; part of those festivities is the publication of a book given for free to the book-buying public. Hella Haasse, who had grown up in the Dutch East Indies and at this time was working in the cabaret and theater business in Amsterdam, submitted the manuscript for Oeroeg[a] under the pseudonym Soeka toelis ("Like to write"); her name wasn't announced to the general public until after the novel was published, selected by an anonymous panel of 19 judges. With Oeroeg, her first publication in prose (she had already published a number of poems), her reputation was established at once.
The book starts in the preterite, "Oeroeg was my friend", and in reverse chronological order tells how the narrator came to that conclusion. The narrator grows up the child of a white Dutch family on Java, with Oeroeg, a native young man; as high-school students they live together in a boarding house. One crucial event is the death of Oeroeg's father, who died while saving the narrator from drowning. During World War II the narrator joins the Dutch army, and when he returns to Java finds that the world has changed: Indonesian nationalists have declared independence, and no longer accept the colonial overlord. In addition, the narrator's father is murdered, and he suspects his old friend, who has joined the Indonesian nationalist movement, of avenging his own father's death. At the end of the novel, the narrator has lost his friend, his identity, and his home country.
Genre and themes
As a Bildungsroman the novel partakes of the Dutch tradition of similar novels, such as Terug tot Ina Damman ("Return to Ina Damman") by Simon Vestdijk (1934) and Character by F. Bordewijk (1936). At the same time, as Henk Maier points out, the novel can also be read against the background of Malay novels such as Abdoel Moeis's Salah Asoehan ("Wrong upbringing", 1928), and Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana's Lajar Terkembang ("With full sails", 1936), both novels "in which the relationship between the main protagonists, growing up in the colonial world, dissolves in conflict and death as often as it ends in a happy marriage". As a first-person narrative told retrospectively, Oeroeg, in which memory and experience are played off against each other, can be said to lack in the objective realism so often typical of the Bildungsroman; moreover, for its Dutch readership it was clearly a novel set in a remote and exotic location, albeit one with which the Dutch felt an important kinship, and is thus a colonial novel as well.
In her autobiography Persoonsbewijs (Identity Card; 1967), Haasse described Oeroeg as "the dark side of herself living in the shadows she does not know". Nieuwenhuys finds this patently obvious, based on Haasse's background. Born and raised in a Dutch complex in the Indies, Haasse ("a white girl brought up in Dutch surroundings") had little contact with the native residents of the archipelago. Agreeing with author Tjalie Robinson regarding incorrect assumptions and generalties present in the novel, he writes that Haasse should have "really gotten to know Urug before even starting to write".
Initially, the novel was not wholly uncontroversial; according to Maier, its publication was a painful experience for a number of Dutch readers, especially those who were wedded to the idea of the Netherlands as a colonial power and those who had lost friends, family, and possessions during World War II and the period of unrest and "rebellion" which followed, one which prompted military intervention from the Dutch army and would eventually lead to the independence of Indonesia. Criticism also came from the other side, the side of the colonized subject: Robinson criticized the novel and its author for pretending that the white, privileged colonizer could ever come to understand the humiliation and the desire for freedom on the part of the repressed other.
The novel has proven to be a mainstay of Dutch literature: generations of Dutch schoolchildren have read it, and at the time of Haasse's death, in 2011, it had been reprinted more than fifty times. The novel was the centerpiece of a 2009 reading campaign organized by the Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek, a Dutch organization of book sellers and publishers. Haasse went on to write one further book focusing with the Indonesian archipelago, Krassen op een rots (Scratches on a Rock; 1969), which detailed a trip to post-independence Indonesia—particularly Java—and the archipelago also featured in her autobiographical works.
In 1993 the novel was adapted into a film with the same name, in a collaboration between the Netherlands, Indonesia, and Belgium. Directed by Hans Hylkema and with a screenplay by Jean Van de Velde, the film starred Rik Launspach, Martin Schwab, Ivon Pelasula, and Jose Rizal Manua. This adaptation was also released internationally under the title Going Home, with an English dub.
The 1993 film version of the same name differs in some important details from the original; these changes, postcolonial scholars such as Pamela Pattynama argue, indicate important changes that occurred between the 1940s and the 1990s in the Dutch attitudes toward their former colony and themselves. For example, the novel's interaction with natives are seen from the colonialists' perspective, and speaks in generally negative terms about Indo-Europeans. The movie, on the contrary, portrays the colonizer as tortured by guilt, and contains imagery of burned-down native villages reminiscent of the imagery from the My Lai Massacre. By association, according to Pattynama, the film brought "long-silenced Dutch war crimes to the fore".
- Maier, Henk M. J. (2004). "Escape from the Green and Gloss of Java: Hella S. Haasse and Indies Literature". Indonesia 77: 79–107.
- Nieuwenhuys & van Rosevelt 1999, p. 298.
- "Jeugdfoto's van Hella Haasse in Letterkundig Museum". de Volkskrant (in Dutch). 4 October 2011. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
- Nieuwenhuys & van Rosevelt 1999, p. 300.
- Hoof, Dianne van (1991). "Hella Haasse". In Wilson. An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. Garland. pp. 516–18. ISBN 9780824085476. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
- Pattynama, Pamela (2005). "The Colonial Past in the Postcolonial Present: Cultural Memory, Gender, and Race in Dutch Cinema". In Ponzanesi, Sandra; Merolla, Daniela. Migrant Cartographies: New Cultural and Literary Spaces in Post-colonial Europe. Lexington. pp. 239–52. ISBN 9780739107553. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
- Quoted in Nieuwenhuys & van Rosevelt 1999, p. 301
- Nieuwenhuys & van Rosevelt 1999, p. 301.
- Truijens, Aleid (30 September 2011). "Schrijven was voor Hella Haasse een manier van leven". de Volkskrant (in Dutch). Retrieved 5 August 2013.
- Bockma, Harmen (30 September 2011). "Schrijfster Hella Haasse overleden". de Volkskrant (in Dutch). Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- Nieuwenhuys & van Rosevelt 1999, p. 299.
- "Oeroeg". filmindonesia.or.id (in Indonesian). Jakarta: Konfiden Foundation. Archived from the original on 5 August 2013. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
- Pattynama, Pamela (2012). "Cultural memory and Indo-Dutch identity formations". In Bosma, Ulbe. Post-Colonial Immigrants and Identity Formations in the Netherlands. Amsterdam UP. pp. 175–92. ISBN 9789089644541. Retrieved 5 August 2013.