The Tea Lords BY Hella S Haasse, trans by Ina Rilke Portobello, 323pp, £15.99
Hella S Haasse is the doyenne of Dutch novelists, compared by critics in the Netherlands to Doris Lessing. She was born in Batavia, then the capital of the Dutch East Indies in 1918, and this novel, translated into English for the first time, was originally published in 1992.
In an end-note Haasse writes: "The Tea Lords is a novel, but it is not fiction." The material is drawn from private correspondence and journals. It "is therefore not invented; rather it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel". It is therefore an example, one may say, of the "non-fiction novel" somewhat in the manner of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
Perhaps if the author thinks this end-note important, it should have been put at the beginning, not that this may matter much. The book reads like a novel, and this is surely how most readers will approach it, and think of it. Indeed the only hint of its documentary origins is to be found in the rather too long passages about the cultivation of tea and the preparation of the leaves for market. What we have is the sort of family saga that middlebrow novelists like Hugh Walpole in his Herries series, Howard Spring, AJ Cronin and Thomas Armstrong used to write, and The Tea Lords is a good and enjoyable example of the genre. The letters and journals which are quoted may, or may not, be authentic documents. It doesn't much matter. They read engagingly.
The setting is for English-language readers agreeably unusual, for few of us know much about the Dutch colonial experience in what is now Indonesia. Younger readers may not even be aware that Java and the other islands were once Dutch. The book spans almost half a century from 1869 to 1918. The first chapter is a prologue in which a young man , Rudolf Kerkhoven, takes possession of an estate, half-rundown, half never cultivated. We then revert to Holland where Rudolf is a student in Delft, preparing himself to join his parents in the Indies. The picture of late 19th-century Dutch life is solidly realised and very attractive. Rudolf himself is high-minded, ambitious, and a bit of a stick. It is not surprising to find that he will make more of a success of his career than of his private life.
Haasse write with great sympathy and understanding of colonial life. The Dutch were marginally less racist than some other imperial powers - intermarriage with the subject peoples was quite common, and children of mixed race were usually, though not always, brought up as Dutch, sometimes being sent "home" to the Netherlands for their education. Haasse does not deny that the native peoples were exploited, employed as cheap labour and subject to sometimes harsh discipline.On the other hand the Dutch commitment to the development of the country was beneficial.
Though Haasse gives an interesting, and, I should say, fair picture of colonial life and of economic and political developments, the chief interest and pleasures of the book are such as we expect from a family saga stretching over the generations: rivalries and misunderstandings; jealousies and resentments; marriages embarked on eagerly that then turn sour; financial anxieties; and untimely deaths.
If the book is over-burdened with detail, Haasse nevertheless skilfully blends the personal with the social. She persuasively offers us a full picture of colonial life while never allowing the attention to stray far from her main characters, Rudolf Kerkhoven and his wife Jenny. theirs a marriage that begins in harmony and becomes disharmonious over the decades, even while love persists. Tracing the course of a marriage is never an easy undertaking, and, if Haasse is helped by having passages of Jenny's journal (which I take to be authentic), she nevertheless shows rare insight and understanding in telling the story of a marriage in which the bonds between husband and wife are frayed but never broken.
The Tea Lords is an old-fashioned novel, which doesn't give even a nod to modernism, let alone post-modernism. It tells a good story, slowly at times but always interestingly. The large cast of characters is convincingly displayed and deftly manipulated. The evocation of Java is vivid and full of feeling. In short it is the kind of novel that would have been a bestseller 50 years ago, in the days when there was a Boots Library in every big town or city. It may be less successful now when most bestsellers are an insult to the intelligence, but all those who still like the novel as "a good read" in which to immerse themselves will enjoy it, especially since the translation by Ina Rilke reads well and is properly unobtrusive.