The trouble with calling books “small and perfect” is that they sound like Aunty’s china, the nice kind kept behind glass – no use to anyone, much too fragile to break your heart or haunt your dreams or stir up deep old sedimentary feelings.
The Black Lake
by Hella S Haasse translated by Ina Rilke
Portobello, 116pp, £9.99
Well, The Black Lake is small, and it is perfect; and it can break, haunt and stir you and it will. It is barely 100 pages, but it’s like living out a man’s whole life and a whole history: a book that truly breathes.
It is a Dutch classic of the 1940s to which we’re coming very late: the first book of Hella Haasse, long before she became a grande dame of novels set in the past. It appeared as the Dutch were fighting their way out of Indonesia, and trying to come to terms with what they’d done there, and it made trouble: it mentioned race and how people treat each other in a colony, which is with disdain at best.
Two boys grow up, lives intertwined – fishing for crab, swimming in the rivers, even going out at night after boar; one is the son of the white plantation boss, one is the son of the Indonesian overseer. The narrator is the white boy, who doesn’t much like how his friend and his friend’s family are treated, but doesn’t quite see what difference is going to mean. He sees, and we see, the brilliance of the streams, the colour of the flowers, the flight of butterflies: all the detail shining in a child’s eyes. Ina Rilke’s immaculate translation very cleverly keeps Indonesian words for ricefields or fish paste or houseboys so we can’t forget we are in an unfamiliar, and very specific, other world.
One moonlit night a dinner party bundles off to a lake of black water, which the boys know is the home of spirits and a great serpent, but the grown-ups think is just a swimming hole. Their raft breaks up. One man drowns in the tangle of waterweeds: the father of the Indonesian friend. The white boy’s mother is seen holding hands with his tutor. Nothing is going to stay the same.
It seems for a while that the changes will help keep the boys together – the white boy tries to be decent, they go to school together, they explore the town together; schoolmates call them master and houseboy. Their landlady cares for them, comes to think of the Indonesian boy as something between a son and a lover; someone to whom she owes duty and care, someone who can change her life. But the white narrator doesn’t change. His family can always go back to Holland; his friend’s mother, once a friend to the white ladies, loses her house because the next overseer needs it. His friend starts to want his country back.
Haasse doesn’t preach, even when she is casually disturbing about how colonisers treat the colonised; instead she lets us live out a man’s great mistake, that he could keep his childhood and his childhood friend as he grows into a metamorphosing world. That is a universal story which is why it is so stirring; in other hands it could be a cliché; but Haasse has a fine, exact way with her story so the sorrow catches up with us afterwards, like a sandbag.
She never tells lies about empire, but you get so lost in the lives she invents that you almost find yourself drowning; you have to think your way out.
There are other great books about Dutch Indonesia, very different books. In Louis Couperus’s The Hidden Force there is a shadow, something the Europeans see out of the corner of their eyes: a white-dressed figure, the future in a world where Indonesians will think and act for themselves. He stays a ghost in a ghost story. In Haasse’s book, he gets a face, a story, a life – and a gun.
The narrator never does understand how a white boy can be reduced to a just a white boy in someone’s mind; as an Indonesian could always be just a “native”. The account of imperial short-sightedness is so powerful because it is subtle; and the friends of your childhood can break anyone’s heart; but the book is much more than a clever amalgam of the two. It is mesmerisingly lovely and then it is suddenly shocking; you have to react.
After 60 or more years, and in a quite different world, it is still a wake-up call.