The Tea Lords

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For my final Women in Translation Month book I thought I would focus on a writer who is apparently regarded as one of the most important of her own country yet is still little known here. Hella Haasse is a Dutch writer whose career began in the 1940s and continued until the 2000s (she died in 2011). Her novels have sporadically appeared in English, but it was only in 2010 that The Tea Lords, considered her greatest achievement, became available thanks to translator Ina Rilke, who also translated her first novel, The Black Lake, in 2013.

The Tea Lords is set in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) where Haasse was born in 1918. The novel begins in the 1870s and ends on the first of February 1918 – Haasse was born on the second. The colony would obviously be well known to Haasse, and the period would be within living memory when she grew up there, however the novel did not spring from her imagination but is based on the records of a particular family, as is explained in an afterward:

“The material…is not invented; rather, it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel.”

This origin affects the novel: as an accurate picture of life for the Dutch colonists it is probably unsurpassed, but it seemed to me there was at times a certain gentleness towards the characters that may have arisen from a concern not to traduce individuals who once lived, and whose relatives aided the author’s research. The novel’s form also seems affected, particularly in the latter half when much of it is presented in the form of letters and diaries. In an imaginative novel this might be a way to give us insight into the characters; here there is a suspicion that the extracts may simply have been lifted as if the process of fictionalising events had become tiresome.

This is not to say that the story the novel tells is not interesting. Its central character is Rudolf Kerkhoven, the eldest son of a family with strong connections to the colony. Rudolf views his education in Holland as a necessary step before returning to Java, as we see in the novel’s prelude which describes his first day at Gamboeng, the estate that will become his own:

“He was twenty-four years old and for the first time in his life, he was his own man, his own master. Everything he had experienced until then was merely preparation for this moment.”

Rudolf’s two great character traits are his determination to succeed and the ever-present feeling that his success is never fully recognised by the rest of his family. Family slights are commonplace in his mind, but, whereas in a novel the writer may have engineered a confrontation, here they are played out (more accurately) in letters and diaries. In common with many novels of the colonial experience, Rudolf’s love of the land is shown to be entirely sincere. Relationships with the local population are touched on but often along the lines of “I can’t run this household properly unless I am strict with them.” Generally, they are denied both a presence and a voice, perhaps surprisingly for a novel written in 1992. (Again, the nature of the novel’s creation is an influence on this).

More surprisingly, women are also largely absent from the early part of the novel. It is towards the middle before Rudolf seeks to marry, Haasse giving us insight to his fiancée via a diary that she allows Rudolf’s sister to read so she can convey her thoughts to Rudolf. This, however, she doesn’t do:

“I didn’t mention all those bad dreams and gloomy thought soft yours. Far better to leave them out.”

This is something we are reminded off after Jenny’s death when Rudolf reflects on how well he actually knew her. It’s also interesting for the reader as we see the narrative focus on Rudolf has left Jenny marginalised for much of the novel, learning, for example, that:

“It was largely thanks to Jenny’s efforts that signatures in support of Captain Dreyfus were collected on the grandstands of the Bandoeng racecourse.”

This hint of dissent seems out of place in what is a very traditional novel in more ways than one. Haasse’s ambition is to tell the story of the ‘Tea Lords’ and in this she is successful. It’s the type of novel where you are educated on its topic. It also makes an interesting comparison with other novels of colonial life, particularly as it comes from outside the English language tradition. If these are not what you are looking for, however, I would suggest The Black Lake as a much better place to become acquainted with Haasse.

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4 Responses to “The Tea Lords”

  1. jacquiwine Says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading about new (as in new-to-me) authors during Women in Translation month and I hadn’t heard of Hella Haasse until I saw your post. I doubt whether The Tea Lords is for me, but I might take a closer look at the Black Lake!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, one of the best things about ‘events’ (not sure that’s the right word) such as Women in Translation Month is coming across writers (and bloggers) you might otherwise never have heard of.

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    You know I tried this and it didn’t grab me at time I may try another at some point Grant or this

    • 1streading Says:

      I can see why it might not have grabbed you – sadly I am generally too tight-fisted to give up on anything! The Black Lake is worth a read though.

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