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Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (Penguin Classics) Paperback – September 1, 1995

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When Max Havelaar was first published in Holland in 1860, it ignited a major political and social brouhaha. The novel, written by a former official of the Dutch East Indian Civil Service under the pen name Multatuli, exposed the massive corruption and cruelty rife in the Dutch colony of Java. Max Havelaar is an undeniably autobiographical novel; like his hero, Multatuli--the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker--was an Assistant Resident of Lebak in Java; like Havelaar in the novel, he resigned his position when his accusations of corruption and abuse were disregarded by higher authorities, resulting in years of poverty for both author and fictional hero. Max Havelaar is told from several different perspectives; the reader first meets an Amsterdam coffee dealer named Droogstoppel, a man so obsessed with coffee that his every thought and action is governed by it. Droogstoppel has come by a manuscript from an old schoolmate who, down on his luck, has asked him to get it published. The schoolmate is Havelaar, and the manuscript relates his experiences as an idealistic and generous young civil servant who tries to protect the poor and bring justice to the powerless.

The central part of the novel details conditions in Java, particularly Havelaar's efforts to correct injustices in the face of a corrupt government system. That his efforts will prove futile soon becomes apparent, and there is something almost Greek in the inevitability of Havelaar's declining fortunes. Despite its tragic themes, Max Havelaar is savagely funny, particularly the chapters narrated by Droogstoppel, a character unmatched for his veniality, narrow-mindedness, or singular lack of understanding or imagination. Though Multatuli's masterpiece is nearly 150 years old, it wears its age well, and Roy Edwards's excellent translation offers English-speaking readers a wonderful opportunity to experience one of the Netherlands's great literary classics.

About the Author

Multatuli is the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887). After 18 years of civil service in the Dutch East Indies, he returned to Europe in 1856 a disillusioned man. The way the natives were treated by their own as well as by the Dutch rulers offended him so much that he resigned after a public conflict. In his novel Max Havelaar he recorded his experiences. The book was published in 1860 and made him an instant success. Encouraged by this public acclaim, he decided to pursue a career as a writer. He became a sort of national conscience, inspiring emancipatory movements such as freethinkers, socialists and anarchists. Multatuli's career as a writer lasted exactly as long as his career as an official: 18 years. Then, once more profoundly disillusioned, he decided to give up writing and took refuge in Germany, where he died in February 1887.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (September 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140445161
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140445169
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #642,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
By this 19th century novel an attempt was made to arise the awareness of the general public in the Netherlands to the oppression of the Indonesian people by the Dutch colonial system. The book is a cry for justice. The story is set in Amsterdam and Java and has a surprising structure, with changing perspective, and an almost independent romantic story on the love between Saidjah and Adinda. It is romantic, melodramatic even, jet thought-provoking and despite its heavy subject funny and very readable. Yes, certainly rereadable. It gets more beautiful everytime I reread it. I've both read the Dutch original book and this translation, and I think a perfect job has been done.
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Format: Paperback
This book is one of the most important books of Dutch literature. The writer combines humour, emotion and facts. The book has a complex structure, without making it difficult to read, an outspoken view, but also more subtle jokes (at least in the Dutch language, and for people aware of Dutch culture), a perceptive view on the way the institutions in the Dutch East Indies worked to promote the corruption and the exploitation of the people. All these things make the book an enjoyment to read.

The writer, however, isn't trying to make an objective unemotional description of the events in the East Indies, but he is arguing - making a treatise - for a different/better treatment of the people in the Indonesia, basing his treatise on facts and emotions (he stresses the parts which are undisputed facts in a very natural way). For this he uses al his (well developed) rhetorical abilities.

To give some examples of his rhetorical abilities and the working of the structure:
- at some point in the book he argues against painters which try to show the multitude of misery caused by a certain event, by painting the quantity involved. He argues that this makes people numb for the suffering shown on the painting. Why the writer tells this is unclear, until later when he starts telling a dramatic story about the injustice and suffering endured by an Indonesian boy. Then it becomes clear that this suffering is endured by many Indonesians, but instead of making you dazzle with numbers he tries (and succeeds) to make you feel compassionate with one individual. Only to make you realise afterwards that there are/were many individuals which are enduring the same suffering!
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Format: Paperback
Most people turn to this book in order to learn about 19 century colonialism. However the book is stunningly contemporary as a picture of universal human types, and of a particular type, which is especially well refined and developed in the Netherlands. I suppose because of the Netherlands history of Calvinism, wealth, "apartheid", provincialism - people living in separate sub communities defined by religion, who only care for those in their own group. Moreover the book is a multimedia self-referring extravaganza avant-la-letter, masterfully written. Approached in the right frame of mind it is at the same time desparately funny and funnily desparate.

I recently asked 8 Dutch university students if they had read it - the most famous book in Dutch literature. 7 had not. One had started but had thrown it away half finished because it was all so depressingly familiar. (Familiar as a picture of present day attitudes in the Netherlands).
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... of the Modern Novel, Max Havelaar is a disaster. A hodge-podge. A clumsy polemic thinly disguised as an biography of a fictive hero ... until the final veil is cast aside and the 'author' reveals his still-masked face under the pseudonym Multatuli. But Max Havelaar ISN'T a Modern Novel. The rules don't apply. Though it was published in 1860, it's closer to an 18th C novel of 'sensibility', much like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy or A Sentimental Journey. Is it mere serendipity that the fictional scribe in Max Havelaar, the German student who assembles the notes of the Scarfman into a book purporting to deal with coffe auctions, is named Ludwig Stern? A critic might also trace Multatuli's peculiar narrative mayhem to another pseudonymous author, Stendahl, whose Le Rouge et le Noir and whose autobiographical Life of Henry Brulard are equally spasmodic in structure.

Multatuli in the flesh was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutchman born in 1820 who joined the East Indian Civil Service at age 18, rose steadily in rank during his years of service in Java, and resigned in protest against brutal colonial exploitation in 1856. The character Max Havelaar is indeed Dekker's avatar, but Dekker's career is narrated third hand: by Stern, who edits the manuscripts of Scarfman, who reports on the trials and tribulations of Havelaar. Odd structure? Well, it's even stranger yet, since the literary labors of Stern are commissioned by his coffee merchant host in Amsterdam, Batavus Drystubble, a pompous philistine who interrupts the very book he's commissioned with chapters of his own illiberal blather.
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