The alphabet of my childhood

Dear Hella,

Running just beneath the nostalgic waters of The Black Lake (tr. Ina Rilke, 2012. Original: Oeroeg, 1948), there is a disturbing current of tainted innocence: at the centre of your story, we have a man desperately trying to cling to the illusions of his youth.

We follow our unnamed narrator, as he looks back on his childhood and teenage years in the Dutch Indies (present-day Indonesia), during the interwar period, as the only child of an absent plantation owner and a lonely mother. Left mostly to his own devices, the narrator comes to form a close friendship with a native boy, Oeroeg, the son of one of his father’s servants.

The boys play and grow together. Although the profound differences in their lives seem to be unknown to the narrator, they are slowly made apparent to us. There is strength in the restraint of your writing style: the unspoken injustices and unacknowledged prejudices in the story are made ever more apparent because of the nuanced way you portray colonial life. We see things long before the narrator is able to articulate them. And, as the boys’ lives become increasingly intertwined, the nature of their relationship is shown to be more nuanced and complex than our narrator makes it appear at first sight.

More than charting his friendship with Oeroeg, our narrator seems to be charting his own obliviousness to the native boy’s condition. To the end, Oeroeg remains mysterious and unknown, as if he were only a figment of the narrator’s imagination, as if they inhabited a dreamlike place that could only exist in a child’s mind. More than a full-grown picture of his friend, we have a blurred account of the narrator’s blindness to him – which, in turn, mirrors and exposes the blindness of colonialism and the violence subjacent to it.

I am in two minds on the question whether this novella would fare well in postcolonial studies. On the one hand, it is a strong depiction of the colonisers’ obliviousness and the injustice that runs through it; on the other hand, however, the book flirts with the depiction of Indonesia as the antithesis of Europe and civilisation – and it almost depersonalises Oeroeg by keeping him always as a detached, mysterious, almost ghostly figure, hovering over the narrator’s youth. “I knew him as I knew Telaga Hideung, as a reflecting surface – I never sounded the depths.”

The eponymous black lake in the English translation, Telaga Hideung, is the place where two pivotal events will take place in the novel. Considered haunted by the native people and used as a swimming pool by the colonisers, the lake, with its inscrutable surface and its dangerous depths, reads like an emblem not only of the elusive nature of memory, but also of the hidden tensions behind colonial life – and behind the narrator’s friendship with Oeroeg. The lake is a place of death and confrontation, a heart of darkness full of the incomprehensible violence simmering just beneath its surface.

From the beginning, we feel that the narrator’s friendship with Oeroeg will not endure the fraught nature of the world they inhabit – and, as the cracks between the two boys seem to grow with them (at least, in the narrator’s eyes), we come to wonder whether their friendship itself may not have been just an illusion. Much like the black lake’s waters, rather than charting the loss of a friend, or the loss of innocence, our narrator may well be charting the loss of the illusion that made innocence and friendship possible. “Had it really been Oeroeg? I do not know, and never will. I have even lost the ability to recognise him.

We are left with a lonely man, half-remembering, half-inventing his one true childhood affection. As the narrator’s gradual fall from grace parallels the colonial collapse, we cannot help but feel the violence simmering just beneath his inner struggle with his own sense of his past, his struggle with sounding its depths and diving into it, as if into a black lake.

Yours truly,

J.


Sanyu, ‘Lotus and red fish’, 1955

“Oeroeg was my friend, practically my sole companion since birth, the only living soul with whom I had shared every phase of my existence, every thought, every experience. But he was more than that. To me Oeroeg signified life in and around Kebon Djati; he signified our mountain forays, the games we played in the tea gardens and on the stones in the river, our train rides to school – the alphabet of my childhood.” – Hella Haasse, The Black Lake


About the book

  •  Portobello Books,  2012, tr. Ina Rilke, 116 p. Goodreads
  • Original Title: Oeroeg, 1948
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • The novel was adapted into a film in 1993, directed by Hans Hylkema (IMDb)

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