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I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.


Oeroeg (Hella Haasse)

Oeroeg - Hella S. Haasse

What a great novella! The debut of Hella S. Haasse, written for the Dutch week of literature (boekenweek) in 1948, tells the story of a friendship, of colonialism, and of growing apart. Two boys grow up together: the narrator is a Dutch boy whose father helps run a plantation in colonial Indonesia. His best friend is Oeroeg, the son of the head servant. When the story was published, the Indonesian war for independance was ongoing - something which gives the story more urgency as the events in the novella go right up to 1947.
Haasse's writing - as always - is evocative. She knows how to paint the scene, how to create the atmosphere. The story left me thinking a long time after I've finished it. And because I can't seem to write down my thoughts without giving away just about anything about the story, I've put them all under the spoiler warning...

At first glance, the story seems pretty straightfoward. Yet it has so many layers, and can be read in so many ways. Which is probably why it's still read to this day. The narrator is rather unreliable and extremely naive. Even though he writes that he has written everything down as faithful as possible, it's clear that he's limited by his own narrow point of view. He's in a privileged position and does not comprehend how the experiences of his friend - being Indonesian, therefore treated as a second rate citizen - affect him.

The narrator's understanding of his friend, especially when they grow older, becomes less and less. Sadly, because the narrator has so little understanding of the changes in Oeroeg, the reader doesn't gain any understanding for Oeroeg's actions and thoughts either. Instead, it gives a portrait of the bewilderment of the privileged boy who is placed in a situation of a friend turning away from him - even turning against him. I'm not too sure about Haasse's (or rather, the narrator's) conclusion that he never really knew Oeroeg, while comparing him to the black lake. The way Haasse described that made it almost as if Oeroeg is a stereotypical "mystical other" which "we" can never really understand.
Perhaps it gives a good portrayal of how many of the narrator's generation viewed what was happening in Indonesia. The point of view of the narrator and how he experienced his friendship (being symbolic for the relationship between white/European people and Indonesian people) rings true to me with what I know of Dutch people of that generation who grew up in Indonesia in the 1920's/1930's and saw the upcoming nationalist movements and the upheavel in the 1940's.

So yeah, don't read it if you're looking for a portrayal of an Indonesian youth finding his way and his identity in the 1930's/1940's. Instead, read it for the Dutch youth, who - shielded, privileged - grew up naively thinking that their friendship wouldn't change and who as a consequence fails to understand his friend, with the loss of their friendship as the ultimate result.

(show spoiler)