It’s Dutch Literature Month and serendipitously, Iris of IrisonBooks and I discovered that we  were both reading  Louis Couperus’s The Hidden Force.  We then decided to discuss it together.  Well, you know what happens when two book bloggers get together to discuss books. It could take a while, particularly when the topic for discussion is a multi-layered narrative such as this!

Firstly, a plot summary, courtesy of (Does anyone know when the film will be released?)

In The Hidden Force the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudijck is caused by his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. He is blind and deaf to the slumbering powers of the East Indian people and countryside. The black magic, bird calls, vegetation, heat and the mysterious, hostile attitude of their Javanese subjects prove stronger than the cool power of the colonials. A novel written in 1900 and set in the Dutch East Indies. It concerns a colonial official who is undone by his wilful application of reason to a culture that is steeped in the mystical and irrational.

We start our discussion by explaining the reasons we picked the book up in the first place and whether it lived up to our expectations.

Lizzy: This harks back to my student past – 2 years of studying Dutch language and literature. If asked which were my favourite Dutch novels, I would reply The Darkroom of Damocles and The Hidden Force.  I’ve already reviewed Damocles on my blog.  Couperus’s time had arrived.  Unfortunately it didn’t live up to expectations.  Excellent still but not as great as I remembered.  I suspect this was due to  Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s 1922 translation , edited and revised by E.M Beekman in 1985.  I had no problems with the English. I was more disturbed by the multitudes of unfamiliar Javanese and Malaysian words sown within the  text.   While there was an appendix , I would have preferred the explanations to have appeared as footnotes on the same page.  It would have made the reading much more fluid.  The constant back-and-forth to the glossary annoyed me.

Iris: I had wanted to read another book by Couperus last year (after having read Eline Vere in high school) but I ran out of time. And so when I decided to do another Dutch Lit Month this year, I knew I wanted to make an effort to read Couperus this time around. I also knew my choice would be The Hidden Force, since it is one of those famous fictional works concerned with Dutch colonialism. I felt it would make a great fit in between last year’s reading of Max Havelaar and this year’s readalong of The Tea Lords. I was especially interested to see how Couperus would handle the idea of Javanese resistance to colonialism through ‘a hidden force’.

I had expected Couperus to be somewhat difficult to read with his long, winding sentences. I should also have realised that like so many Dutch authors who wrote about the Dutch East Indies there would be a lot of Malaysian and Javanese words. And yet I struggled with both. Perhaps this was because in the midst of these two phenomena, the story did not manage to capture me as I much as I had hoped. I found that the story was obscured by the prose at times. I read a Dutch version of this book, which like yours translated the Malaysian words in an appendix at the back of the book (and I suspect some words were missing – at least I couldn’t find all of them),  This did not help to retain the flow of the story.

I thought it was interesting that the English translation available on the Gutenberg Project features a translator’s note stating that he chose to get rid of “nearly all the Malay and Javanese words scattered through the text”, since “the sense of colour throughout the book is strong enough without insisting on these native terms.”

Lizzy:  I wish I’d known that.  This could have been my very first  e-book read!   Now here’s a surprise , the Project Gutenberg edition is Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s original  1922  translation, one which Beekman points out is inaccurate whether translating from Dutch or Javanese. It also omits some of the more controversial passages.

Iris: But do you agree with de Mattos’s assessment of the Malaysian words in the text and the sense of setting the text evokes? I ask because it seems almost every author opts to use Malaysian in texts about the Dutch East Indies. I always suppose this to be because they think it lends more credibility to the setting.

Lizzy:  Do I agree with a flawed  translator  or an  academically-minded and more accurate editor?  Actually with the former even if he deviated  from Couperus’s original style.  Beekman does acknowledge that de Mattos preserves the tone and the archaic diction of the original and in so doing, remains true to Couperus’s intent and mood.  And that, in my opinion, is  more  successful without all the foreign words, which I find both pretentious and alienating. Couperus didn’t need to use them, but as he had  been brought up in the Dutch East Indies, they probably came naturally . I wonder if  the assumption of Dutch authors  is  that  Javanese words are still familiar to their audience?

Iris: I had not realised de Mattos’s translation is considered flawed. It seems this is a choice between various “evils” then, as I imagine the “archaic prose”, as Beekman calls it, might be an essential part of the feel of the original work as well. I also wonder if authors consider Javanese or Malaysian words to be shared by the Dutch readers. I know they appeared in missionary reports at the time, so perhaps around 1900 the audience for which these works were meant did know something of these languages. Or perhaps it just comes so naturally to  those who have been in the Dutch Indies that they cannot imagine a work set there without it.

Given your criticisms, I am curious what made you like The Hidden Force so much first time around? Was this experience completely different or was the only difference reading it in English instead of Dutch?

Lizzy:  What a question!  It must be 30-something years since I read it.  I don’t even remember whether I read it in Dutch or in English.  Given my previous comments, I suspect it was a hard-copy of what is now the Gutenberg edition – the one without the foreign words.  I’m a more patient reader now.  The young Lizzy would never have persevered with the back and forth to the glossary.  It just goes to show what a difference a translation can make.

By the way, Pushkin Press will release a new translation by Paul Vincent in the autumn.  It will be interesting to see how they approach this obviously difficult question.

Right, I feel happier now I’ve got that off my chest.  Shall we move on and focus on the positive?

(Indeed we shall, tomorrow,  on Iris’s blog when we consider if The Hidden Force is a masterpiece.)