After the whistle-stop tour of South America, Africa and Europe, today sees us settling for a while in Asia (though it’s still some 3500 airmiles between our two destinations).
Destination 4: Java, Indonesia (formerly Batavia, Dutch East Indies)
The Black Lake (translated from Dutch by Ina Rilke) was Hella Haasse’s debut novel, originally published in 1948. The Dutch title, Oeroeg, is taken from the name of the Indonesian childhood friend of the narrator. He is the only son of the plantation owner whose friendship with Oeroeg is tolerated due to a) there being no-one else else in his age group to keep him company, and b) lack of interest on his parents’ part. Father is too busy working, and mother is preoccupied with the plantation manager. The third reason is to do with a tragedy at the eponymous Black Lake, which makes the plantation owner feel beholden to Oeroeg and results in him paying for his education.
This, of course, establishes a kind of parity between the Dutch boy and the Indonesian child, which cannot last. As the boys grow older, they are sent to different establishments, and a distance appears, which can only widen when domestic and political realities take them in different directions. Just how wide the breach becomes is made apparent when, as young men, they meet once more at The Black Lake.
This is a melancholy tale of a lost friendship, told by a naïve narrator, who never really understands the impossibility of the friendship enduring. Nevertheless he tells his story beautifully, and there is no doubt as to what Oeroeg meant to him.
“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.”
The Black Lake has become a Dutch classic, but was not without its critics at the time of publication, who felt that it was defeatist in its depiction of relationships between coloniser and colonised, particularly when efforts were being made to rebuild broken bridges. All I can think is that Haasse was showing things as they were when she lived in Batavia, during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Destination 5: Japan
Life of A Counterfeiter (translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich) consists of one novella and two short stories, all told by the same unnamed narrator. In the novella, Life of A Counterfeiter, the narrator has been tasked with writing a biography of the talented artist, Onuki Keigaku, which for some unknown reason he keeps putting off. Might it be he has uncovered a more interesting story? That of Hara Hosen, Keigaku’s friend, who turns to painting counterfeit Keigakus in order to make a living (without the artist’s knowledge, of course). It’s a misguided move, marking the end of a friendship and an inexorable, unhappy decline. Yet there is a feeling that it could have been different as Hosen was not without creative talents of his own. His latter days are spent alone, creating beauteous firework displays which he does not see himself as he is too busy launching them to watch. He is driven by the need to create a deep-violet chrysantheum firework. Something that his wife found so repugnant that she left him, (Strange!) However, the more the narrator uncovers about Hosen, the more he realises that the much-maligned and unhappy man was not as dishonourable as his tainted reputation would have us believe.
Life of A Counterfeiter is a recalibration of memory if you will, as are the two stories that follow it. In both artifacts trigger hazy memories which are reassessed in the light of adulthood resulting in entirely different perceptions. In Reeds a newspaper article about a father and his lost son triggers a series of childhood memories, the most lucid of which makes no sense at all, but results in the narrator’s quest to identify the woman in it. In Mr Goodall’s Gloves, the prize possession of the narrator’s Grandmother Kano proves to have more significance than being just a pair of gloves given to her at the theatre in Tokyo.
These are thoughtful stories, full of observations of how people appear to be to others. Whether appearances are deceptive, that is the question, is it not? Of his grandmother, the narrator writes:
“She sits there even now in my memory, a look on her face that seems to be saying that the place to which old age carries us is neither a loneliness nor a sadness, but an inlet where a motorized boat in full dress floats quietly on the water.”
One can only hope he’s right.