20 november 2019, Amsterdam: Dutch Masterpieces: on translating Multatuli and Slauerhoff

Wednesday November 20th, 7.30 PM award-winning translators Ina Rilke and David McKay discuss Multatuli’s Max Havelaar en J.J. Slauerhoffs Adrift in the Middle Kingdom (Het leven op aarde) at Athenaeum Bookstore, Spui 14-16. Kristen Gehrman is your moderator. Admission is free, but RSVP.

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On Max Havelaar

A fierce indictment of colonialism, Max Havelaar is a masterpiece of Dutch literature based on the author’s own experience as an adminstrator in the Dutch East Indies in the 1850s.

A brilliantly inventive fiction that is also a work of burning political outrage, Max Havelaar tells the story of a renegade Dutch colonial administrator’s ultimately unavailing struggle to end the exploitation of the Indonesian peasantry. Havelaar’s impassioned exposé is framed by the fatuous reflections of an Amsterdam coffee trader, Drystubble, into whose hands it has fallen. Thus a tale of the jungles and villages of Indonesia is interknit with one of the houses and warehouses of bourgeois Amsterdam where the tidy profits from faraway brutality not only accrue but are counted as a sign of God’s grace.

Multatuli (meaning “I have suffered greatly”) was the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, and his novel caused a political storm when it came out in Holland. Max Havelaar, however, is as notable for its art as it is for its politics. Layering not only different stories but different ways of writing—including plays, poems, lists, letters, and a wild accumulation of notes—to furious, hilarious, and disconcerting effect, this masterpiece of Dutch literature confronts the fixities of power with the protean and subversive energy of the imagination.

Adrift in the Middle Kingdom

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) was a ship’s doctor serving in south-east Asia, and is one of the most important twentieth-century Dutch-language writers. His 1934 novel Adrift in the Middle Kingdom (Het leven op aarde), is an epic sweep of narrative that takes the reader from 1920s Shanghai to a forgotten city beyond the Great Wall of China. Slauerhoff’s narrator is a Belfast ship’s radio operator, desperate to escape the sea, who travels inland on a gun-runner’s mission. He moves through extraordinary settings of opium salons, the house of a Cantonese watch-mender, the siege of Shanghai, the great flood on the western plains, and the discovery of oil by the uncomprehending overlord in the hidden city of Chungking. The fantasy ending transforms the novel from travelogue and adventure to existential meditation. But running like a thread of darkness through the story is opium, from poppy head harvesting to death through addiction.

This translation by David McKay, winner of the 2018 Vondel Prize, is the first English edition of Slauerhoff’s most accessible and enthralling novel. The Introduction is by Slauerhoff expert Arie Pos and Wendy Gan of the University of Hong Kong.