Zombies and Colonial Coffee: Max Havelaar, Life after Death

This article was originally published in Dutch on Hebban.nl, 16 May 2017. I have translated and reproduced it here with the kind permission of the website and the original author, Adinda Volkers. Some of the hyperlinks have also been adapted to redirect readers to equivalent English-language sources.

Warning: this is a political piece. I would not know how to write something apolitical or noncommittal about a book like Max Havelaar. If you don’t care about politics, thinking, the environment, or human rights, please feel free to read something else. But then you’ll miss the zombies!

Quirk Books

I followed the press about Max Havelaar with Zombies from the get-go. I found the concept fascinating: a well-known book combined transformed into a different genre (a ‘quirky’ book?). This so-called mash-up has already resulted in bizarre texts like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Android Karenina. I read Max Havelaar with Zombies as a kind of experiment. I was curious to what extent Adelmund would follow the text of the original, and what the added value of a retelling with zombies would be.

It had been a long time since I’d read Max Havelaar. I first read it because when I was younger I wanted to know where my name came from—and to be honest, at that point I was a bit too young for it. I was afraid it would be a dry, tough read. On that front, Max Havelaar came as a pleasant surprise. Aside from Adinda and Saidjah’s stories I was especially intrigued by the strange collection of texts in the book.

Max Havelaar without Zombies

Max Havelaar is a rather messy frame narrative with detours into poetry, lists, and letters.

We’re first introduced to the world by Mr Drystubble [Dutch: Droogstoppel]. Drystubble once took a trip to The Hague, and now thinks that he understands the world. He hasn’t known a single setback, confusing his success with merit. He is quick to pass judgement on everyone and everything. Above all, he lacks compassion, which he justifies through religious platitudes. Drystubble doesn’t read many books, because books are ‘full of lies’. With his literal mind, he understands very little about how language can be used. This leads to some hilarious misreadings of chapters that his apprentice Ernst (who has his literary aspirations) has written. Rarely has the hypocritical and narrow-minded spirit of the Dutch merchant been so effectively personified.

The real story comes once Drystubble meets an old schoolmate, Shawlman [Dutch: Sjaalman]. Shawlman has returned, destitute, from the Indonesian colonies, and asks for Drystubble’s help. An overwhelmed Drystubble accepts a packet of papers from Shawlman, which pique his interest once he starts to read through them. The papers include several treatises about coffee, and Drystubble decides to publish them in a book and take all the credit. However, Drystubble’s German apprentice Ernst soon takes control of the manuscript, which he determines to write together with Drystubble’s son Frits on his terms. Drystybble soon comes to regret his decision to publish this book as Ernst’s new narrative, full of love and romance, unfolds. Ernst’s story, in which the titular Max Havelaar plays the leading role, is also about the exploitation of the Javanese population.

An overseer appointed to the Lebak residence in the Dutch East Indies, Max Havelaar is a typical idealist. He’s the kind of person who can’t walk past anyone in distress without doing something, even at his own expense. Havelaar sees how the local population suffers under Dutch exploitation and oppression, and unlike his fellow civil servants he cannot in good conscience remain silent. Unfortunately, he soon comes up short against the walls of bureaucracy.

Against all my expectations, I devoured this book. Max Havelaar has a big heart and an even bigger dose of irony. Above all, it was a book that clearly needed to be written. As the author himself says, Max Havelaar is not a novel, it’s an indictment. It was written so that the Dutch would not only know about the abuses in the colonies, but would also want to do something about them.

In an afterword to the 1875 edition, Multatuli described his disappointment with how little things had changed in the 25 years since Max Havelaar was published. He also wrote about how he applauded revisions to spelling. After all, for him the book wasn’t really about language or stylistic perfection, but about the story, and about how it could be read with as little distraction as possible. In fact, Multatuli encouraged criticism of his form, because then the content of his work would get more attention. He was a storyteller, not a literary author. He is best defined as a whistleblower, choosing the  form of a novel to make his story accessible, just like Harriet Beecher Stow in Uncle Tom’s Cabin [D. H. Lawrence notes this in his introduction to his 1927 English translation of Max Havelaar].

Multatuli is Turning in His Grave

This is the point at which I’d like to make the transition to Max Havelaar with Zombies.

In the intervening decades since its publication, Max Havelaar has become a part of the literary canon. Some have gone so far as to call it one of the most important works of Dutch literature. Year after year, fresh cohorts of high school students are saddled with it. For many it’s a dry and boring text. Christiaan Weijts calls Havelaar ‘an effective murder weapon against any slumbering spark of literary interest’. Max Havelaar isn’t meant to entertain. It’s an Icon. A work of Great Literature. This is how we have come to approach it and discuss it, and this is also how it has come to represent the opposite of what Multatuli would have wanted.

It’s been 140 years since Max Havelaar was published. In this time, our language has changed so much that the novel’s ironic-but-impetuous narrative style, devoid of literary pretence, has become increasingly inaccessible. Since Max Havelaar was published we have said goodbye to our colonial domination and abuse of Java. In short, Max Havelaar has become part of our past, and this means that its message has become harmless.

The Unresolved Past

In Martijn Adelmund’s afterword to Max Havelaar and Zombies, we read that one of the reasons for this reworking is to reignite dialogue about our unresolved past. I would suggest that this lack of resolution goes beyond the usual reasons—i.e., that as good Dutchmen we only offer our condolences or admit we were wrong once all potential claimants or beneficiaries are safely six feet under, and can no longer demand financial compensation. I think there’s another reason our past has gone unresolved, which is that despite the end of our colonial empire, colonial structures still persist in our current world. After such a long time this can be difficult to admit, but we’re unable to process our past because it isn’t really past. Instead of 70 million Indonesians, we now hold half the world hostage for our own convenience.

Isn’t it ironic that we still need Max Havelaar Fair Trade coffee after 140 years? Isn’t it ironic that the pirates and runaway slaves Max Havelaar describes in his book still exist? Only now they are poor fishers whose seas have been emptied by modern fisheries. They’ve been forced to find new work in piracy. People need to eat, after all.

Before we can come to terms with our colonial past, we must first recognise that the structures it introduced still lead to suffering, hunger, oppression and disruption worldwide. The players may be different, but the game is the same. Now multinational companies work with corrupt governments to do their dirty work, in service of consumers who don’t think much about the cost to local populations.

While I was reading Max Havelaar with Zombies, the question I kept repeating to myself was: what would Multatuli think about the fact that poor people in developing countries are still being exploited? What would Multatuli do, if he were alive now? Would he work for Amnesty International? Or would he have taken a bullet to the head for standing up in protest against the wars of powerful people, who were displeased he had given human suffering a face?

What would Multatuli think of that fact that his book had been adapted, with zombies, for a younger audience? To answer this question, we first need to consider what Adelmund has done with the book.

Havelaar met zombies

When one reads Max Havelaar with Zombies, it’s striking to note how the original text has been reworked into a more romanticised whole. The book’s emphasis has been shifted to the situation in Lebak, and Drystubble’s presence has been reduced. In what remains, the satire of a small-minded bourgeois man has lost some of its bite. It seems as though Adelmund has tried to preserve what he could, but his pen is not as sharp as Multatuli’s.

In contrast, the role of Max Havelaar’s wife Tine has been expanded. I’m not personally convinced that this is an improvement. On the one hand it makes Tine a more vivid and active character, who practices pentjak silat and slays zombies left and right. On the other hand, the image of a white woman bored in the jungle was never really going to appeal to me. It’s also noteworthy that Tine’s role as a mother is largely written out in the zombie version. Adelmund has expanded descriptions of life in the former colonies, but has also made them more nostalgic—reinforced by the excerpts from The Hidden Force (1900) that Max Havelaar with Zombies also appropriates. In comparison with Multatuli, Adelmund’s version is less combative in nature. This impression is strengthened by the disappearance of most of Max Havelaar‘s irony.

The warrior Saidjah has also been given a fuller role, and develops as a character alongside Max Havelaar. Together, they go looking for Adinda. Saidjah really comes into his own in this version of Max Havelaar, and the combination of his love story with the main story is one of the most powerful additions to the reworked version.

Max Havelaar with Zombies is an exciting narrative in which the original texts have been used in ingenious ways, but often in very different places in the story, and in a different context. In the back of the book is a table for comparative reading, which gives the page number for the original excerpt alongside its location in Max Havelaar with Zombies. To enjoy Max Havelaar with Zombies, though, I would advise leaving comparisons behind. Constantly scrolling back and forth between the two versions only spoils the experience. Adelmund’s version stands on its own, and you will enjoy it most if you read it this way. That said, it’s certainly fun and insightful to look back once you have read it, just to see how Adelmund has adapted the source material.

Naturally, Max Havelaar with Zombies also has more fantastical content than Max Havelaar. For example, on their way to find Adinda, Saidjah and Max Havelaar travel through a village high in the treetops. According to the Adelmund, this is an homage to Tolkien.

And Finally the Zombies

And finally the zombies, because that’s what you’re here for after all.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what the zombies represented, exactly. What did they add? Eventually it becomes clear that they stand for the ultimate slavery (giving away the precise details would destroy the pleasure of discovering it for yourself). The strength of the zombie metaphor lies in contrast with the erasure of some other political issues in the reworked version.

In the end, I feel that the remix novel was simply too prettily written, with too much attention paid to environment and experience. For me the strong, beating heart of Multatuli’s writing got a bit lost. To be fair that’s also the biggest reason his work has survived the test of time. Few writers can match his fire! At the same time, Max Havelaar with Zombies is much more accessible to younger audiences than the original text, and certainly serves as a more attractive introduction to its lessons—completely in the spirit of Multatuli’s wishes.

I am doubtful that Max Havelaar with Zombies can serve as a stimulus for debate about our colonial past. It’s certainly a useful prelude to the original Max Havelaar, and I believe that this was also Adelmund’s intention. This is good, because the debate certainly deserves more attention.

I also don’t think that Max Havelaar with Zombies forms a good starting point from which to think about abuse and exploitation in today’s society. In this, it clearly differs from its source text. Perhaps we need a different kind of reworking to make Multatuli’s vision clearer in that respect. Or another book that encourages us to make the world a little better, and to imagine a world in which child labour on Indonesian palm oil plantations is a thing of the past.

But perhaps that’s a story in which we should each strive to be the protagonist—a book that we all write together.

You too, Drystubble!


(The marvellous zombie photos are illustrations from Max Havelaar met Zombies, photomanipulated by Marco Lap)

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