The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haasse (translated by Ina Rilke )
Published: 2011 by Portobello Books
Source: Received as giveaway from Iris on Books
Once again, I sadly admit that I am not too familiar with Dutch literature, and while I had great intentions of reading some more Dutch works during Iris on Books’ Dutch Literature Month in June, it did not happen. However, in a preview of her project Iris generously offered a copy of The Tea Lords, the book she chose as her read-along for the month, and I was the lucky winner. The very least I could do to acknowledge her generosity and efforts she put into Dutch Literature Month was to read the book in the same time frame.
The Tea Lords is a novel about a Dutch family in the late 1800s who have settled in Java (modern-day Indonesia) to make their fortune as tea planters. The story is centered on Rudolf Kerkhoven, the oldest son of his branch of the family tree; once he has been educated back in Holland he returns to Southeast Asia ready to take on greater responsibilities at his father’s plantation. Instead, however, Rudolf is directed to the plantation of another relative and taught the business there before taking on responsibilities of a plantation of his own. Along the way there is family intrigue – it is never quite clear (to me anyway) why Rudolf’s father did not take him on his own plantation – romance, and lovely descriptions of the Javanese landscape . Though not a long novel (333 pages) it does have an epic feel to it.
Whereas the only colonial literature I have ever read before has been Anglo-centric, I was interested to read this story from a Dutch colonial perspective. I realize that is “only” a novel, but to me it seems that the Dutch immersed themselves more into local culture (though admittedly, not completely) and that they treated local residents better. Throughout the novel there is frequent use of words from the Soendanese language (thankfully about halfway through reading I finally discovered the glossary at the back of the book!), and I got the impression that the Dutch made efforts to learn at least some of the local language.
For the most part I liked the novel, but I didn’t love it. It took a long time for me to get into the book; only when Rudolf began settling down in Java did the pace pick up for me. The narrative seemed to move in too many directions and I couldn’t grasp the main point — was it Rudolf’s effort to make a name for himself in the tea and quinine businesses; or was it the love story between him and Jenny? And this is just my opinion, but I found the translation a bit awkward. Though I could understand the meaning of what was being written, it just didn’t seem to flow properly. (A small example: the use of “napkin” for “diaper” — even in England they would use the term “nappy”, right?)
Once again I have to thank Iris for sending me a copy of this book. Dutch literature month may soon be coming to a close, but do check out Iris’ blog for a host of resources about Dutch books.