(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Max Havelaar: Or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company is a contested narrative—a narrative within a narrative within yet another narrative in which the framing stories underscore the social and cultural problems revealed by the central imbedded story of the quixotic civil servant, Max Havelaar, who does not even enter the story for nearly sixty pages. Multatuli’s agenda is clear: alert the indifferent and complacent middle-class Dutch back home of the system they had imposed on the peoples of the East Indies. For more than two centuries, the Dutch had maintained a considerable empire in the East Indies. At the time Multatuli wrote this novel, the government, rather than private trading companies, controlled the colonies and had imposed harsh production quotas for the islands’ chief exports, primarily coffee and sugar. This policy, coupled with crippling taxation imposed on local farmers, created a system rife with corruption and brutality.

The narrative actually begins with a parcel of manuscripts. A successful middle-aged coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel, is accosted on the streets of Amsterdam by an impoverished figure he identifies only as Sjaalman, or the Scarfman, because of the ragged scarf he wears against the cold. The man, a struggling writer who is an old school chum of Droogstoppel and who once saved him from a beating by bullies, thrusts a parcel at the coffee broker, manuscripts he had written, in the hopes that his friend might help him get the works published. Droogstoppel, who has little regard for literature, reluctantly agrees. When he reviews the contents, he is interested only in one essay on Javanese coffee plantations. That, he decides, would be worth pursuing, as his entire life is about coffee.

He assigns a young German clerk named Stern (or “star”) to oversee the compilation of the manuscript into something publishable. Stern agrees on two conditions: that his boss agree not to alter anything he writes and that the struggling writer, Sjaalman, be given a ream of paper and ink and pens. It is only then that the story of Max Havelaar commences—we are to assume it is a text arranged by Stern to be written by Sjaalman, who is most likely Havelaar himself, returned from the disastrous appointment in Java. That narrative in turn will be interrupted midway, when Droogstoppel, who has apparently listened to Stern read the manuscript he has...

(The entire section is 989 words.)