Review – Louis Couperus’ De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force)

It was near the end of my time in the Netherlands when I strolled around the centrum and decided to go to my favorite bookstore, ABC. I thought, well, I hadn’t read any Dutch literary works! In a shelf I saw a book authored by Louis Couperus, someone whose name I only knew through a street in Delft. It was titled De Stille Kracht and it had a picture of wayang in its cover; apparently the novel talked about a life in the Indies, with a mystic twist.

I thought, sure, interesting.

I started reading the book after my thesis defense (that I had time to read about thesis-unrelated subjects…). The book felt slow in the beginning, but it started to be interesting when the characters played table-turning, something I thought was like jaelangkung or ouija board. Now the mystery began! I practically had the book with me everywhere during all my trying-to-do-all-the-paperworks-needed-for-my-graduation. I was reading the book in TU Delft’s TBM building lobby, waiting for my diploma-supplement, when Wim, my thesis supervisor, approached. He was excited to know my thoughts about the book, so I told him I’d write him after I finished reading. He said something like, he wanted to know my opinion as someone who actually is from the country (as in, former east Indies).

Six month later, here I am just e-mailing him my review. Don’t ask why it takes so long, I have a reputation for being a procrastinator. I guess I could share that with my blog readers, so here it is. By the way, it feels like the novel has several different layers… I’m not very good with symbolism so I will mostly see it from the outer layers.

 

In Indonesia, there is a common ‘question’ about the colonial Dutch that relates to mysticism. It was the “Hey, we have all the black magic, so why didn’t we terrorized the colonialist away with it?” And then other people would be like “Yeah, but the black magic wouldn’t work on them; it only works for people who believe it. Since they didn’t believe it, the black magic didn’t get to them,” I accepted this notion until I read the book. I didn’t realize that someone might have tried to curse the non-native people back then and succeeded, as it was suggested in the book. Of course it is still a work of fiction, but at least the theme was interesting to be explored (or to be written in a novel, in this case) by someone from a Dutch background. Now I’m curious whether this actually happened back then.

(In an unrelated note, I am actually afraid of ghosts and whatnot. When I lived in the Netherlands, I wasn’t afraid of any ghosts, since I thought I wouldn’t understand them anyway. When I got back to Indonesia, I couldn’t even open the curtain at night–I thought there could be a ghost on the window. And this is even when I was in the room with my boyfriend, not alone…)

Going to the deeper layer, the novel also talked about colonialism. This is what I thought of the “symbolic” meaning from all the mysticism presented at the foreground–the silent resistance to colonialism. I remember reading about the hajis who came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t help but thinking that it’s only in the characters’ mind. Could it be that they don’t feel welcomed in the colony? However I can’t comment much about this colonialism layer; I totally have no idea about those! My generation is too far away from the colonial era. I have no clue about the power relation back then. More so about the “silent disapproval” of colonialism, because what we learned at school was about all the resistance movement (e.g. Aceh War, Diponegoro War, Padri War).

Reading the book as a millennial, I got a lot of insights of how life was ~100 years ago. One part that struck me was near the end of the book, where Eva Eldersma described that in Batavia people did their shopping with telephone; that is exactly what I do nearly everyday today (in Jakarta, ha), shopping from my phone! (Well, plus the fact that I actually work in an e-commerce company.) Other than that, it’s fun reading all the different characters’ points of view.

So that was it. Several updates:
  • From the Wikipedia page, apparently the novel was inspired by a real event…
  • Wim replied and he said that my review reminded him of Marquez’s “magical realism”, where magic and mystery have layers. Now I guess I’d add One Hundred Years of Solitude to my reading list…

See you in the next book reviews! I know that I promised a lot to write but in the end didn’t write any of them lol~

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