The Black Lake

Issue section: 
(377)

Hella S Haase

The Black Lake is a novel about two boys, one native Indonesian, the other colonial Dutch, from birth to adulthood, who grow up in Indonesia together. It was first published in the Netherlands in 1948 and has only now been translated into English. When it was published it sent shockwaves through Dutch society alerting it to the impact of the country's continued presence in Indonesia.

The story is told from the perspective of the Dutch boy (whose name we never find out), the son of a plantation owner. His best friend Oeroeg is a native Indonesian with little income. In an unfortunate accident Oeroeg's father dies while trying to save his son's best friend. The young Oeroeg is semi-adopted by the plantation owner and enrolled into a school with his son.

The boys become inseparable from one other. Their childhood is peaceful and they are absorbed in adventure and hunting trips in the Indonesian mountains. Their friendship initially seems to transcend their racial and class differences. However, as they grow older events, often out of their control, begin to sow differences between them.

Throughout school they begin to grow apart. Racial differences are aggravated by the way Oeroeg is treated by the Europeans. His childhood friend begins to resemble the embodiment of all his problems. When Oeroeg moves away to study as a doctor we are told that he joins "several organisations".

The political environment also changes. The Dutch military in 1948 moved into Indonesia to crush the independence struggle. When Oeroeg and his friend finally reunite they are unrecognisable. A discussion erupts, in which Oeroeg makes it clear that he is now an independence fighter.

In the end the unnamed main character looks for Oeroeg through the market places and bazaars, still holding on to the hope of seeing him one last time.

One early morning he decides to take a lift from an army patrol. He asks them to stop at the small rocky enclave in which he and Oeroeg used to spend days watching the waterfalls trickling over the rocks and listening to the sounds of the jungle. A man appears wearing the clothes of a resistance fighter. He is sure that it is Oeroeg. But when he looks back to the army patrol, Oeroeg is gone.

"Had it really been Oeroeg? I do not know, and never will. I have even lost the ability to recognise him," says the Dutch boy. The Black Lake was written as an account to preserve the delightful days that the two boys spent together. It is both a brilliant novel of Dutch colonialism and a forceful personal account.

The Black Lake is published by Portobello, £9.99