Oeroeg was my friend. When I think back on my childhood and adolescence, an image of Oeroeg invariably rises before my eyes, as though my memory were one of those magic pictures we used to buy, three for ten cents: yellowish, shiny little cards coated with dried glue, which you had to scratch with a pencil to reveal the image underneath. That is how Oeroeg comes back to me when I delve into the past. The setting may vary, depending on how long ago the period I am recalling is, but Oeroeg never fails to appear, be it in the overgrown garden at Kebon Djati or on the reddish-brown muddy paths along the sawahs in the Preanger highlands, in the hot carriages of the little train we took to primary school each day in Soekaboemi, or later, at the boarding-house when we were both at school in Batavia. Oeroeg and me, playing and tracking in the wilderness; Oeroeg and me, hunched over our homework, our stamp collections and forbidden books; Oeroeg and me, ever together, during each and every stage of our development from child to young man. I think it is fair to say that Oeroeg is imprinted in my being like a brand, a seal – now more than ever, since every form of communication has been banished to the past. I do not know why I feel the need to take stock of my relationship with Oeroeg and of all the things he meant to me, and still means. It may be something to do with what I felt was his inescapable, unfathomable otherness, that secret of spirit and blood which posed no problems in childhood and youth, but which now seems all the more confounding.
Oeroeg was the eldest son of my father’s mandoer, and like me was born at Kebon Djati, the estate managed by my father. We were only a few weeks apart in age. My mother was very fond of Oeroeg’s mother. As a young woman fresh from Holland and deprived of contact with other members of her sex and race at the remote plantation, my mother must have found sympathy and devotion in the gentle, cheerful Sidris. Their bond was strengthened by the fact that they were both pregnant for the first time. With my father away on his inspection rounds of the tea gardens or in his office at the factory, my mother and Sidris would pass the long hours of the day sitting on the back veranda with their sewing. They would share confidences in a gentle game of questions and answers, recounting their experiences, fears and desires, the countless changes in mood and emotion that only find response from woman to woman. They saw things in different ways and had a poor command of each other’s language, but beneath the peignoir and the sarong burgeoned the same miracle. So it was not surprising that those hours of intimacy continued after Oeroeg and I were born, with me in my flounced rattan cradle beside my mother’s chair and Oeroeg in the batik slendang on Sidris’s back.
The earliest image I can recall shows me the two women sitting between the marble columns of the back veranda surrounded by piles of white laundry for mending, and Oeroeg and me in identical striped playsuits, on all fours by the potted ferns flanking the veranda steps. There were splashes of dazzling red, yellow and orange shifting in the breeze – which in later years I knew to be the closely planted cannas in the back garden. Oeroeg and I scratched about in the gravel in search of translucent pebbles, which the natives sometimes burnished to resemble semi-precious stones. The air was abuzz with insects, wood pigeons cooed in their cages hung high on bamboo poles behind the servants’ quarters, a dog barked, chickens squawked and scratched in the yard and from the well came the splash of water. The wind blowing down from the mountains was cool and carried a faint smell of wood smoke from the desas. My mother poured us vanilla syrup in coloured glasses: red for me, green for Oeroeg. Ice tinkled against the rim. Even today the faintest whiff of vanilla is enough to bring it all flooding back to me: Oeroeg and me perched on the pebble-strewn steps of the back veranda sipping our drinks with great concentration, the ferns and flowers waving in the wind, and all around us the morning sounds from the sunny yard.
Two years after I was born my mother had a miscarriage, after which no further pregnancies ensued. Perhaps that was why Oeroeg was so exclusively my playmate, although Sidris went on to have child after child. The shared hours on the back veranda came to an end. Sometimes my mother sat there alone, writing letters or sewing, but more often I would find her in the filtered light of her bedroom, lying back in a cane chair with a moist handkerchief on her forehead. I sought and found entertainment with Oeroeg, either in the yard and around the house, or roaming beyond the fence, in the kampong and the adjacent tea gardens. We often spent the whole day with Sidris and Oeroeg’s brothers and sisters at the mandoer’s quarters. Theirs was the only house in the kampong made of stone. The yard at the back was bounded by the river, which at this point was narrow and strewn with jutting stones. We children jumped from stone to stone, or waded in the shallows, where the water was crystal clear and as still as in a basin, and where we hunted for red and greeny-yellow crabs, dragonflies and other creatures. The shade of the dense growth fringing the banks teemed with insects. The younger children squatted naked in the pale brown mud, keeping very still while Oeroeg and I poked our sticks into the shadowy nooks behind the overhanging green.
We were about six years old at the time. I was the tallest, but Oeroeg, being thin and muscular, looked the older. In the line running from his shoulder-blades down to his narrow, straight hips you could already see the supple, confident strength of the half-grown boys and young men in the fields and at the factory. He could crouch down with his strong toes flexed to keep his balance on rocks and branches, more secure in his stance than I ever was, and quicker to react when instability threatened. Not that I was aware of such things in those days – I was too absorbed in our play. But I do recall disliking my freckles, and hating it when my arms turned all red and blistery in the scorching sun, and how envious I was of Oeroeg’s dark skin, evenly coloured all over except for some faint pink blemishes resulting from an earlier skin disease. Oeroeg’s face was flat and broad like his mother’s, but without the gentle cheerfulness that made hers so appealing. I cannot remember his eyes ever losing that tense, searching gaze, as though forever listening out for a sound, a signal, that no one but he could hear. Oeroeg’s eyes were so dark that even the surrounding whites seemed shadowy. In laughter or anger he narrowed his eyes, so that their sparkle was hidden by the ruff of short, stiff lashes. Like most natives Oeroeg never opened his mouth wide to laugh. In a burst of uncontrollable mirth he would rock silently to and fro, screwing his face up into a grimace.
The things we delighted in were not always the same. When I sprang over the stones in the river, whooping with excitement over an exceptional catch – a crab, pale pink and marbled like a shell, or a transparent salamander – Oeroeg merely stared with his tense, dark look, flaring his nostrils slightly. He had a way with animals, catching them and carrying them around without ever getting hurt. I preferred to keep them in boxes and tins covered by a sheet of glass, and my mother, despite her abhorrence of ‘beasties’, had given me permission to store my collection in one of the outbuildings. But Oeroeg took little pleasure in the regular care and maintenance of such a menagerie. His attention flagged where mine began. He liked to tease a crab with a straw until the creature braced itself for attack. Most of all he liked to set up fights between animals of differing species, bringing toads to pit their strength against river and land crabs, goading tarantulas to fight with salamanders, wasps with dragonflies. It would be going too far to speak of cruelty here. Oeroeg was not cruel, it was simply that he did not know the feeling Europeans often have of wanting to spare an animal and treat it with respect, out of a half-conscious sense of affinity. Whenever I cried out, overcome partly by excitement and partly by guilt and horror at these gladiatorial sports, Oeroeg would throw me a sideways look of surprise, saying, as though to soothe me: ‘What does it matter? They’re only animals.’ Our favourite pastime was pretending to be hunters and explorers, prowling around the fruit trees in the yard at the back, or, if we felt more adventurous, around the stony riverbed.
When my father was away on business or my mother suffering yet another attack of migraine, I had my meals at Oeroeg’s house. Sidris, aging rapidly and somewhat shapeless after all her pregnancies, would be squatting among the pots and pans at the back with some female relative, frying pancakes stuffed with rice and meat in hot oil. Around them sat the children, quietly eating whatever Sidris slid towards them on a banana leaf. Skinny chickens pecked at the spilt grains of rice; the black dog, ever mangy, slunk about at a distance, waiting for us to finish and leave. I felt at home at her house, where the air was scented with the coconut oil she smoothed into her hair-knot. In the front porch stood some old, deep-seated rocking chairs – a gift from my mother. Paper fans and coloured pictures cut out of magazines were pinned to the whitewashed walls of woven bamboo. What I liked best was the Japanese bead curtain screening the entrance to the two small bedrooms. It showed Mount Fuji in an improbable shade of turquoise, with bright pink blossoms on sea-green trees in the foreground. When you passed through the screen, the beaded strings fell together behind you with a mysterious swishing sound. Oeroeg’s grandfather spent his days ensconced in one of the rocking chairs, wearing striped cotton pyjamas and a sarong loosely draped over his shoulders. He was in his dotage, and did little but nod his head and laugh from time to time, baring the stumps of his teeth, which were stained dark red with betel juice. In front of the house was a yard separated from the rest of the kampong by a low whitened wall. Oeroeg and I copied my mother’s gardener in marking out flowerbeds, though not with rows of whitened stones or decorative flowerpots, but with bottles which we buried neck down in the reddish soil so that only the concave bottoms showed. No grass grew in Sidris’s garden, nor trees, but our flowerbeds were no less appealing for that.
Oeroeg came to my house too, now and then, but neither of us much enjoyed those visits. Any kind of rough game was out of the question because of my mother, and we were far too restless for construction kits or picture books. When the rains came, turning the garden into a swamp and the paths into mountain torrents, we would sit on the steps of the back veranda with our toes stretched out into the spray of droplets bouncing up from the gutter. Streams gushed from the rainspouts into the ditches and on towards the well in a monotonous minor key while the frogs croaked all day long, and apart from this no other sound could be heard beneath the low, slate-grey clouds hiding the mountaintops.
In the rainy season my father spent more time at home. He sat in the inner gallery that served as his study, sometimes with my mother, but more often alone. Oeroeg and I were served food at a separate table and at a different hour than my parents. I seldom ate with my father and mother in the evenings, and never felt at ease on those occasions. Under the low-hanging lamp the dinner table resembled an island of desolation in the vast gloom of the back veranda. Now and then my parents exchanged a few words in muted tones, usually concerning domestic affairs, the factory, or the employees. The djongos padded back and forth between the pantry and the table, his head-cloth crisply folded like a crown. Each time he leaned over to serve me I caught a whiff of sweet tobacco blended with laundry starch, the smell forever trapped in his sarong and mess jacket. Sometimes my father quizzed me: whether I had been a good boy, what I had been up to during the day. I was always wary about my answers, for as likely as not they would spark off an argument between my parents. My father listened with a frown of displeasure to my halting account of our games and adventures.
‘The boy shouldn’t be in the kampong,’ was his stock reply when I ran out of things to say. ‘It does him no good at all. He can’t utter a decent sentence in Dutch. Haven’t you noticed? He’s turning into a downright katjang. Why don’t you keep him at home?’
‘He should go to school,’ my mother said one day, in response to such a tirade. ‘He has turned six. How can I possibly keep him indoors? He needs to be kept busy; he needs to play. There aren’t any other children here. He’s always on his own.’
‘Oeroeg!’ I burst out, indignant at her failure to mention my best friend.
My mother shrugged.
‘No school will accept him speaking the way he does,’ my father said. ‘Every other word is Soendanese. He’ll have to learn some proper Dutch first.’
The subject was not pursued any further in my presence, but after a few days we received a visit from a young employee at the factory who, as I learned afterwards, had originally studied to be a teacher. It was explained to me that I would be prepared for entrance to primary school in Soekaboemi. I spluttered in protest. I knew Oeroeg was outside waiting for me – he had been sent away by my mother upon the arrival of my new tutor – because I had spotted his bright red shirt among the bushes by the servants’ quarters. We had made a plan to dig up antlions. While my mother conversed with the young man I tried to slip away over the back veranda, without success. I was told to sit down and pay attention. I was to be asked a number of questions, which I had to answer in Dutch, not Soendanese. Oeroeg crept up to the steps of the back veranda and stood there motionless, staring in silent wonder until the ‘lesson’ came to an end.
That evening my mother came to my room at bedtime, which was a rare occurrence. I felt shy, and while I undressed and washed with the baboe’s help my mother informed me that the hours with Mr Bollinger would continue until the start of the new term in August. I said I did not want to go to school, believing it would mean having to sit still and answer questions. My mother listed the advantages of being a schoolboy, but the prospect of learning to read, write and do sums held little appeal for me.
‘Will Oeroeg be going to school too?’ I asked, when she had finished.
My mother sighed. She was sitting on a low cane chair by the bed, wearing a flower-patterned kimono and wreathed as always in the scent of eau de cologne.
‘What do you think?’ she replied impatiently, dabbing her temples with a damp handkerchief. ‘Don’t be silly. Oeroeg is a native boy, you know that.’
‘Doesn’t he have to go to school then?’ I persisted.
My mother stood up and gave me a fleeting kiss on the cheek.
‘Perhaps,’ she said vaguely. ‘It would be a different school, of course. It’s time you went to sleep now.’
I clambered up into bed and crouched on the mattress while the baboe tucked the mosquito net in on all sides. ‘I’ll ask Sidris . . .’ I began, peering at my mother through the netting.
She paused by the door.
‘I don’t want you playing in the kampong any more,’ she said in the peevish, nervous tone that signalled the onset of one of her migraines. ‘Your father doesn’t approve. You can ask Oeroeg to come and play here if you like. Sleep tight.’
And so it happened. I still managed to escape now and then, to the river and to Sidris’s welcoming home, especially during my father’s absences, but mostly Oeroeg came over to my house. We plundered the fruit trees in the garden, went hunting for all manner of game in the bushes of the neglected back yard, or, on rainy days, sat on our heels between the columns of the veranda doing things I cannot recall. When Mr Bollinger arrived for my lesson, Oeroeg settled himself on the ground not far away, never taking his eyes off us. He had reacted quite calmly to the news that I was to be sent to school, wanting only to know whether I would be going by train, and when I said yes began to imitate the noise of a locomotive, huffing and puffing with fanatical concentration. After that we never mentioned school or Mr Bollinger again. We both thought it perfectly normal for Oeroeg to be present during my instruction. My mother, who would wander in from time to time when Mr Bollinger was there, tried several times to send Oeroeg away. He pretended to do as he was told, but was back again in no time, lurking by the potted plants on the steps of the veranda.
My father seemed pleased with my progress in expanding my vocabulary. However, it was some time before I lost the thick accent of someone more at home in Soendanese than in Dutch. The months went by as preparations were made for my school attendance. An elderly native seamstress sat behind the treadle sewing machine in the inner gallery, where, under my mother’s guidance, she fashioned the trousers and shirts that would replace my cotton playsuits. A Chinese shoemaker came to measure my feet for sandals. Finally my father returned from one of his trips with a satchel and other school necessities. I showed myself to Oeroeg, all kitted out. He looked me up and down, inspected the contents of my pencil-box and asked once more if I would be taking the train every day.
One evening my mother went about the house in formal dress and with her hair done up, which was not like her. The oil lamps in the inner gallery were lit and our djongos busied himself setting the table with a great variety of platters and refreshments. I heard that we were having guests: some ladies and gentlemen from Batavia, who were staying at a neighbouring estate. Mr Bollinger would be coming too.
‘No, you won’t be having a lesson,’ my mother said, smiling as she paused in front of a mirror to assess her appearance. ‘If you behave yourself, you can have dinner with the grown-ups.’
The baboe dressed me in one of my school outfits. Profoundly impressed by this unusual state of affairs, I waited in front of the house for the guests to arrive. It was just after sundown, and the trees bordering the garden stood sharply outlined against the red cloud-banks in the west. The mountaintops were still bathed in light. A soporific whirr of insects sounded from the darkness under bushes and trees. From the kampong came the beat of a hollow tree-trunk drum, signalling nightfall. As I stared at the fading glow on the horizon an unprecedented mood of unease stole over me – because school loomed, because from now on everything would be different. Whether I was at all aware of this at the time is doubtful, so my understanding of the cause of my melancholy and apprehension may well derive from hindsight.
Down on the main road a car turned in through the gate, and after a few minutes pulled up at the front veranda. My mother appeared and welcomed the guests. My father was with them. All I remember of the actual dinner is that my parents talked and laughed as never before, and that I was so astonished by this that I almost forgot the food. After the meal, when the company repaired to the inner gallery (I was sitting unnoticed on the floor next to the gramophone cabinet), someone suggested going for a drive to Telaga Hideung, further up the mountain. Hearing that name made my heart beat faster. The ‘Black Lake’ figured prominently in the fantasies Oeroeg and I wove together, largely thanks to its scary reputation among the locals. Telaga Hideung, in the middle of the jungle, was a gathering place of evil spirits and dead souls. Nènèh Kombèl lived there: a vampire in the guise of an old woman, who preyed on dead children.
A cousin of Oeroeg’s named Satih, who lived with Sidris, was a teller of spine-chilling stories, all connected in one way or another with the Black Lake. We pictured it as an inky expanse of water where monsters and ghosts held sway. We would go there when we grew up and do battle with them. Sometimes, sitting on our haunches for a rest from playing, or sheltering from a shower, we would spin out this future expedition in gruesome detail, shivering with pleasurable fright. I had been to Telaga Hideung once before, as a very young child, but my only recollection of that excursion was seeing my father in a bathing costume. The lake served as a swimming pool for the employees of the estate, but it was too far away to be used very often. Now Mr Bollinger, pointing to the bright orange disc of the full moon behind the leafy treetops, suggested taking a swim there. The plan met with wide approval, and everybody rose to their feet. I sidled up to my mother and tugged at her skirt. Her face was flushed and her eyes shone. She had something strange about her that evening, and beautiful, with her long pendant earrings and upswept hair.
‘What, not in bed yet?’ she said, smiling distractedly. ‘Would you like to come with us?’
Hella S. Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia, modern-day Jakarta. She moved to the Netherlands after secondary school. She started publishing in 1945 and many of her books, among them The Black Lake (Portobello Books, 2013), have gained classic status in the Netherlands. Haasse has received several prestigious literary awards, among them the Dutch Literature Prize in 2004, and her work has been translated into many languages. The Tea Lords (Portobello Books, 2010) was the first work of hers translated into English for fifteen years. She died in 2011.
Ina Rilke was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal, speaking Dutch, English and Portuguese. She was educated at the Oporto British School, and obtained a degree in Translation Studies from the University of Amsterdam. For the past twenty years she has concentrated on literary translation from Dutch and French into English, for which she has won the Vondel Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Flemish Culture Prize. She lives in Amsterdam and Paris.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2014 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahier Series.