Intriguing family novel set against the background of Dutch colonial history
Frank and Robert Bramme live in a squat. The brothers grew up at their grandfather’s house after their parents died young. The grandfather has dementia and has been admitted to a nursing home. Managing his affairs and having no money themselves, the brothers find themselves forced to give up the old house. While clearing it out they discover a collection of cardboard boxes in the attic. This is the starting point of a suspenseful story that takes the reader back to Indonesia in the 19th century, where the brothers’ ancestors ran a family plantation. With this rich and atmospheric novel, Jeroen Thijssen follows in the footsteps of Multatuli and Hella S. Haasse.
The books, seaman’s books, letters and diaries from the boxes become the raw material for a book Frank writes about the history of his family and a plantation called Solitude in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. His story starts with the brothers Hendrik and Theo. They served in the East Indies Army and took part in the Lombok Expedition of 1894. Having survived the bloody battle at Tjakra Negara where the army was lured into a trap and forced to retreat, they were among the same troops when the stronghold was recaptured six months late. Entering the Raja’s place, Hendrik and Theo happen upon a wealth of precious stones and steal them.
With capital from the stones, Theo buys the daily paper The Typhoon, and Hendrik a plantation called Solitude, far from Batavia. Both Theo and Hendrik have sons, who more or less follow in their father’s footsteps. Theo’s son shares his father’s liking for drink and brothels, while Hendrik’s son Simon takes over the running of the plantation after his father contracts a muscle-wasting disease. During the Japanese occupation and the Indonesian War of Independence that follows, Simon in particular runs into difficulties. He’s a proud plantation owner but also feels a strong connection with local villagers and with Barep, who turns out to be his half-brother.
Thijssen describes the present life of the brothers in their squat and that of their forebears in the Indies with an equal feel for atmosphere and detail. He cleverly interweaves colonial relationships, and in a sense their indictment, with the fate of his characters, postponing with masterly control the revelation of dark family secrets. A wonderful page-turner to the very end.