28 February 2012

The Hidden Force, by Louis Couperus

I was somewhat less taken with this one than I was with Eline Vere, maybe because I wasn't able to find the newer version that Patrick Murtha recommended to me, but possibly it was more that Couperus' weaknesses seemed somewhat more in evidence than his strengths. It is definitely a fascinating novel that should absolutely be on any colonial lit syllabus, but the psychological exploration isn't quite up to the standard of Eline Vere, I thought.

The novel describes this family in Dutch Java; a colonial administrator, his (second) wife and his children from both marriages. The wife, Leonie, is a kind of bizarre and fascinating creature with voracious sexual appetites and a sense of utter indifference to the world. She's basically a sociopath. The book doesn't quite say that it's Java that has caused her sexual deviance, but as is often the case in colonial novels, there's certainly some kind of link between the environment and moral trespass. What makes Couperus so interesting is the strong suggestion that it is the colonizers who have brought this immorality, rather than it being a native product. What makes him slightly off-putting is the sense of this dark evil lurking in the land, and perhaps also in the hearts of the brown people who calmly await the destruction of the whites. Also, for me at least, the hyper-sexualized-ness of it approached caricature. In that though, one could say it verged on being a somewhat interesting parody of the social novel of European Realism, which in some sense are intensely focused on the question of who gets to have sex with whom. It makes me want to read Nana, which I still haven't gotten around to...

I was particularly intrigued by the supernatural aspect of the novel (I thought it would be straight up Gothic), which was kind of downplayed, but fascinating for its ambiguity. At some point, the house of the family becomes haunted. It is unclear whether the causes are supernatural (the narrator pushes that angle a bit, with repeated mentions of a hadji dressed in white who another character tells us is a ghost) or simply the locals playing pranks as punishment for the perversions of the household. The climactic supernatural moments are indeed terrifying, but here Couperus' mode of plotting frustrated me once again (as it did at another point later in the book) - in moments of tension, he has a tendency to suddenly jump-cut to the next scene. It's one way of dealing with a basically unresolvable and shocking situation - just skip ahead to what happens next - but it sometimes feels like a cop-out. One could say that it cleverly refuses to dispel the tension it generates, but the ultimate effect is a vague sense of dissatisfaction that isn't necessarily productive.

Overall, an interesting novel, and definitely a must-read for the colonial crowd, but perhaps less gripping for others.

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