‘For hours I lay in bed with my two daughters. Pauline played with my hair, Louisa drank greedily as if she felt it would soon be over. I quietly said goodbye to motherhood.’ These are perhaps the most beautiful and saddest sentences from Easier than me, the novel with which the author Dido Michielsen (1957) broke through in 2020 and won the Dutch bookshop prize. There speaks the Javanese Isah, housekeeper for a Dutchman and mother of his two unknown daughters. If he marries, she’ll be sent away with children and all. They end up with a family where Isah is allowed to take care of her own girls as a ‘babu’ (nanny). On one condition: her young daughters must not know that she is actually their mother.
It is one of the many tragic events in the book, where the often degrading position nay (housekeepers for the men stationed in the Dutch East Indies) are highlighted. Many njai not only took care of the household, but also, often forced to share a bed with their boss. This created a new population group: the Indo-Europeans, in short Indo. In the hierarchy dictated by the Dutch, they formed a class of their own: higher than the original ‘natives’, but never on the same level as the ‘totoks’ (non-mixed Europeans).
This is what this is about Angel and Kinnarithe new novel by Michielsen, which is a direct sequel to Easier than me. Through Louisa, Isah’s youngest daughter (and the author’s great-grandmother), we see how frustrating the Indo’s social position was. Dutch manners were regarded as the highest ideal and ‘de Patria’ was much idolized. One should distance himself as much as possible from the native mother’s side. ‘Forget your native origins, realize you are European and act accordingly’, Louisa is told. But no matter how well you tried as an Indo, no matter how impeccably ABN you spoke, you were always judged on your toned skin and dark eyes. Louisa has had enough of that. Why would she go out of her way for people who will never fully accept her? She would much rather develop her Indian side. If only she knew who her mother was!
Locked up in Buitenzorg
Louise spends much of her time locked up in Buitenzorg, where she lives with her much older, boring husband. The children are looked after by the babu, the food is prepared by the cook, the garden is looked after by the gardener. The women around are stupid or annoying. Louisa is bored and the reader gradually becomes a bit too. And then Michielsen’s sometimes clumsy style begins to emerge. This is how she constantly mentions all the feelings, and she doesn’t leave much to guess: ‘How unpleasant, Louisa thinks slightly disappointed’, ‘If there’s anyone who bothers me, it’s you she thinks angrily’, ‘Yes, Louisa thinks angry’, ‘I feel so empty and it’s not exactly the first time, she thinks’, ‘I have a lot to process today, going through her’, ‘She would rather scream very long and loud, she feels so lonely ‘.
As described by the omniscient narrator, Louisa appears naive and, with all her emphatic feelings, sometimes even childish. It makes it hard to take her and her problems seriously.
Secondary characters are stuck in the clichés. The grumpy husband, the haughty, wealthy “boyfriend”, the status-obsessed old aunt; they are obligatory extras in so many books about that time, and Michielsen adds nothing original. Even Louisa’s lover, Dimas, is a type: proud and evasive with a princely air – this is how Multatuli described the Javanese 150 years ago.
Michielsen’s first novel was not stylistically flawless either, but that was more than compensated for by the impressive story. As a njai, Isah experienced the most astonishing things. Louisa doesn’t have it easy either, but her identity crisis and the annoying tea visits are a bit sharp. Michielsen’s storytelling is not sufficient to take this story of her great-grandmother to a higher literary level.
Fortunately, there are still the many letters Louisa writes to her sister, logically speaking in the first person, which feel much freer and more natural than the explanatory omniscient narrator – they are a liberation to read. Also because Louisa suddenly appears as a confident and worldly woman. Emotions are no longer just named, but appear naturally in what Louisa writes, such as when she finally finds out who her mother is: ‘Our booh Isah, my God, why did we never know, never feel? We touched our mother, we held her, she held us, slept on the floor in front of our bed.’ It is a beautiful echo of the poignant scene in the first book where Isah says goodbye to motherhood. So beautiful, and so sad.
Indo-Europeans in Literature
This year the fate of the Indo-Europeans received more literary attention. Elle van Rijn wrote Back to insulin, a historical novel about the hardships of the Japanese camps and the racism of colonial society. Barbara van der Kruk debuted with ‘the Indian family novel’ White between the lines, where the main character tries to get the family history out of his mother. Marion Bloem received the Christiaan Huygens prize this year for her entire body of work, where stories from Indos are central, and Yvonne Keuls’s Indian mother came to life again when the novel Missing my mother was chosen as the book of the Nederland Leest campaign.
Dido Michielsen: Angel and Kinnari. dutch deep; 256 pages; €22.99.