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The Hunt for the Heart: Selected Tales from the Dutch East Indies.

From early on, Jan Boon developed a habit of inventing different pseudonyms for himself. His ancestry and habitats go a long way toward explaining that. His father was a Dutch soldier who in the Indies married the beautiful daughter of a Welsh father and a Javanese mother. Jan was born in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in 1911, when his father was there for additional training, but left for Java when three months old. Jan belonged to the in-between Indo-class, the true offspring of a colonial relationship that was often partly Dutch and partly Something Else Exotic, as in his case. This ethnic, cultural, and linguistic multiplicity led to his writing stories seen from different points of view, sometimes aimed at a different audience, which appeared under a different pseudonym, much in the manner of Fernando Pessoa. He would not return to Holland until political circumstances forced him to when he was forty-four years old.

Despite his teacher training, Jan became a sportswriter for a paper in Batavia using his first pseudonym, Jan van Nimwegen, after an alternative spelling of the town where he was born and as a spoof on the title of a medieval morality play located there. He spent the war in a Japanese prison camp, where he met Rob Nieuwenhuys and the poet Leo Vroman (who was later incarcerated in Japan), and lived through the even more dangerous bersiap period immediately following the war. On the island of Borneo/Kalimantan, where he married his third wife, Jan Boon wrote the stories which later appeared in the volumes Tjies (1958) and Tjoek (1960) under the name of Vincent Mahieu. This French-sounding nom de plume covers his Dutch persona, stories seen from his Western or Dutch perspective. The fourteen stories that make up The Hunt for the Heart have been selected from these two books.

While still in Indonesia, Boon had written stories about Indo lowlife in Batavia/Jakarta under the name of Tjalie Robinson, Robinson being his great-grandfather's surname. Those stories were written in the dialect called Petjoh, a Creole Dutch which somewhat resembles the Papiamentu spoken in the Dutch Antilles, like American jive, which lends itself to exaggerated ribaldry and boasting while mocking the "superior," straight culture. Unwilling to renounce his father's nationality, he was forced to leave Indonesia and go to Holland in 1954.

There he continued to write under the Robinson name in his own biweekly, Tong-Tong (the name of a village drum made from a hollow tree), which today survives under the name of Moesson (Monsoon). Like so many Dutch people who had come from the Indies, his entire family left Holland and emigrated to California. Jan Boon followed them to Whittier, near Los Angeles, there to act as spokesman for the exiled Indo society. He suffered his first of several heart attacks there in 1962. Five years later, he returned to the Netherlands to help out his magazine. He died there in 1974, but his ashes were scattered over the Java Sea, "in view of Jakarta's harbor," E. M. Beekman tells us in his chapter "Boon/Mahieu/Robinson: Anak Betawie" from his recent literary history Troubled Pleasures. While in Holland, Boon wrote a set of essays under the name of Didi. These were posthumously published in 1992 under the title Didi in Holland.

To give an impression, the first story in The Hunt for the Heart begins with the line "Have you ever heard of a butterfly being embedded in a cocoon and then coming out as a nasty, ugly, itchy caterpillar?," while another starts, "How many people lead double lives?" One tale is called "The Fence," while "Brief Flight of a Bureaucrat" is a Walter Mitty story. Most of the selections go well beyond the theme of real or implied duality, racial antagonism or discrimination, however. They easily transcend the necessary and delightful couleur locale and invariably find the universal in the particular, as, for example, in the way we meet Tjoek, the girl who loves music, in the story that bears her name: "She had black hair with brown streaks, and she was so ordinary that she existed for no one in the whole world. She went to the ninth school, where children of clerks went. Not even of clerks, third-class. And where children of actors in the Stamboel (stage show) went. And children from degenerated noble families, with triple-hyphenated names and titles, but with bare feet full of wounds and scars. And a great number of non-European children: Chinese, Javanese, Malay." This and several other stories are realistic tales that verge on the maudlin. When they strain for Higher Meaning, they become high-falutin, the way John Steinbeck does, which is almost more than they can bear, but Boon has the knack of pulling himself up in time.

"Vroooom! Vroooom! Vroooom!" at first resembles a cartoon about the macho kick of power and motorcycles; but it ultimately turns out to be about defeat, insight, and change, and the image of the butterfly returns again. The story reminds me of all those many prewar photographs of smiling men in uniform I've seen, mostly of my dead uncles straddling their polished motorbikes. One of those pictures, much enlarged, hung on the wall of an Oakland restaurant run by a jolly woman called Toetie of Indonesian-Dutch descent from Surabaya. The restaurant bore the grand title "The Great Dutch East India Trading Company." The picture of the young man on the motorbike was that of her father, she said, but it could just as well have been of Jan Boon of Nijmegen, Batavia, The Hague, and California, alias Vincent Mahieu, Tjalie Robinson, Didi - take your pick.

Frans van Rosevelt Volksuniversiteit Haarlem
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Author:Rosevelt, Frans van
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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