What words are there to tell how long a night can be?
Paul Bowles, A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard
J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie,
Et mes amis et ma Gaieté;
J’ai perdu jusqu’à la Fierté
Qui faisait croire à mon genius.
Alfred De Musset, Tristesse
I borrow the title for this piece from the famous book by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss – Tristes Tropiques. In it, in a grand poetical language, he regrets the arrival, in those distant colonies of the West, of colonialists, merchants, missionaries and other such vulgar and unwanted guests.
Levi-Strauss visited his Tropics as a researcher. According to him they are not sad as such, but have become so, this as the result of that miserable immigration of the dregs of the ‘Mother Countries’.
What he wanted to explore did not exist any longer, colonization had taken its toll. Sad are the Tropics because the Tropics are no more, victim of an improper turn if the screw. As the world of yesteryear, so you yourself are disappearing – as happens to the world that yet has to come. The motto which Levi-Strauss took from Lucretius.
He detested not so much the explorer, as the modern version, the tourist hustlers who in faraway places compile their impressions, then piece them together and make soup from them. Once back home, they dish up these tidbits for those who stayed behind, like so many lumps of the Exotic. How Levi-Strauss would have loved to inhabit those times of true travelling, when a not yet damned nor spoiled, even an unadulterated spectacle offered itself in all its splendour.
My father in law – here with his wife who has their last child in her arms, my future wife – is taken for a snapshot in a Helmond street. They have just come sailing all the way from what then still were the ‘Dutch East-Indies’, first to be parked in a Frisian inn in the North of the Netherlands, then to move to our southern province of Brabant.
So it went. To just settle wherever they wanted, for these immigrants was out of the question – that is, if you wanted to be given a new house fast. So they were located in that Catholic region of Holland, even though their own religion was Dutch Reformed.
Look a close up at these three faces:
Ma, as she was called, is confronting their new future with both determination and hope radiating from her face. With all those kids it would become quite an undertaking, but she has decided what is to become of them.
My still young Esther merely gazes into the lens, in her eyes a strange Cyclops for sure. She also has full confidence – in her loving parents. Too young she is, yet, to either look back or to look ahead.
Pa, by contrast, does not seem to look at all. This is his countenance as I found him each time we visited Helmond – all the way from Amsterdam, at that time a globetrotting trip, as if you sailed to The Indies by ship. However, at that time those colonies were already ‘lost’.
He always sat in his armchair, seriously absent, his gaze on vistas faraway. Though he never talked about them, from our first meeting I knew with certainty that his visions consisted of beautiful mountains, rice paddies, a glorious sun and lots of prosperity. He had achieved the highest that someone of mixed blood could reach in our Indies. An Indo, as we Dutch called them – ‘Blues’ in their own words – one of ‘mixed blood’ who had become Superintendent of Police.
There he had been somebody, here he was nobody. He had also been a ‘strong’ father for his eldest boys. My Esther was a latecomer, she came to know him as a gentle older daddy.
Now exiled from his Tropics, he earned a second income in an office of the Van Vlissingen plant – a company that produced brightly coloured ‘cottons’ for Africans, that other part of the Sad Tropics. Retirement of an Indo, even from a high position in the colonies, was not enough to provide for his family. There was no question of any additional compensation for the disappearance of his work due to the revolution out there.
Shortly after our first meeting in 1969, Pa and I were sitting together in the room. In a fit of youthful hubris I told him of my communist sympathies, after all the man should know what his future son in law was like. If in Java we encountered three of your kind banding together on the road, you would have been beaten with the naked sable! Lucky bastard that I am, I replied – today, the two of us are now in Helmond. We remained good friends.
During what were his first Dutch election, this undeniable conservative policeman stuck up a poster for the Labour Party on the front windowpane of their house. After all that party – in a fit of political madness – had supported the colonial effort to keep our East-Indies by way of brutal military force.
Ai, the vicissitudes of politics, and Ai!, he vicissitudes of the Sad and of the Tropics.
Ma also had had a fantastic life out there. Look at the grand automobile in which she is posing here. What she had left behind: ‘kokkies’ (cooks), ‘baboes’ (nurse-maids), respect due to the wife of a dignitary and a beautiful house with an even more beautiful garden around it…
Women have more resilience, they quickly take for granted what is now seen as unavoidable. Men are much weaker, stick to their old status and to fixed habits. In this case – all the way out here, in these Sad Low Lands.
As a has-been mainstay of the Dutch colonial government my father in law looked at those Tropics in a perspective quite different from that of our French anthropologist. For Pa it had been the Promised Land, now it had become Paradise Lost. As a leftist, however, I could not withstand the idea that from the viewpoint of Merdeka Sukarno and his Indonesian revolution, all Indo-officials in the Dutch regime had been on the wrong side. We simply had to leave that part of the globe.
My future father in law saw me, a communist, as part of a fifth column in the Netherlands; I considered him as a colonial collaborator in the Dutch East Indies.
Yet I grieved with him for his ambivalent exile. He never got over it.
Sierksma, December 2016