the tea lords by hella s. haasse

the plainness of haasse’s storytelling might lull you into thinking this is a simple narrative and these simple characters.  that would be a misconception.   she describes the life of rudolf kerkhoven, who in 1869, leaves holland for java to establish a tea plantation and make his fortune.    a well-educated young man from a vast and powerful family, rudolf is prudish, penny pinching, stiff, bossy and a little whine-y.  he’s also hard-working and honorable — a dreamer who is devoted to his family.

through brutally-hard labor and extreme austerity, rudolf and his young bride, jenny, scratch a living from the jungle.  his experiments with tea and quinine production revolutionize agriculture, and eventually, he prospers.

as much as this is the story of rudolf’s increasing plantations and flourishing progeny, it’s also the story of his acrimonious relationship with his parents and siblings and his wife’s descent into mental illness.

the simplicity of  haasse’s prose perfectly suits her stolid protagonist.  but the sophistication of this work is demonstrated in her subtle revelation of his epic blind spots and untrustworthiness as a narrator.

it’s not until the conclusion that haase reveals that the characters and events in the “novel” aren’t fictional.  inspired by letters, photographs and documents from the archive of an actual family, she has vividly imagined their motivations, hopes and disappointments.

i finished this jewel of a book and thought of something a favorite author, tim o’brian, said.   “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.” story-truth is emotional-truth; thus the feeling created by a fictional story is sometimes truer than what results from reading the facts