Birth of TheMovingArchive – Oeroeg

Imagination sometimes stands in for experience; even in real life, we live through our minds.

With the calendar year drawing to a close and the conclusion of my undergraduate stint, a sense of unspeakable anticipation and anxiety engulfed me. Graduation is very much like completing a long-distance run – tad overwhelming, but illusive at the same time. The four years (four-half to be exact) has strengthened me mentally, but rather ironically, weakened my physique. Nonetheless, a form of intellectual narcissism for most parts. I expected to be entrapped in an emotional vortex of accomplishments, contentment, joy, and the likes. After all, this gruelling journey of knowledge accumulation, all-nighters, over-caffeinating, and façade of becoming a more refined human being should tantamount to something at least? Quite unlike expectations, I was thrown off guard and swept by an unprecedented unease. A subtle dislocation, displacement, and disorientation about the immensity of this end.

This new form of perceived freedom and uncharted schedule is indeed unnerving. In my audacious bid to push forward my graduation, confining myself between deadlines and caffeinated narcotics has been an ingrained habit; a habitual routine. I sat myself down a few hours after the submission of my final assignment to recalibrate my thoughts; how am I going to make the best of my time; of each moment? Precisely, the reflexive response lies within this thought itself: in the here and now. Alas, this is not as simple as it sounds. Whenever I attempt to relish the moment – of not doing anything, even – I find myself in a convoluted tangle of wanting to do more; needing to do something else concurrently, from which there is no escape.

My current goal, once I discovered the futility of my previous ones, then is the design a new routine. A routine of making check-lists to keep myself occupied at the very least. I started with physical, visible changes, if it could help kick start this new phase. Now an empty desktop stares back, it stares back rather eerily as if a zombie apocalypse had hit a once thriving city. The previously cluttered screen where I scrambled to find my and PDFs now stands an isolated folder I mindlessly labelled “SCHOOL”. Will I ever get to them again? Does it matter?

Second on the check-list was to read a fictional book, leisurely.

Picking one did not necessitate much agonising. I was going to backpack-light through Vietnam and China, which does not ensue the luxury of having too thick a book; or one too many. I have a kindle with me, but the need to have a physical book outweighs. The Black Lake (Hella S. Haasse), it is. At a mere 140 pages, it may read a simple story but it unveils much more.

First published in Dutch in 1948 – a full year before Indonesia achieved its independence – The Black Lake was initially titled Oeroeg. Quite expectedly, it remains applicable and resonates with post-colonial and post-modern works today. The novel delves into the depths of colonial experiences, racism, childhood and puberty, adulthood and infidelity, and the fallibility and intricacies of human interactions.

It was not until Ina Rilke’s translation into English was the novel retitled The Black Lake. The narrative of the book could only be put forth, and intensifies, with the black lake in the background. The black lake – Telaga Hideung – is in fact an actual location which lies in the heart of the village. A space used leisurely by the European workers and administrators as a swimming pool; yet one considered spiritually haunted by the local Javanese population. Haasse had skilfully chosen this natural landscape as one of the protagonists of the book, to bring a story – encapsulating the ironies of human relations.

Charting the “friendship” between the son of a Dutch plantation manager and his foreman’s son, Oeroeg, since birth; the former recounts their childhood spent on a tea plantation. “My only purpose has been to unite an account of our shared youth. I wanted to preserve an image of those years before they pass into oblivion like a wisp of smoke in the wind,” he laments at the end. As the novel progresses, readers will grow alongside the narrator; only to realise on (our/his) hindsight that his childhood was but an illusion.

In the earlier days of their childhood, the narrator experienced a traumatic loss at Telaga Hideung that further entwined his life with Oeroeg’s. Despite Dutch increasingly harsher colonialism in the East Indies, he remains oblivious to the ostracises bore by Oeroeg and the socio-political activities that Oeroeg was involved in. Haasse kept the suspense and only unveiled Oeroeg’s physical and behavioural fluxes that the narrator often deliberated on in the concluding pages. Oeroeg takes centre-stage, while the narrator remains unnamed throughout. However, Haasse’s detailed aesthetical descriptions of the narrator makes him a visible character too.

With the outbreak of war, the narrator leaves for Europe, while Oeroeg, strangulated by his futile attempts to assimilate, joins the anti-Dutch nationalist movement. When the two friends finally meet again, it was on the shores of Telaga Hideung. The black lake once again appears as the background of their final enigmatic, life-threatening confrontation. This time they are staring at one another down the barrel of a gun.

The unknowable of the lake’s very existence, its impenetrable depths of darkness which only reflects a speck of the night skies; is reflective of their friendship. Far from a shared memory, they functioned within dichotomising binaries of race, class, and language – structural binaries that are not inherent, but socially learned. Realising how everyone can be so different when stripped bare, yet still exactly the same. Will the narrator find his sense of belonging in the land he calls home?

Reading with intention can change your life; travelling without inhibitions can fill your soul. It is on this note that @themovingarchive is born – to travel through multiple worlds. The Black Lake has been passed on to a backpacker, Louis, I met at Tam Coc Bamboo Hostel, Ninh Binh. Maybe it’s circulating in a book exchange store in Vietnam; maybe in Australia.


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