The Jewelled Hair-comb, by Maria Dermôut

Maria Dermôut was born in Pekalongan, in 1888 as a member of a family that had lived in the Dutch Indies for generations. She would have liked to stay in the Indies, but was forced to leave in 1933, well before Indonesia’s independence in 1945,[7] because of her husband’s retirement and bad health. She only began to publish in 1951, aged 63, and was remarkably successful before her death in 1962.[8] Her novel De tienduizend dingen from 1955 (translated in English as The Ten Thousand Things) was on the bestseller list of The New York Times for a long while and was described as one of the best novels of the year.

That said, her work is not particularly well known for its political content. Yet The jewelled hair-comb is remarkably political, although the political issue is addressed “on the side”. The main theme of the story concerns the return home, after a long journey to the Indies, of one of the sons of a well to do family: father, mother and five children. As far as this homecoming is concerned, the story is fictional, Yet, the name of the young man, Quirien, is a clear reference to a historical figure: captain Quirijn Maurits Rudolph VerHuell. The latter had been sent to the Indies originally in order to study and depict the Indonesian fauna and flora. In the Indies, he stumbled into a major uprising, however, under the leadership of Pattimura. So, he also used his drawing skills to depict the revolt and Pattimura. These sketches play a major role in the story.[9]
On his return home, Quirien is very much concerned because he knows his family members deeply sympathize with the French and in consequence detest the English. The family has a biased knowledge of what had happened during the uprising. In this context Quirien is constantly trying not to show his sketch of Pattimura. The dominant image of the family members, and of the Dutch audience in general, is that Pattimura was a monster. He and his troops had captured and killed the family of the resident minister Van den Berg at Saparua, leaving only one little child alive: the resident’s son Jean Lubbert. The papers in the Netherlands had depicted an image of Pattimura as the classic colonial primitive, supposedly having paraded in the clothes of the ones he had killed, carrying the jewelled hair-comb of the resident’s wife.[10] Quirien knows all this and is surprised to learn that his father is not as biased as the rest of the family. On the contrary, since the latter is well informed, intrigued by some pieces of information, he is happy to have an eyewitness with him. He tries to get his intuitions confirmed when asking Quirien about Pattimura:

"Had been a sergeant in English service; spoke and write fluently in Malay and English, had an English Bible! A good soldier, an intelligent man as well: his defense systems made of walls of coral was ingeniously constructed, eh Quirien. Gave you enough trouble? […] A brave and impressive man, is what somebody says, here, who has been fighting alongside – I mean on our side. What do you think, eh Quirien?"[11]

The father is not only testing the possibility of whether this insurgent may have been an intelligent military man, he is also explicitly bringing forward something that had been downplayed in the Dutch papers, namely that Pattimura and his troops were devout Christians. In fact, one psalm in particular had played a large role during the uprising: psalm 17. It need not come as surprise then, that the story has the ending lines from that psalm as its motto, in English: “I shall be satisfied when I awake, with thy likeness”.

The speaking “I” in Psalm 17 is David, and his major theme is a request for justice. God is being called upon, in what is a passionate expression of grief and belief, but also a request. Expression and request point back to the lyrical I, David, who describes the enemies that want to kill him. Their hearts, so the psalm states, are without feelings, and closed; their language is one of arrogance. The psalm ends with the lyrical I expressing the hope that he will see justice done, and will awake with God’s face before him. So, the text is decisively poetic in the sense that it is a song, shot through with metaphors, and distinctly apostrophic. Its addressee in the text is clearly God, and we, as an audience, overhear David speak. In the context of the story and the historical situation the apostrophe does not just work poetically, however, but also rhetorically. As Quirien’s father appears to know, the psalm was used in a community. The members of that community would, by means of the psalm, have to turn away from one another to God as the other addressee. But in addressing God they would testify of their belief to their community.

The psalm is used even more rhetorically and theatrically in relation to the Dutch enemy. In the night before their execution the prisoners sang psalms together, and psalm 17 was the most important one. Not addressing the Dutch directly but turning away to God, the idea was not only to appeal to God as the supreme witness of what was happening but also to let the Dutch hear the content of what was being said in the psalm. Indirectly the psalm charged the Dutch with their ruthlessness, arrogance and injustice. In doing this Pattimura and his company also hoped for another form of turning away. They were counting on the fact that their acts and behavior – their trust, faith and perseverance in their last hours – would become known to those who could not be directly there: their own community, but perhaps also the English audience. In this respect Pattimura is consciously using the act of witnessing in a rhetorical and theatrical way, using the double mode of address.
In contrast, Quirien is being called upon by his father to bear witness in front of what Quirien experiences as a crossfire interrogation by his own family. Consequently, he is not willing to cooperate. He gives very short answers, only nods when his father is trying to get something confirmed, and obsessively tries to avoid showing the thing that will really speak: his sketch of Pattimura. Yet, his map with sketches does appear on the table and the last one of the sketches, put underneath the others on purpose, shows Pattimura as a proud man, a man of honor, someone to be admired or loved. The immediate response of the eldest brother is telling:

"Must this be the image of that man! The head of the insurgents there, what’s his name? The man Thomas! No, that’s not him! He walked parading like a…. Like a woman, with a chain of epaulettes of all those fallen sown together around his neck and a jeweled hair-comb of the governor’s wife in his hair. Everybody knows that here, it is common knowledge so to speak. You may have been there, but there are a couple of people here too who are well informed and know exactly what transpired there!"[12]

The eldest brother evidently wants to hurt the witness, of whom he condescendingly says that he “may have been there”, but whom he doubts to have been an adequate witness. To top that, he adds that portraiture was never what Quirien was particularly good at. Nevertheless, the sketch has become a testimony of the fact, and act, of “having been there”. It shows that Quirien has not just been a witness, but a willing one, and a loving one. Even as an awkward testimony, the sketch speaks and its form of speaking is paradigmatic for both the rhetorical status of witnessing as a turning away, and an address of attention that is specifically charged here because it testifies of what Kelly Oliver defined as the look of love (Oliver 2001: 56-78).

Note 7: In Indonesia the 1945 declaration of independence is remembered each year on the 17th of august. Tellingly, the Dutch audience was inclined to remember December 27th , 1949 as the date of the official independence. In 2005 the Dutch government acknowledged that August 17th, 1945, is the official date.

Note 8: There are, unfortunately, no English biographies about Dermôut, so the reader will have to do with the two in Dutch, one by Johan van der Woude from 1973, and one by Kester Freriks from 2000.

Note 9: The historical VerHuell is better known under his second name, Maurits. His sketches and watercolors were part of an exhibition held in the historical museum in Arnhem in 2008 entitled God’s wonders in watercolor (Gods wonderen in waterverf). On the uprising and the travels of VerHuell, see Thomas Matulesia (Doren 1857), or the autobiographical Herinnering aan een reis naar Oost-Indië (Fraassen 2008).

Note 10: One of the descendants of the little child wrote a history of the events: De tragedie op het eiland Saparoea in het jaar 1817 tijdens de opstand in de Molukken (van den Berg 1946).

Note 11: “Sergeant in dienst van de Engelsen geweest; sprak en schreef vloeiend Maleis, Engels, hij had een Engelse bijbel! Een goed soldaat, intelligent man ook: zijn verdedigingssysteem met koralen muren was ingenieus bedacht, eh Quirien? Hebben jullie last genoeg mee gehad? […] Een dapper en ontzagwekkend man, zegt hier iemand die meegevochten heeft, ik bedoel aan onze kant. Wat vind jij, eh, Quirien?” (Dermôut 2001: 315).

Note 12: “Moet dit die man verbeelden! Dat hoofd van die oproerlingen daar, hoe heet hij? De man Thomas! Neen, dat is hij niet! Die liep aangedirkt als een… Als een vrouw, met een ketting van aan elkaar geregen epauletten van alle gesneuvelden om zijn hals en een juwelen vrouwenkam van de vrouw van de resident in zijn haren! Dat weet iedereen hier, dat is om zo te zeggen gemeen goed, jij bent er dan bij geweest, hier zijn toch ook nog wel een paar mensen die goed geïnformeerd zijn, die weten wat zich daar precies heeft afgespeeld!” (Dermôut 2001: 319).

Frans-Willem Korsten