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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Never the Twain

Abdoel Moeis

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To purchase Never the Twain

Title: Never the Twain
Author: Abdoel Moeis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 229 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Never the Twain - US
Never the Twain - UK
Never the Twain - Canada
Never the Twain - India
  • Indonesian title: Salah Asuhan
  • Translated by Robin Susanto
  • With an Introduction by Thomas M. Hunter jr.

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit simple -- and acquiesces too readily to the status quo of the times -- but otherwise solid

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Never the Twain was written and set in an Indonesia still under Dutch colonial rule, its capital, now known as Jakarta, still Batavia. The central character is Hanafi, who comes from a Minangkabau family in West Sumatra. He is well-educated, and he mingles easily with the local Europeans: "His education, his manners, and his values were entirely Western." And since childhood he has been a close friend of Corrie du Bussée, a Eurasian with a French father and (dead) native mother.
       Hanafi is no big fan of the traditional and provincial lifestyle of his family, which his mother, who lives with him, tries to maintain. He sees himself as a worldly modern man -- but doesn't realize that he is only conditionally accepted by the local Europeans. As Corrie's father tells her:

     This is a small place, Corrie, and as long as Hanafi doesn't break any taboos -- namely marrying a Western woman -- of course the Europeans will like him. They now think of him as a civilized, well-educated native, but the day he marries a white woman those same people will say that his Western education has gone to his head. And that's when the shunning will begin.
       Indeed, Corrie -- considered Western, despite her mother's native background -- reminds Hanafi:
No matter what, Hanafi, you have to remember that you are a native.
       Hanafi would prefer to forget -- and he tries his best to escape that label and identity, distancing himself from tradition and family -- "I have considered myself to be outside that tradition, no longer bound by it," he tells his mother. Eventually Hanafi even obtains official 'European status', in the belief that that would be enough to get him truly accepted by the Westerners as one of them; of course, even that isn't enough to change the underlying fundamentals of who he is, and who he is seen to be.
       Hanafi is torn between the one great love of his life, Corrie, and the woman he is expected to marry, his cousin Rapiah. Corrie's own concerns about whether it's possible to live in a mixed marriage -- as theirs would be -- and her knowledge that she only has one shot at happiness (a lot is made of the fact that a woman only has one chance to give herself to a man for the first time) complicate matters. Hanafi has succumbed to Western romantic ideals -- "I want to marry only for liefde: for love. Only liefde can make man and woman husband and wife, in a meaningful way", he maintains -- but the society he lives in doesn't make it easy for him to realize his romantic dreams.
       In Never the Twain Hanafi (reluctantly) tries to have it both ways -- yes, he eventually marries both Rapiah and Corrie -- but he makes a hash of both his marriages. In part it is his fault -- he doesn't really go into that marriage with Rapiah with the right attitude, to say the least -- and in part it is the pressure of society, which makes Corrie miserable and undermines his marriage to her.
       As a friend of his tries to explain to him, about why he isn't welcomed by everyone with open arms once he has a Western wife and 'official' European status:
     You're an intelligent man, Han, but when it comes to feelings, you seem to be both deaf and blind. I can't explain it entirely, but suffice it to say that in their minds you're still a native. The more you try to barge into their world, the harder they will slam the door in your face
       Corrie already warned him early on as to what amounts to the (dubious and ugly) moral of the story:
Many people wanted to bring together East and West, but in the times that we live in, for most people, East is East and West is West; the gap between them can never be bridged.
       By the end he's getting -- and paying attention to -- advice such as:
If you want to live in peace, it's better to follow the crowd. Low with the cows and bleat with the goats, isn't that what your people say ? Those are words to live by, Han.
       Yes, Hanafi can't escape the fact that they are 'his people' -- and that he is one of them. He even comes to the realization that:
although he would always be faithful to his love for Corrie, he would not advise a mixed marriage for anyone. The world was simply not ready for it.
       Yes, there's no happy ending here -- just some ugly lessons learnt (and passed on). It makes for an odd would-be romantic tale -- with Moeis also making it easy for himself through a few convenient deaths (which allow the illusion of romance to be maintained, by removing the reality of it)
       Never the Twain isn't a great novel, but it is a solid, good one. Several of the characters, including Corrie's father, are nicely drawn -- though many are also underdeveloped. However, the almost blind acceptance of the idea that on some levels -- personal and familial, first and foremost -- East and West remain unbridgeable gives the book a somewhat sour taste. The romantic hero Moeis choses is hardly the best test-case for the ugly proposition: the headstrong Hanafi can be generous in trying to make the best of situations, but too often he reacts too strongly, lashing out and offering too little give and take; his inability to understand why he isn't warmly embraced by the European community that he sees himself as part of makes it impossible for him to make any of the possible adjustments that might allow for a happy life -- at least until it's too late. Indeed, Moeis refuses to allow for almost any possibility of a happy bridging of East and West: even Corrie's father, who did the slightly more acceptable variation -- a European taking a local woman for a wife is tolerated much more readily than a native taking a European wife -- and seems to have been fairly happy has now lost his wife and is shown as an isolated, solitary man who dies completely alone (even devoted daughter Corrie doesn't show up for the funeral).
       Never the Twain is of both literary and social-historical interest, and worthwhile as such -- but it certainly isn't a happy romance.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 March 2012

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Never the Twain: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Abdoel Moeis (Abdul Muis) lived 1890 to 1959.

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© 2012 the complete review

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