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F Springer (Carel Jan Schneider)

Schimmen rond de Parula (The Ghosts of Parula)

Category: Fiction | Published: 1966 | Review Added: 06-05-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

F Springer was the pen name (Dutch writers seem to like their pen names) of Carel Jan Schneider, a civil servant and diplomat who spent his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, and worked for three years as an administrator in western New Guinea before his career moved him elsewhere. He draws on his knowledge of the Indonesian archipelago in this fascinating and sobering tale of cultural conflict.

The protagonists of Schimmen rond de Parula are a western missionary couple, Gerard and Tessie Dubba. Gerard is a confused drifter with a tragic family history, to whom the figure of Christ appears in a dream, persuading him that his life's purpose is to serve God. He joins a missionary organisation, meets Tessie, and sets his heart on spreading the Word to an imperial outpost in the East Indies called Bloedzuigereiland (literarally: Leech Island). The organisation, exploiting the couple's naivity, sends them to one of the remotest regions of the territory, the Zakar Valley, where "it was estimated that sixty thousand war-hungry nudists awaited the coming of western civilisation and religion." The irony, characteristic of Springer's style, strikes an ominous tone.

The natives are grouped into small tribes who coexist in a state of perpetual warfare, low-key and stable, but horrifically brutal. The Dubbas establish tolerable relationships with them all, but make no progress with their souls. When a group of chieftains finally asks to know more about the Christian message, it is not in the name of enlightenment but of myopic self-interest:

The eastern Zakari had heard many rumours about the white people who had arrived by bird, who clearly possessed the secret of immortality, could heal the sick, and were unafraid of curses or sorcery or the ghosts that haunted Parula. They drew these powers from a drink, as white as mothers' milk, that they kept in tin pitchers under their beds.

On the outside of the containers is depicted the "Immortal Mother of All White Souls", and the drink is condensed milk.

Contrasted with the Dubbas' earnest but ineffectual proselytising efforts are the successes of another missionary couple, Carlo and Marie Burd. The Burds meet the Zakari on their own terms, bribing them with tools and immunity from prosecution in return for agreements to be baptised. Peace and universal love - that stuff can be deferred indefinitely. It is hard conversion figures that keep the missionary organisation's donations coming in.

The story offers a pessimistic perspective on the notion of human improvability. If you want people to accept a message, you have to appeal to the worst in them, corrupting both the message and yourself in the process. If the consequence is the spread of civilisation, perhaps it is worth it. But let no one imagine that direct invocations of spiritual salvation are much of a bait.

In the first couple of pages, we learn that Gerard Dubba's story does not end well. Thus there is a horrible but suspenseful sense of inevitability as the narrative unfolds. Schimmen rond de Parula is written with economy and skill, and is full of the kind of unobtrusive detail that suggests a source in experience more than in research or imagination. It is, though, a very grim read at times. There were two scenes, in particular, that I found hard to get through.

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