This book was a landmark event when it was published in the mid 19th century. It really shook up the Dutch self-understanding of their colonial efforts in what we now call Indonesia.
The setting is colonial Indonesia in the early 19th century. The book is largely autobiographical and multi-perspectival; while it follows one honest bureaucrat's efforts to do justice for the "natives," the narrative is often interrupted by other characters' points of view.
The beauty of the book is that it shows how corrupt the colonial system is. It does so not by examining the weaknesses of particular actors but by showing how any notion of justice goes against the primary purpose of colonialism -- accruing profits for Dutch capitalists. It managed to transport me to that time period.
I didn't find this book easy going but was glad to have read such an important and famous novel. I am told that it is still taught in Dutch schools.
The other reason I read it was because it is so often mentioned by the characters in Toer's Buru Quartet