Much of Pramoedya’s writing consists of the fictional investigation of Indonesian history, and it shows clear political goals. The writer was interested in teaching his readers about the history of their country and in teaching them in ways that would motivate them to act instead of simply considering historical events from a disinterested standpoint. Thus, Pramoedya’s nationalist and leftist politics guided how he presented his characters and the situations that surrounded those characters. Within these political preoccupations, Pramoedya is concerned with questions about how individuals deal with competing claims on personal commitment and loyalty and about how individuals make decisions about where they should direct their loyalties.
Questions of political goals and personal commitments can be seen in Pramoedya’s first major work, The Fugitive, written while imprisoned by the Dutch. The hero of this novel, Raden Hardo, is an Indonesian nationalist soldier who has worked with the Japanese in pushing the Dutch out of Indonesia. However, Hardo turns against the Japanese and attempts to organize an anti-Japanese coup. One of his fellow conspirators betrays the plan and Hardo is forced to flee, disguised as a beggar. Returning to his home town, he finds that much has changed and that trust is difficult. He is surrounded by possible pitfalls as he attempts to hide his own identity, and those around him make their own decisions in a complex world.
Issues of goals and commitments within the larger setting of colonial history, social awareness, and political struggles shape Pramoedya’s great four-book account of Indonesian history, the Buru Quartet. The first three books in this series, Bumi manusia (1980; This Earth of Mankind, 1982), Anak semua bangsa (1980; Child of All Nations, 1982), and Jejak langkah (1985; Footsteps, 1995), follow the protagonist as he gradually comes to understand the nature of colonial and political oppression and enters the struggle against these. The fourth book, Rumah kaca (1988; House of Glass, 1996), takes the perspective of a collaborator with the Dutch in order to look at colonialism from the inside. In all of these books, Pramoedya sees his own traditional, hierarchical society, with its glorified nobles and despised common people, as an internal evil that is perpetuated and made worse by foreign domination of the homeland. As the protagonist in the first three books gains his political awareness, the author intends to draw his readers along the same path and lead them to the same kind of political consciousness.
Pramoedya uses his writing as a tool for teaching about social and political issues. This has consequences for how he approaches his craft. Pramoedya wrote in Bahasa Indonesia, or Indonesian language, the dialect of Malay that is the official language of Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia is not the first language of most people in Indonesia. The people of Java, for example, will most often speak Javanese in their homes, although Indonesian is the language they will generally hear in the media and the one they will use in speaking with people from other parts of the nation, in which more than three hundred first languages are spoken. Thus, the very language that Pramoedya chose to use was a statement and an act of nation-building.
The writing style in Pramoedya’s work tends to be relatively simple and straightforward. The emphasis is not on elegance or on complexity of sentence structure but on the meaning and on the stories. Although he was involved with literary organizations for much of his life, he did not write for other writers but for his readers. Given the fact that he wrote in the Indonesian language, which is popularly understood only in Indonesia and Malaysia, he was clearly not originally aiming at the worldwide readership he later reached but at people in his own part of the world.
The author’s approach to fiction can be identified as realism or social realism. While he was concerned with the psychological dimension of life, his primary concern was with the portrayal of people in social situations and of the struggle among nations and among social classes. He sees a goal of a better society as a point toward which the struggle is moving and as the primary rationale for his own literary efforts.
Pramoedya is at his best in bringing Indonesian history to life and in dramatizing the evils of feudalism and colonialism. He is a skilled storyteller, and readers can easily imagine him recounting tales for his fellow prisoners during his years of imprisonment. Even in his best work, though, characterization is not one of his strong points, and the people in his novels sometimes seem to have no more depth than the puppets in an Indonesian wayang (shadow-puppet) play. At their strongest, his characters can dramatize the complex problems of people making decisions about difficult social and political issues. At their weakest, the characters may lapse into becoming mere symbols or mechanisms for teaching partisan history lessons.
This Earth of Mankind
First published: Bumi manusia, 1980 (English translation, 1982)
Type of work: Novel
The story of the political awakening of Minke, a young Javanese from the lower nobility, who attends a Dutch school and gradually becomes aware of the injustice of his own society, as well as the injustice of Dutch colonialism.
This Earth of Mankind was the first novel in the Buru Quartet, a series of historical novels that Pramoedya composed while in the Buru penal colony. It opens Pramoedya’s fictionalized history of the end of Dutch rule in Indonesia. The hero of the novel, a youth named Minke, is from a minor aristocratic family of Java. Minke has aspirations to be a writer, and a number of his works have been...
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