Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s writing is social and historical in its orientation. He was concerned with questions of inequality and injustice resulting from colonialism and from the feudalism of traditional societies. Nearly all of Pramoedya’s fiction and nonfiction dealt with Indonesian nationalism and with the struggle against foreign and native oppressors. Pramoedya was politically engaged for most of his own life and spent years in a prison camp, where he composed his best-known work, the Buru Quartet. His own life as a political writer and his family history furnished him with much of the material for his literature.
At the time of Pramoedya (pra-MEW-dee-ya) Ananta Toer’s birth, the nation now known as Indonesia was called the Dutch East Indies. The archipelago, or large clustering of islands, that made up the Dutch East Indies had fallen under the domination of the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, when the Dutch East India Company had taken control of the valuable spice trade in the area. Over the course of a century and half, Dutch colonial institutions had grown, and in 1800, the islands were placed under the direct control of the government of the Netherlands.
Pramoedya, as he is called according to Indonesian style, was born on the island of Java, the most politically important part of the Indies. Pramoedya’s father was director and headmaster of the Institut Boedi Oetomo (IBO), a nationalist school. Pramoedya completed his elementary education at the IBO, taking ten years to finish the seven-year course. Disagreement with his father over his education delayed him from continuing his studies, but with the help of his mother, a rice trader, he enrolled in the Radio Vocational School in Surabaya in 1940. After he finished his studies in 1941, he was drafted into the radiotelegraph division of the civil defense after the Netherlands and its colonies entered into World War II. Shortly after beginning this work, however, the Japanese invaded Surabaya, and Pramoedya went back to Blora for a few months.
The Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia was a significant event for...