Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
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...
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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 Pramoedya, as it was for many Asian nationalists, because a colonial power had been defeated and driven out by an Asian nation, albeit one that had its own imperialist designs. Pramoedya worked for the Japanese Domei news agency while continuing his studies.
After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Indonesian leader Sukarno declared Indonesia’s independence. The Dutch attempted to reestablish their rule, resulting in the Indonesian National Revolution, as nationalist forces under Sukarno and others fought the colonial power. Pramoedya took part in the struggle as a member of a nationalist paramilitary group, and he was therefore imprisoned by the Dutch from 1947 until independence in 1949.
During this imprisonment, he began his career as a novelist with his book Perburuan (1950; The Fugitive, 1975), which won a national literary award. During this first period of imprisonment, Pramoedya met Arfah Iljas, a young woman whom he married after his release. They had three children before their divorce in 1954. Pramoedya married again, in 1955, to Maimoenah Thamrin, and he had five more children with his second wife.
In independent Indonesia, Pramoedya joined the Marxist literary group Lekra and wrote for newspapers and journals. He also gave lectures on literary history at the Res Publika University in Jakarta. Although Sukarno, as first president of Indonesia, generally tried to incorporate the left wing into his own political support groups, Pramoedya’s criticisms of political corruption alienated Sukarno. Pramoedya was also sympathetic to the Chinese minority in Indonesia, and this gained him enemies among the military. He was briefly imprisoned for a second time, from 1960 to 1961, in Jakarta.
In 1965, the Indonesian military, led by Suharto, staged a coup, claiming that a Communist rebellion, led by elements sympathetic to China, was about to occur. Pramoedya was arrested and imprisoned from October, 1965, until December, 1979. For much of this time, he was held in the penal colony at Buru Island. There, he composed the four historical novels known as the Buru Quartet (1980-1988). He was held under town arrest following his release, and his novels continued to be banned in Indonesia even after Suharto’s downfall in 1998. However, he became Indonesia’s best-known writer, at home and abroad. In 2006, he died as a result of diabetes and heart disease.