Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2425
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 published in Dutch-language periodicals. His talents and his somewhat privileged social position have enabled him to attend a high school where all of the other students are of at least partly European ancestry. The snobberies and rejections Minke experiences at the high school begin his movement toward an awareness of colonial inequality, and they also give Pramoedya a means of dramatizing this inequality for readers of the novel.
Minke becomes acquainted with an Indonesian woman named Nyai Ontosoroh. She occupies a position at the margins of both Indonesian and colonial Dutch society because she is the concubine of a Dutch man, Herman Mellema. The Indonesians look down on Nyai Ontosoroh as a concubine. For the Dutch, she can never be a wife or hold a recognized position in the household.
Nyai runs a dairy business and has two half-European children by Herman Mellema, a son, Robert, and a daughter, Annalies. Robert comes to hate Minke, but Minke falls in love with Annalies. He also forms a close bond with the mother, and Nyai urges Minke to follow his own ambitions and become a writer.
Minke and Annalies marry, but Herman Mellema decides to acknowledge his children. While this saves them from being condemned to be natives, it also means that Nyai loses all control over her own children. Annalies is taken away from Minke, their marriage not recognized by Dutch law, and she is sent to the Netherlands to live with her Dutch relatives. When Annalies dies, this is the great tragedy of Minke’s life, but it is also a stage in his growing understanding of the world around him.
The two books that follow This Earth of Mankind in the Buru Quartet, Child of All Nations and Footsteps, continue the story of Minke. He begins to write in Malay (Indonesian), rather than Dutch, and he learns about events in the wider world, particularly the emergence of Japan as a world power. He marries a second time, to a Chinese woman. He founds a native organization and a nationalist newspaper. In the final book of the quartet, House of Glass, Minke appears as an opposition leader, but the story is told from the point of view of Pangemanann, an Indonesian with a European education who is charged with destroying opposition movements.
The Girl from the Coast
First published: Gadis Pantai, 1987 (English translation, 1991)
Type of work: Novel
The tragic story of a beautiful village girl who is forced to become the “practice wife” of a powerful aristocrat.
The central character of The Girl from the Coast was based on Pramoedya’s grandmother. This girl, never identified by name, lives with her parents in a fishing village on the coast of Java. When she is fourteen, word of her beauty reaches the local bendoro, a Javanese aristocrat in the service of the Dutch colonial overlords. The nobleman sends word to her family that she is to become his wife. Filled with hope for their daughter’s future, her mother and father agree to have her married in a ceremony in which the groom is absent and is represented by a dagger.
The parents accompany their child to the great man’s house in the city. There, they find a disturbing omen of their daughter’s future. A servant is caring for a baby, the child of a previous wife who had been divorced and dismissed at the bendoro’s whim.
The servant, Mbok, becomes the personal servant and caretaker of the girl. The girl grows to depend on Mbok, who tells her stories and gives her advice on adjusting to the strange ways of the aristocracy. Among the stories is Mbok’s own tale of how she and her husband were taken away from their village by the Dutch to work on a plantation. After the pregnant Mbok had been kicked in the stomach by a foreman, killing the unborn child, her husband ran amok and was killed by soldiers. Jailed and then let go to fend for herself, Mbok had eventually ended up in the service of the bendoro. Mbok is sympathetic to the girl, but also aware of her own complete dependence on her employer. Mbok’s integrity, courage, and care for the girl lead to the servant’s downfall.
After some of the male relatives of the bendoro, who live in the house, help the girl clean her room, the girl’s wallet proves to be missing. She is distraught, since this wallet contained money for household expenses. When the relatives respond to Mbok’s inquiry with contempt, Mbok brings the matter before the bendoro. The lord discovers the thief and orders him to leave the house, but Mbok is also dismissed. She had dared to accuse a superior and can no longer remain.
Without Mbok, the girl is alone. A new servant, Mardinah, arrives, but Mardinah is a sinister figure. A relative of the bendoro, Mardinah, who is the same age as the girl, has already been divorced. Unlike Mbok, Mardinah refuses to treat the girl as a superior and is often rude. The bendoro encourages the girl to return to her village to visit her parents. Although she does not want to bring Mardinah with her, she does so on the bendoro’s insistence.
In the village, the girl finds that the other villagers and even her own parents keep their distance from her and treat her as a member of the nobility. In a bizarre sequence of events, the villagers discover that a woman who has been living in the village is actually a man. Further investigation reveals that the supposed woman is actually a man, who turns out to be the brother of Mardinah, stationed in the village as a spy. Mardinah’s bodyguards are found to be planning to murder the girl on their return from the village. Mardinah herself had planned this improbable murder to help the regent in her town of Demak, who wanted to marry his daughter to the bendoro. After Mardinah’s confession, she is married to Dul, the village good-for-nothing, storyteller, and tambourine player. The bodyguards are led out to sea, on the pretense of saving them from attacking pirates, and drowned.
The girl returns to the house of the bendoro. She becomes pregnant and bears a daughter. The daughter, however, is the child of her noble father, and the new mother has no right to the baby. Having finally decided to take a real wife of his own social class, the bendoro orders his practice wife to leave. When she refuses to abandon her child, he beats her and has his servants force her out the gate. For a month afterward, a carriage passes by the gate and someone looks from behind the carriage curtain at the bendoro’s mansion.
The Indonesian version of the novel ends with the figure in the carriage. For the English-language reader, however, Pramoedya added an epilogue to take the place of the two lost sequels and to give this surviving work a more satisfactory ending. In the epilogue to this English version, the daughter of the girl, named Sa’idah, grows up in the home of the bendoro and receives an education. At the age of eighteen, almost past marriageable age for an Indonesian woman of her era, Sa’idah becomes involved with an older schoolmaster by the name of Mas Toer, enabling readers to understand that this is a fictionalized version of Pramoedya’s family history.
The Mute’s Soliloquy
First published: Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu, 1995-1997 (English translation, 1999)
Type of work: Memoir
A collection of essays, letters, and notes written by Pramoedya during his imprisonment on Buru Island.
During his years of imprisonment, Pramoedya kept a number of secret written documents. These were written quickly and most of the letters he wrote were never sent, not even the letters to his own children, because he had to keep them hidden from the authorities. These documents, collected in The Mute’s Soliloquy, are not polished pieces of writing, but they have an immediacy that comes from being jotted down as testaments to reflection under the most adverse conditions.
Pramoedya divided the collection into four parts, or chapters. The first, entitled “The Mystery of Exile,” deals with the condition of exile in general and with Pramoedya’s own imprisonment. The second, “Fragments of My Life,” contains autobiographical jottings. One of the most interesting passages in this section, written as a letter, deals with the time he worked for the Japanese during World War II and how this work affected his thinking about Indonesian independence. The third, “Lessons for My Children,” consists of letters and fragments of letters containing lessons he would like to have been able to teach to his own children. The final, “Deliverance,” contains thoughts written while Pramoedya was waiting for release from prison and his memorial to the dead and the missing from the prison camps.