Pramoedya Ananta Toer

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Jim Crace (review date 28 December 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

SOURCE: Crace, Jim. “Under the Slipper.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4265 (28 December 1984): 1506.

[In the following review, Crace notes that, despite its “occasionally bloated narrative style,” Child of All Nations is a charming and ambitious novel.]

It is easy to understand why Child of All Nations, the second of the four-part historical tapestry which Pramoedya Ananta Toer composed and memorized during his fourteen-year imprisonment on Buru Island, so swiftly became a best-seller in Indonesia, despite its uneven, episodic structure and its occasionally bloated narrative style. Its oral origins among the intellectual élite of a concentration camp in 1973 and its subsequent “recall” for publication in 1979, after Pramoedya's release, were a much celebrated subversion of authority. Here was an ambitious, argumentative work of imagination produced in circumstances specifically designed to isolate writers and to suppress creativity, to break the spirit of the story-teller.

For the same reason the novel, together with the first section of Pramoedya's prison quartet, This Earth of Mankind, was finally banned by the Indonesian authorities in 1981. “The Government accused the books of surreptitiously spreading ‘Marxism-Leninism’”, writes Max Lane in a short but useful introduction to this volume. That view is not supported by the novel itself, unless liberalism and debate are to be counted as the Trojan horses of revolution. Had Child of All Nations been conventionally produced by any writer other than Pramoedya it is unlikely that its contents would have ruffled the censors in Jakarta. Its tone is nationalistic and historical rather than overtly anti-Suharto, and Pramoedya is the least didactic of narrators. As the most gifted member of the “Generation of Forty-Five”, Pramoedya has established a reputation not as an “anti-imperialist” pedagogue but as a liberal nationalist. His writing combines the intellectual impetuosity of a recently decolonized and newly literate nation with the vigour and flexibility of a comparatively unproven written language. Bahasa Indonesia, linguistic outpost of Malay, has provided the 13,000 and more islands of post-independence Indonesia with their one cultural unity, and Indonesian writers with a national language and readership.

In Child of All Nations, Pramoedya once again explores the caste community—the natives and the pures, the indos and the indisch—in the port of Surabaya in the early 1900s. Minke, the young journalist whose education and brief adolescent marriage to the Eurasian beauty Annelies Mellema was recounted in This Earth of Mankind, here comes of age with the testing of his uncritical acceptance of Europe and colonialism. The Dutch, he is to learn, arrived in the Indies with “two sets of underclothes”, one pair of shoes, science, and a swaggering sense of superiority. The islanders responded with the servility of a nation which had “been defeated again and again in battle for hundreds of years” and with the timidity of mortals before gods: “In the stories of our ancestors only the priests and gods wore slippers and shoes. … [The Indonesian people] were more afraid of shoes than daggers and machetes.”

Minke's transition from “white native” to nationalist is presented as a historical pageant. It is part documentary romance (owing more to Alain-Fournier than Marx) and part debate, with tableaux vivants depicting episodes and issues in Indonesian history. Yet though the novel lacks the energy—and the brothelizing—of its predecessor, Child of All Nations is a work of great charm and (given the circumstances of its writing) remarkable restraint.


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Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1925-

Indonesian novelist, short story writer, biographer, editor, memoirist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Pramoedya's career through 2003.

Although imprisoned by each of Indonesia's three twentieth-century governments for alleged subversive political activities and writings, Pramoedya has emerged as...

(This entire section contains 1794 words.)

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one of Indonesia's most influential and internationally recognized authors. Best recognized for his tetralogy of novels known as the Buru Quartet, which were composed during his time in an Indonesian prison camp, Pramoedya's fiction focuses on the deleterious effects of Dutch colonialism and political corruption on his native Indonesia. As well as a celebrated author, Pramoedya is regarded as an important political and cultural figure in his country; his long stint as a political prisoner and the banning of his books by the Indonesian government have resulted in international attention to his plight.

Biographical Information

Pramoedya was born during the era of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia on February 6, 1925, in Blora, East Java. Although his father was headmaster at a private school, Instituut Boedi Utomo, Pramoedya's family was impoverished due to his father's severe gambling addiction. Pramoedya left school in his teens to attend a radio vocation school in Surabaya and became a telegraph technician for the City Civil Defense Office. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II, Pramoedya returned home to help his ailing mother care for his eight siblings. After his mother's death in 1942, Pramoedya took odd jobs in Djakarta until he obtained a position working for Domei, the Japanese news agency. While working for Domei, Pramoedya enrolled at Taman Dewasa high school—which was subsequently closed by the Japanese—and later attended stenography training. On August 17, 1945, President Soekarno declared Indonesia's independence from Japan, however, the Dutch colonial forces returned soon after. Pramoedya joined several nationalist revolutionary groups that rejected Dutch rule and served as the editor for Sadar magazine, the primary newspaper of the Free Indonesia movement. His vocal support of nationalist insurrection led to his arrest by Dutch authorities in 1947 and his subsequent two-year imprisonment. During his confinement, Pramoedya composed his first novel, Perburuan (1950; The Fugitive). After Indonesia became an independent republic in 1949, Pramoedya was released from captivity. He became a leading figure in Lekra, a socialist literary group, and cultivated associations with several leftist political organizations, including the Communist Party. In 1959 Soekarno was replaced by President Suharto who supported Western values and began a massive campaign of oppression against Chinese citizens in Indonesia. After a violent clash between Communists and Suharto's anti-Communist forces, the Indonesian military attacked the revolutionaries and began to dismantle the country's Communist Party. Classified as an enemy of the government in 1961, though he never officially declared himself a Communist, Pramoedya was arrested and sentenced—without trial—to fourteen years in prison on Buru Island. Denied access to pen and paper, Pramoedya composed novels and stories in his mind and recited them to his fellow prisoners until he was able to record them. The four novels composed during this period—Bumi manusia (1980; This Earth of Mankind), Anak semua bangsa (1980; Child of All Nations), Jejak langkah (1985; Footsteps), and Rumah kaca (1992; House of Glass)—are known collectively as the Buru Quartet. The publication of the Buru Quartet attracted widespread commercial and critical success for Pramoedya, but the novels were quickly categorized as Marxist-Leninist propaganda by the Indonesian government and subsequently banned. After his release from prison, Pramoedya was placed under house arrest on an island off the coast of Surabaya, East Java. In 1980, due to increasing pressure by the international community, the Indonesia government ended Pramoedya's arrest. President Suharto was overthrown by reform activists in 1997, and Pramoedya was allowed to travel to the United States in 1999, where he received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Michigan. He has been awarded several prizes for his body of work, including the P.E.N Freedom-to-Write Award in 1988, the Magsaysay Award in 1996, the UNESCO Madanjet Singh Prize in 1996, the Fukuoka Grand Prize in 2000, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government in 2000, and two Nobel Prize nominations.

Major Works

Pramoedya's fiction and nonfiction works are largely concerned with examining Indonesia's struggle for independence, the impact of Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation, and the author's frustration and disillusionment with post-independent Indonesia. However, despite his reputation as an acclaimed international writer, a majority of Pramoedya's works have not yet been translated into English. In 1990, forty years after it was originally published, The Fugitive became Pramoedya's first novel widely available to English-speaking audiences. The work intertwines historical events with the actions of a fictional character, Raden Hardo. Set in the waning days of World War II, the story depicts the repercussions of political dissent. Hardo and two of his compatriots, Dipo and Karmin, had previously served as platoon commanders in the Indonesian Volunteer Army, which was aligned with Japanese forces during the war. The three men, seeking independence for their country, plan a rebellion against the Japanese, but Karmin withdraws his support at the last minute, jeopardizing the lives of the other insurgents. Pramoedya additionally published a number of short fiction collections in the 1950s, including Tjerita dari Blora (1952; Stories from Blora) and Tjerita dari Djakarta: Sekumpulan karikutur keadaan dan manusianja (1957; Tales from Djakarta). Stories from Blora presents accounts that deal with provincial Javanese society during the late colonial period, while Tales from Djakarta focuses on a wide range of postrevolutionary catastrophes in Indonesia's capital. In 1960 Pramoedya released Hoakiau di Indonesia (The Overseas Chinese of Indonesia), a critical pamphlet lamenting the treatment of Chinese citizens in Indonesia by President Suharto.

The first novel in Pramoedya's Buru Quartet, This Earth of Mankind, is regarded as an allegory for the nascent Indonesian independence movement. The novel's protagonist, Minke, is an upper-class youth who is one of the few Indonesians allowed to attend the senior high school of the occupying Dutch government. Turning his back on the rigid caste system of Java, Minke embraces the ideas of equality and personal freedom he has encountered through Dutch education. After entering colonial society by falling in love and marrying the daughter of a Dutchman and his Indonesian concubine, Minke believes he will be granted the same rights accorded the Dutch. Upon discovering that he is not entitled to legal protection solely because of his race, Minke becomes painfully aware that Indonesians will never experience equal rights under Dutch rule. The second novel, Child of All Nations, continues to follow Minke's personal development as he begins to embrace his Indonesian heritage and recognize the region's shameful history of Dutch exploitation. His growing nationalism is fostered by his realization that class divisions and centuries of past colonialism have made it easier for the Dutch to retain control over Indonesia. In Footsteps, Pramoedya chronicles Minke's attempts to raise the political consciousness of his people and the sacrifices associated with his actions. The novel opens with Minke starting a new life in Djakarta—marrying a second time, attending a Western medical school, and working as an editor for a revolutionary newspaper. However, Minke is eventually forced out of school after Dutch authorities denounce his political writings. Soon after, Minke also discovers that he is physically unable to father a child. These tragedies inspire Minke to devote his life to end Indonesian colonialism. Footsteps concludes with Minke being forced into exile on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas due to his activism. The fourth and final novel of the series, House of Glass is narrated by Pangemanann, the police commissioner who arranged for Minke's exile and who has constantly monitored Minke during his time in Ambon. The plot revolves around Pangemanann's moral conundrum—fulfill his responsibility to identify and imprison rebel leaders, or to join the growing independence movement. Pangemanann becomes obsessed with Minke, who has returned to Indonesia from his exile, after reading three novels that Minke wrote during his isolation—paralleling Pramoedya's own experiences. Eventually Minke is poisoned by younger revolutionaries, who regard Minke as an ineffective remnant of a past age, and Pangemanann loses his position due to changing political circumstances.

In 1987 Pramoedya released Gandis Pantai (The Girl from the Coast), a novel originally published serially between 1962 and 1964. Displaying the socialist literary themes of the Lekra movement, the novel follows a fourteen-year-old girl who marries a religious aristocrat in small coastal town in North Java. Pramoedya utilizes the girl's story to contrast the earthy honesty of her oppressed fishing village with the luxurious hypocrisy of the city elite. During the 1990s, Pramoedya shifted from fiction to nonfiction with his two-volume memoir Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu (1995-1997; The Mute's Soliloquy). Written in an epistolary format, the work recounts the fourteen years that Pramoedya spent as a political prisoner in a penal colony on Buru Island. The text intersperses recollections of the violent oppression Pramoedya suffered in prison with remembrances of his past life, the influences that shaped his work, and tales of his fellow inmates. Though few of Pramoedya's subsequent works—Arok Dedes (1999), Larasati: Sebuah Roman Revolusi (2000), and Mangir (2000)—have received English translations, a translated collection of the author's short fiction, All That Is Gone: Stories, was published in 2004.

Critical Reception

For several decades, Pramoedya has been considered Indonesia's leading author and an influential international political and literary icon. Critical discussion of Pramoedya's work has often focused on his role as a political activist, his long imprisonment and house arrest, and the banning of his books by the Indonesian government. Invariably, these topics have led to larger discussions regarding the repression of dissent and the position of artists in society, particularly as it relates to Pramoedya's writing. Critics have regarded Pramoedya's fiction and nonfiction as a powerful reflection of the political realities in twentieth-century Indonesia. Commentators have praised his ability to compose the Buru Quartet amid harsh and challenging circumstances and his willingness to explore complex and controversial issues in his work, such as class, political and ethnic divisions, discrimination, economic and sexual exploitation, and the effects of spiritual and moral corruption on the individual. Pramoedya's fiction has been lauded by reviewers for its unique spoken quality and emotional resonance, drawing frequent comparisons to the works of John Steinbeck, Alexsander Solzhenitsyn, Naguib Mahfouz, and Albert Camus. However, some have derided Pramoedya's writing for inconsistent and outdated language, describing his narrative style as bloated and rife with political commentary. His supporters have countered these claims, arguing that Pramoedya's works are invariably political in nature, primarily due to the Indonesian government's continuing ban on his writings. Many international political and literary figures have called for an end to the ban, with Ronny Noor commenting that, “[b]y banning Pramoedya's books in his native country, the Indonesian authorities are injuring themselves and their nation more than they are injuring this internationally acclaimed sagacious mind, certainly worthy of the Nobel Prize.”

Ian Buruma (review date 19 July 1990)

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SOURCE: Buruma, Ian. “Workers & Warriors.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 12 (19 July 1990): 43-5.

[In the following review, Buruma identifies thematic parallels between The Fugitive and David Malouf's The Great World.]

In March, 1940, a group of thirteen-year-old Javanese boys emerged from the playground of their school in Jogjakarta. They were rounded up by Japanese soldiers, sealed in a cargo train without anything to eat or drink, and taken to Batavia, where they were added to eight thousand other Indonesians. They were then put on two ships bound for Singapore. One was sunk by a torpedo, four thousand drowned. The rest got off in Sumatra, where they were put to work on a railway line. But first the Japanese guards gave them a little demonstration. Eight boys were ordered to lift up a track. When this proved impossible, the Japanese decreased their number, until there were only four. When they, too, failed to lift the track, they were lined up and beheaded. “This,” said the Japanese commander, “is what happens to lazy workers.”

It is but one story out of many, one story to illustrate the brutal statistics: more than 300,000 Indonesians were sent overseas to work for the Japanese as so-called romusha, or warrior-workers; barely 70,000 returned alive. Of the 120,000 on Sumatra, 23,000 survived, and of the 31,700 sent to British Borneo, 2,500 came back. Asian slaves were treated so badly, that even the Western POWs working on the Burma railroad, who were used to a thing or two, were horrified.

But it is, as Monsieur Le Pen might put it, a mere detail of the war, which has escaped the attention of most people in the West. The suffering of British, American, Dutch, and Australian prisoners is of course well known. Who can forget the sight of Alec Guinness stiffening his upper lip in the sun-baked punishment hut in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the harrowing drawings of emaciated men in loincloths made by Australian and British artists in captivity. The suffering of Indonesians, Malayans, or Chinese, however, fails to strike quite the same chord in most European hearts. They are too far removed from our lives. And the idea of a Malay slave worker might appear to be less incongruous, and less degrading, than a full-blooded Brit or American reduced to that level. Indeed it might seem almost natural. After all, as they used to say at the planters' club, these people are used to it. They don't feel pain as we do. Life in the East is cheap. And so on.

There is a passage in David Malouf's superb new novel [The Great World] that sums up what I mean. His two main characters, an Australian pair called Digger and Vic, are captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work on the death railroad in Thailand. Digger watches the Asian road gangs, and

He thought of the look on that fellow's face who had told him once, “They wanna make coolies of us”: the savage indignation of it, at the violation of all that was natural in the world, their unquestionable superiority as white men; but there was also the age-old fear in it of falling back and becoming serfs again.

To be treated as a coolie! To be forced to bow to little Japs! It is from many accounts as if the social iniquity was worse than the physical suffering. It cut deeper, for an entire world order had been turned upside down. Old assumptions could never again be taken for granted. For this the Japanese deserved the severest punishment, and so, whereas hardly any war crimes committed against Indonesians were deemed to merit prosecution, a large number of Japanese were executed for what they did to Europeans.

This is reason enough for an Indonesian novel about the war to merit our attention. It bears witness to the suffering of people who have been largely ignored. Alas, the translation of Pramoedya's novel [The Fugitive] is so stilted that it is difficult to tell whether he also merits the recommendation in the blurb as “one of the world's most important writers.” On the strength of this book, I would doubt it, but it is possible that the original has qualities that have been lost in the English version. The following sentence is spoken by a treacherous old man to his daughter's suitor: “Only God the Most Powerful knows how much I'd like to have you beneath our roof once more. Why does it seem that all the things you used to like you have no mind for anymore?” People don't talk like this in English or I daresay in Javanese.

To a Western reader the book may seem a little flat, a little insubstantial even, but there might be more to it than is immediately apparent. To be sure, there is much talk and little action, apart from some high drama at the end. We are told in the translator's note that the story follows the general outline of Wayang, the classical shadow-puppet theater. It is as much of a commonplace to compare Indonesian things to Wayang as it is to drag Kabuki into everything Japanese, but in this case there may be something to it (and it is true that Wayang still reflects the culture of Java in a way that few forms of traditional theater do elsewhere). Clifford Geertz, the scholar of Indonesian religions, quotes a Wayang storyteller/puppeteer, or dalang, as follows: “[He] said that in the wayang the same pattern recurs over and over. First the people face each other, then they talk, then they leave, then they talk again, and then they fight.”1 This is pretty much as I remember it. It goes on all night. It is also absolutely riveting. But it is a kind of storytelling that does not lend itself easily to the novel; the characters are too stylized to have much psychological depth. And the written story naturally lacks the other dimensions of the play: the music, the puppets, the dalang's voice.

Wayang characters, represented by flat, leather puppets, are not without complexity, however. Unlike in, say, European medieval morality plays, the battle is not between absolute good and evil. The heroes are prey to the usual human passions, that is to say, most of them are both good and bad. Hatred and love, cruelty and kindness, sacrifice and betrayal, exist side by side, often with a very thin line in between. The “best” characters are those who are best able to exercise restraint, who can control their passions. The Javanese are less interested in good and evil than in refinement as opposed to coarseness. But in the great epics of Wayang, notably the Javanese version of the Mahabharata, there are coarse figures among the “heroes” (the Pandawas) and refined ones among the “villains” (the Kurawas). The Kurawas must be defeated, because their lust and greed upset the cosmic order, but they are nevertheless aristocrats, related to the Pandawas. And the coarsest figures of all, the three clowns, are also the most revered; as they are the most human.

The contest, then, is between man and his emotions, the conflict between what we want to do and what we feel we ought to do. It is a common theme in Asian drama. In Kabuki it is the choice between giri and ninjo, duty and compassion, which, in most cases, isn't really a choice at all, for duty must prevail and when it does not, the hero has to die, usually by his own hand. The hero's dilemma in Wayang as well as Kabuki is that action often is incompatible with compassion, or, conversely, that compassion drives him to take actions which he ought not. Hence the long scenes in both kinds of theater, where the characters do nothing but talk before, finally, restraint explodes into violence. Loyalty is perhaps the highest prized virtue, but personal loyalty can clash with official loyalty—the Japanese vassal who sacrifices his child to protect the offspring of his lord, or Karna, the most refined hero of the Kurawas, who remains loyal to his king, even though he realizes his opponents are more worthy of support. To heighten the drama the hero often has to hide his identity, pretending to be mad, or a ruffian, or anything else that goes against his true nature. It is, in fact, a world not so very far removed from that of the Elizabethans. It is certainly the world of Pramoedya's novel.

His story takes place at the end of the war, a time of chaos. The heroes are young men cut off from their normal lives, drifting about in the guise of beggars, their whereabouts and identities known only to themselves. Their loyalties are to one another and their cause—to defeat the Japanese, whom they served to begin with, in the hope of gaining national independence—and not to their families or loved ones, whose world is no longer theirs. To be in touch with their families would not only spoil the purity of their brotherhood, but would be dangerous, for the Japanese military police, aided by Indonesian collaborators, are ever ready to pounce.

In one of his books on Indonesia, Benedict Anderson places such young drifters in a Javanese tradition of spiritual heroes, in search of utopia. In normal circumstances, this quest is an introspective one, a rite of passage toward a higher wisdom. But in times of crisis.

Utopia often assumed an external aspect in response to the social disintegration and natural catastrophes which were traditionally regarded as the visible signs of dynastic decline and danger in the cosmological order.2

The last year of the war was just such a time, the perfect setting for a modern shadow play, with the rapacious Japanese, whose warrior spirit was nonetheless widely admired, as the Kurawas, and the young heroes in beggarly disguise as the Pandawas. The main character, Hardo, bears some resemblance to Ardjuna, the elegant, introspective warrior-prince. His friend, Dipo, is like Bima, all action, will, ruthlessness. And the third young knight is Karmin, who used to belong to the brotherhood, but dropped out at the last minute, when the band tried to take up arms against the Japanese. He is a bit like Karna, the good man on the wrong side, for he remains loyal to his Japanese superiors until the end. His refusal to take part in the rebellion was the result of a personal sense of betrayal. His girlfriend had married someone else; he failed to control his private feelings.

The long set pieces, the “talk,” are between Hardo and his prospective father-in-law, who works for the Japanese; between Hardo and his father, cast adrift as a petty gambler; between Hardo and Dipo, who accuses Hardo of sentimentality; and between Karmin and Ningsih, Hardo's fiancée. The strangest and most theatrical scene is the meeting of Hardo with his father, for Hardo does not reveal who he is, even when his father, a broken man, is desperate to hear from his son. But Hardo, like a true Javanese hero of the old school, manages to control himself. The theme running through all these dialogues is betrayal. The father-in-law betrays Hardo. Dipo wants Hardo to kill Karmin for his treachery. Karmin tries to make Ningsih understand his motives: “Maybe you can't see that what some people call betrayal might not always be the case.” The violent climax occurs when the Japanese surrender. A Japanese officer goes berserk with his gun. Ningsih is killed and Karmin is almost murdered by Dipo and a howling lynch mob bent on revenge. “Kill me!” he shouts, “I am Platoon Commander Karmin. I am a traitor!” His death is prevented by Hardo, who stares the mob down.

Treachery and trickery is part of the world of Wayang, too. Like Hardo, Karna is betrayed by his father-in-law. But in Pramoedya's story it is not a mere dramatic device. Treachery in Indonesia in 1945 was everywhere, but at the same time it was a very slippery concept. In Dutch eyes every Indonesian who assisted the Japanese was a traitor. But a traitor to whom? The Dutch empire? To the Indonesians the choice of loyalties was often a matter of survival and many felt they owed the Dutch very little. But then survival could easily slip into opportunism: even as the poor were sent off to be worked to death as Japanese slaves, men like Hardo's father-in-law made money off bribes and black marketeering. Many Indonesian nationalists—Sukarno, for example—thought that the cause of national independence was best served by helping the Japanese. Sukarno was in many ways a Karna-like (or Karmin-like) figure, even though he liked to see himself depicted as Ardjuna or Bima; the good man in the wrong camp. He even helped the Japanese make propaganda for their slave-labor program. So he was unquestionably a collaborator. But was he a traitor? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is a fact that without the Japanese invasion, the Dutch empire would have lasted longer.

If any writer is in a position to appreciate the ironies and ambiguities of history (and these do manage to shine through the creaky translation), it is Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He was jailed by the Dutch, and after they had left, he was jailed again by his own countrymen, from 1965 to 1979. In the early 1960s, however, Pramoedya, as editor of a pro-government publication, castigated writers who diverged from the extreme leftist party line. He argued that those “infectious” elements had to be “cut down and wiped out.” So his suffering under Suharto, which continues to this day—he is still confined to Jakarta—does not elicit universal sympathy among his fellow writers. Nonetheless, Pramoedya, whatever his merits as writer, should be read as an important witness to a world where moral and political choices can be matters of life and death.

It is a world that seems a very long way from Australia, even though Jakarta is one of the nearest foreign cities to Sydney. Certainly David Malouf's characters would have found little in common with Hardo, Dipo, and Karmin. And yet they were all affected by the same historical events that shook the great world. Malouf's story describes how the war threw the small worlds of his characters out of kilter, how they tried to make sense of their lives, which so often seemed senseless. They too lived through a time of chaos and they also had to restore the cosmological balance. But Malouf's way of telling the story is not stylized or theatrical, but psychological: the difference, perhaps, between East and West, though one way is not necessarily superior to the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. At any rate, Malouf's perceptions are deep and his use of language, that marvelously rich Australian language, quite wonderful.

By the time the war turns the world upside down we already know a lot about Digger and Vic. If becoming a drifter is a kind of rite of passage in a young man's life, this is a universal phenomenon. Digger had embarked on that journey before the war. He grew up in a small village as the only son of an overbearing mother and a weak father, whose self-esteem could only be propped up by his memories of camaraderie in the Great War—his only taste of the great world. Digger decides to leave home and joins a carnival troupe of freaks and fat ladies and strongmen: “It was the chance it offered (he touched on this very lightly, hardly confessing it even to himself) of stepping aside from what fate, or his mother, who claimed to be its agent, had set up for him. Of getting away.

Later on in the story, Digger's slow-witted sister, Jenny, watches him and Vic sit and talk in the car: “There was a mystery about cars—they were men's business, cars—that she had never fathomed. It had to do with going places.”

Getting away was also the story of Vic's life. As a child he lived in utter degradation with his father, who was a pathetic drunk, violent in private and abject in public. After his father's death (in a pub brawl), Vic was adopted by a well-to-do family in Sydney called the Warrenders. Fate had offered him a second chance. His idea of going places was to get rich and repay his new family for rescuing him from the squalid world of his early childhood (and to make sure he would never return to such circumstances again). But this raised moral doubts that, cast in a different idiom and a different form, would not look out of place in a Javanese puppet play:

“Business will do fine for me. I'm not so particular.”

He had thought at first that he ought to be; that his readiness to muck in and dirty his hands with money-making was an indication that even his finest instincts might be coarse. But when he got to see things more clearly he began to ask himself what the value was of so much fineness if all it did was spoil you for action—and it was in action that he meant to prove himself.

Like Bima, the complete man of action among the Pandawas, Vic believes in the human capacity to control one's destiny by sheer force of will. He is a survivor. But at a cost that a Javanese audience would find very familiar: he is tortured by the fact that personal survival can mean betrayal of others, that what one wants to do is not always compatible with what one ought to do. The real moment of truth arrives when he is in a Japanese labor camp in Thailand. He gets into a fight with a guard, and in the chaos that follows he allows an innocent man, the gentle bookish Mac, to be killed. He survives, but is racked with guilt:

He deliberately put out of his mind the Warrenders and his old life, feeling that in betraying himself he had betrayed them, too. It hurt him to look at what he had done through their eyes. …

Guilt, betrayal, self-control, survival, these are themes that exercise Vic and Digger as much as they do Hardo and Karmin. A big difference lies in the circumstances. To the Indonesians, the arrival of the Japanese is very much part of their rite of passage. Their military training under the Japanese is a spiritual as well as a physical effort, and their ultimate rebellion is an act of choice. The Japanese fit into the grander scheme of things. Hardo's war is not senseless. To Vic and Digger, however, it is utterly without meaning. Digger didn't even wish to join the army at first. He does it in the end, not to serve a greater cause, but impulsively, “to get away.” The Japanese are not worthy opponents, like the Kurawas, but more like alien demons, faceless, hardly human.

To go to war only to be taken prisoner and turned into a coolie is the ultimate humiliation for Vic. Not only does it mean defeat, but it completely destroys his control over his own destiny. What follows is one of the most horrifying and vivid descriptions of the death railroad camps I have read. The rotting wounds, the maddening fevers, the casual sadism of the Japanese and Korean guards, the terror of cholera, of giving in to fate, of becoming what in Auschwitz camp jargon was called a Musulman, a doomed man already in the grip of death. Digger and Vic just manage to avoid this fate by hanging onto life by a thread; in Vic's case quite literally:

In the end he had only one thing left: two and a half yards of white cotton thread tied in a loop. He had that in the left-hand pocket of his shorts, quite safe, and was keeping it, come what may. … He kept checking every five minutes or so to see that it was still there. He took precautions. If he lost it he would be done for.

Digger's thread was his memory. He lived by words, by reading, over and over, a letter from a girl called Iris to her brother Mac, the friend who was killed instead of Vic. He knows the contents of the letters by heart, the descriptions of normal, everyday, banal Australian life. He knows them, but reads the letters nonetheless, for they are the most precious thing left. The letters and the lists he keeps in his head, of all the men in his regiment, dead and alive. As long as he can hang on to those words, his life will continue. Vic rather despises memories: “I know what real is. I'm not like Digger. I don't need dreams.”

Both men survive the camps. Digger falls in love with the author of the letters (he had already fallen in love with her words) and reads all the books in her brother's library. Vic has a much harder time adjusting to a world restored to normality. His world is still out of sync. He becomes a “ganger on the roads, spreading gravel in front of a steamroller, all day in the heat and reek of tar.” He chooses this life quite deliberately. “By living as he did now he made what had happened to him ‘up there’—the deprivations and shame he had suffered, the misuse he had been subject to—that much less of a violation. ‘You see, I might have chosen it anyway. Like I'm doing now.’”

Vic soon goes on, however, to achieve his old ambition, and becomes very rich, while Digger retreats into a quiet life revolving around his books, his love for Iris, his childhood home, and his memories. But there is one thing Vic cannot control and that is the moment of his death, which is sudden, senseless, and brutal. The story of Digger and Vic ends with two haunting images; of Digger still trying to make sense of the randomness of fate, by listing the names of his old regiment in his head, in alphabetical order, and of Vic trying but failing to pass a piece of thread through the eye of a needle. Vic and Digger, Hardo and Dipo, Ardjuna and Bima: introspection versus action. I suppose the moral of the story is that we must strike a balance of both. When the drifter has passed his rite of passage and becomes a man of refinement the Javanese say he has “wis Djawa,” or become Javanese. Australians might say he is a decent bloke. Their manners might differ, but the two are not really so far apart.


  1. Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (The Free Press of Olencoe, Illinois, 1960), p. 264.

  2. Benedict R. Anderson, Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946 (Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 9.

Principal Works

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Keluarga gerilja: Kisah keuarga manusia dalam tiga hari tiga malam (novel) 1950

Perburuan [The Fugitive] (novel) 1950

Pertjikan revolusi (short stories) 1950

Subuh: Tjerita-tjerita pendek revolusi (short stories) 1950

Mereka yang dilumpuhkan (novel) 1951

Tjerita dari Blora [Stories from Blora] (short stories) 1952

Tjerita dari Djakarta: Sekumpulan karikutur keadaan dan manusianja [Tales from Djakarta] (short stories) 1957

Tjerita Tjalon Arang (short stories) 1957

Hoakiau di Indonesia [The Overseas Chinese of Indonesia] (criticism) 1960; revised edition, 1998

Bukan pasar malam [It's Not an All Night Fair] (novella) 1964

Korupsi [Corruption] (short stories) 1964

A Heap of Ashes (short stories and novella) 1975

*Bumi manusia [This Earth of Mankind] (novel) 1980

*Anak semua bangsa [Child of All Nations] (novel) 1980

Tempo doeloe: Antologi sastra pra-Indonesia [editor] (essays and short stories) 1982

*Jejak langkah [Footsteps] (novel) 1985

Sang pemula dan karya-karya non-fiksi (jurnalistik), fiksi (cerpen/novel) R. M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo (biography) 1985

Gandis Pantai [The Girl from the Coast] (novel) 1987

Awakenings (novels) 1991

*Rumah kaca [House of Glass] (novel) 1992

Arus Balik (novel) 1995

Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat [editor; with Stanley Adi Prasetyo] (memoir) 1995

Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu. [The Mute's Soliloquy] 2 vols. (memoir) 1995-1997

Arok Dedes (novel) 1999

Larasati: Sebuah Roman Revolusi (novel) 2000

Mangir (novel) 2000

The King, the Witch, and the Priest: A Twelfth Century Javanese Tale (novel) 2001

All That Is Gone: Stories (short stories) 2004

*These four novels comprise the series known either as the Buru Quartet or the Buru Tetralogy.

†Though no English translation exists, Sang pemula has been translated into Dutch under the title De pionier.

‡Includes the English translations of This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations.

Benedict R. Anderson (review date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Anderson, Benedict R. Review of The Fugitive, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 367.

[In the following review, Anderson commends Pramoedya's use of satirical humor in The Fugitive to address contemporary issues of government corruption and militarism.]

Although Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the only Southeast Asian writer of sufficient stature to be nominated seriously for a Nobel Prize, he was imprisoned without trial for twelve years by the military-controlled government of Indonesia, and his works remain banned in that country. The American publication, in a fine new translation, of Perburuan, one of his best-known texts, is thus especially welcome.

The novel was composed in 1949, while the twenty-three-year-old author was in a Dutch colonial prison for active participation in his country's armed struggle for independence. The story is set four years earlier, however, in the last days of the brutal Japanese military occupation. Hardo, the young hero, who had earlier joined the Japanese-sponsored local military but later led an abortive nationalist revolt, is on the run, disguised as a half-naked beggar, in his native East Java. He is in search of Karmin, his friend and coconspirator, whose strange, last-minute withdrawal doomed the revolt to bloody failure.

The Fugitive is divided into four sections. The first two describe Hardo's nocturnal meetings with the father of his fiancée Ningsih and with his own father. The former is a corrupt village headman who collaborates with the Japanese and tries to betray Hardo. Hardo's father is a district officer whose life has been devastated by his son's revolt. Dismissed from office, his wife dead from shock and grief, he has become an inveterate gambler and does not recognize his own son when they meet. In the third section the Japanese and their agents begin to close in, while Hardo discusses Karmin's “treachery” with Dipo, another ex-conspirator disguised as a beggar. The fast-paced final section describes the capture of Hardo and Dipo on the very day of the distant Japanese surrender to the Allies. Learning that Karmin has protected Ningsih from the Japanese and that his failure of nerve was caused by the betrayal of his girlfriend, Hardo defends him against an enraged mob demanding the death of all collaborators. Ningsih is accidentally killed by a bullet from the gun of a desperate Japanese officer.

The overt themes of The Fugitive are perfectly contemporary: conflicts between patriotism and personal loyalties, sexual love and familial/filial responsibility. The novel's strange power comes from Pramoedya's deliberate but unstated superimposition of this “modernity” onto the narrative structure, iconography, and moral sense of wayang, the ancient, vastly popular Japanese shadowplay. Hence the traditionally “slow,” philosophical early scenes/sections—which Pramoedya nevertheless handles with a very modern humor—and the rapid, violent denouement. Hence, behind the near-naked beggar of 1945, the wayang hero Arjuna, who, meditating for years, hair down to his waist, in a mountain cave, resists all worldly temptations to achieve divine purposes. Hence the surprisingly heroic figure of Karmin, who, having “chosen” the wrong side, valiantly bares his chest for retribution at the hands of the winning (nationalist) crowd, exactly like his heroic wayang forebear, Adipati Karna.

Pramoedya is much too fine an artist to rest content with simple “updatings” and superimpositions. “Modernity” and “tradition” constantly interrogate each other in The Fugitive, while the author's bleak, black humor interrogates both.

Stephen P. Breslow (review date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen P. Review of Child of All Nations, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 226.

[In the following review, Breslow lauds the epic narrative scope of Child of All Nations and comments that Pramoedya's “life and work remind us just how far we have yet to go in the direction of social and economic justice.”]

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru tetralogy, the second installment of which is Child of All Nations, is properly labeled “Buru” on several accounts. It was composed, first orally as episodes told to other prisoners and later written down on Buru Island, where the author was held for “political crimes” without trial by the present Indonesian government from 1965 to 1979. In addition, the tetralogy chronicles in a classic form of historical fiction (with many references to real historical events and characters modeled closely on typical personae from the turn-of-the-century era) a long series of social injustices perpetrated by the colonial Dutch government and Dutch citizens against the Javanese people. These stories express many of the forms of social oppression, a number of which still exist, albeit now through the machinations of a dictatorial native government led for three decades by General/President Suharto. Comparisons of Pramoedya to Alexander Solzhenitsyn are not far off the mark.

Child of All Nations continues the multigenerational, near-epic tale of the Mellema family at the turn of the twentieth century, whose wanton, pure Dutch patriarch Herman Mellema was murdered by a Chinese brothel owner in the first novel of the series, This Earth of Mankind. He left behind Nyai Ontosoroh, his common-law Javanese wife (nyai means “concubine” in Javanese), her children by Mellema, Robert and Annelies, and Annelies's Javanese husband Minke, who narrates much of the novel and becomes its central figure along with Nyai. The first episode of the second novel recounts, largely in letter form, the forced departure of Annelies to Holland and her separation from husband and family. After the death of her father, she had become the chief heir to his properties and business in Java, and thus extremely inconvenient to the acquisitive, removed Dutch relatives in Holland. Using the biased, oppressive colonial laws imposed on the Javanese, these relatives were able to remove her from Java and send her unwillingly to Holland.

Despairing, she was unable to eat, essentially wasting away on board ship and dying shortly after her arrival in Holland, where she was virtually ignored and untreated by her Dutch relatives. Her death cleared the way for the Dutch family to assume control of the Mellema estate in Java, for the profligate son Robert had disappeared to the U.S. and, as is revealed late in the novel, died of venereal disease in Los Angeles. The other members of Herman Mellema's family were Indonesian, unentitled under Dutch colonial law to any of the estate. Despite Nyai's highly capable management skills, she and her son-in-law Minke are to be abruptly and brutally severed from all involvement with the Javanese estate. The novel concludes with the arrival of Mellema's brother, an engineer and soldier named Maurits, who comes like a conquering hero to assume control of the business and lands.

Through their suffering and high degree of intelligence and sympathy (Minke was the only “native” graduate of the Dutch academy in Surabaya), Nyai and Minke become magnets or rallying stations for a number of social rebels. First appears the case of Khouw Ah Soe, a Chinese revolutionary who has come to Surabaya to foment higher social consciousness (more modern social codes and more progressive thought) among his Chinese countrymen. He is persecuted by the Dutch and by conservative members of the Chinese community, comes to Nyai and Minke for refuge, but unfortunately later is found murdered.

Minke develops aspirations as a journalist to document social conditions in Java, and he travels to the village of Tulangan and interviews one of the restless peasants there, Trunodongso. He learns from this poor farmer that the Dutch-owned sugar mill has forcibly “rented” the peasants' fields for ridiculously low sums. When Trunodongso and other local peasants protest the poor remuneration, the Dutch and their colluding local Javanese officials choke off the water supply to the fields in order to force their submission. While Minke is in Tulangan, he also learns the sad tale of Surati, the daughter of Nyai's brother, who was unwillingly sold as a concubine to the fat, bald, tyrannical Dutch sugar-mill manager Plikemboh (called “ugly penis” by the Indonesians). In despair, Surati breaks through to a quarantined village nearby which is ravaged by a smallpox epidemic. She contracts the deadly disease and quickly infects the hated and feared Plikemboh, who soon dies. Surati barely survives, but the horrible pox disfigures her permanently, so that she can never marry or have a normal life.

Minke eloquently details these two stories of injustice and brings them back to the Dutch newspaper in Surabaya which commissioned the work. Shockingly, he is told that the newspaper will not print the stories: they are detrimental to Dutch colonial sugar interests. Later he learns from a dismissed Dutch journalist that the newspaper itself is owned by colonists who have sugar investments, and that it only masquerades as an objective journal in order to pacify the native population. This renegade Dutch journalist also regales Minke with long colloquies about the power of colonial capital and how the Dutch monarchs misappropriated 951 million guilders rendered by Javanese peasants through enforced fees and taxes.

Despite these inhumane, oppressive conditions. Pramoedya keeps the level of Javanese response in the text from descending into utter hatred and bitterness. The patience and wisdom he himself developed through years of unjust imprisonment taught him that the human condition is always redeemable through love and forgiveness, and that revolutionaries also often come to violent, unhappy ends. Their causes are forthrightly just; the social, political, and economic systems against which they fight are worthy of destruction. Although Suharto's government has never been able to prove that the author has advocated Marxism-Leninism, the Buru novels certainly lay the groundwork for embracing such theories. Postcolonial societies, in their frenzy to become increasingly capitalistic, have for the most part ignored this unresolved ground. Pramoedya Ananta Toer's life and work remind us just how far we have yet to go in the direction of social and economic justice.

Further Reading

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“Asia's Next Nobelist?: Pramoedya Still Has Books in His Head.” Asiaweek 21, no. 5 (February 1995): 9.

The critic discusses Pramoedya's chances of winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

Booth, Martin. “The Days of Living Dangerously.” Washington Post Book World 20, no. 21 (27 May 1990): 7.

Booth regards The Fugitive as a political novel and finds similarities between Pramoedya's work and the stories of John Steinbeck.

Charlé, Suzanne. “Prisoner without a Cell.” Nation 254, no. 4 (3 February 1992): 134-35.

Charlé provides a brief biography of Pramoedya, focusing on the vital role of literature and writing in his life.

———. “Archipelago Gulag.” Nation 268, no. 22 (14 June 1999): 58, 60-2.

Charlé chronicles Pramoedya's 1999 visit to the United States and considers his literary, cultural, and political impact.

Crowell, Todd. “Free This Legend's Works.” Asiaweek 27, no. 7 (23 February 2001): 64.

Crowell argues that it is anachronistic that Pramoedya's literary works continue to be banned in his native Indonesia.

Hower, Edward. Review of This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Washington Post Book World 21, no. 46 (17 November 1991): 6.

Hower commends the amalgamation of romantic and political themes in This Earth of Mankind, lauding Pramoedya's ability to create compelling characters.

Kwok, Yenni. “Fighting Words.” Asiaweek 24, no. 16 (24 April 1998): 42-3.

Kwok provides a profile of Pramoedya's life and writing career.

Law-Yone, Wendy. “Prisoner of Conscience.” Washington Post Book World 29, no. 17 (25 April 1999): 3.

Law-Yone contends that, in The Mute's Soliloquy, “the author's recollection of the Japanese occupation and the ensuing years of nation building is history unvarnished and recognizably true to life.”

Lev, Daniel S. “Writer's Colony.” Nation 254, no. 4 (3 February 1992): 134-36.

Lev explores the controversy surrounding Pramoedya in Indonesia, which resulted in the banning of his literary works in the early 1980s.

North, James. “Indonesian Hero.” Chicago Tribune Books (15 April 1990): 5.

North praises The Fugitive as compelling and multidimensional.

Ryan, Alan. “Jakarta Quartet.” Washington Post Book World 26, no. 32 (11 August 1996): 8-9.

Ryan asserts that House of Glass is “darker and denser than its predecessors” and lauds the English translation by Max Lane.

Scott, Margaret. “Marginal Woman, Marginal Tale.” Far Eastern Economic Review 153, no. 37 (12 September 1991): 36.

Scott considers The Girl from the Coast to be one of Pramoedya's lesser novels and describes the book as “didactic, almost crude, yet hinting at his later flair for mixing art and politics that is the hallmark of Indonesia's best-known writer.”

Vatikiotis, Michael. “Pramoedya: Indonesian Despair.” Far Eastern Economic Review 164, no. 9 (8 March 2001): 64.

Vatikiotis offers a laudatory assessment of Tales from Djakarta.

Additional coverage of Pramoedya's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 134, 197; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Chris GoGwilt (interview date 16 January 1995)

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SOURCE: Pramoedya Ananta, Toer, and Chris GoGwilt. “Pramoedya's Fiction and History: An Interview with Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Yale Journal of Criticism 9, no. 1 (spring 1996): 147-64.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on January 16, 1995, Pramoedya discusses the influences on his novels, aspects of his recent work, and the major features of his Buru Tetralogy.]


Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's leading prose writer, was born in Blora, Java in 1925, and lives now in Jakarta under city arrest. Pramoedya's renown as a fiction-writer was established in the years following Indonesian independence. The Fugitive, about the resistance against Japanese occupation in 1945, was written during imprisonment under the Dutch between 1947 and 1949. From 1950 to 1965, Pramoedya played an increasingly important role in Indonesian literature. In 1958 he became a member of Lekra, the Institute of People's Culture, which championed the radical nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution. In the first half of the 1960s, he was editor of Lentera (Lantern, 1962-65), the weekly section on cultural issues in the left-wing semi-tabloid Bintang Timur (Eastern Star), where he published many articles on turn-of-the-century Indonesian history and reprinted the work of the forerunners of Indonesian fiction and journalism. He was lecturer of Indonesian language and literature at the University of Res Publica (founded by the Chinese-Indonesian organization Baperki). He also taught at the “Dr. Abdul Rivai” Academy for Journalism, and was a founder of the “Multatuli” Literature Academy, also in Jakarta.

In October 1965, Pramoedya was arrested during the events that unleashed mass execution, massive repression, and created, with the toppling of Sukarno, the current “New Order” under President Suharto. Pramoedya's work was banned and his unpublished writings, personal archives, and research materials were confiscated and either destroyed or lost. Between 1965 and 1979 he was imprisoned and, from 1969, exiled to the infamous Buru island prison camp. In Buru, Pramoedya reconstructed the historical work he had conducted before imprisonment on turn-of-the-century Indonesia and the emergence of anti colonial mass movements to resist Dutch colonial rule. The story which Pramoedya began reciting orally to his fellow prison-mates shaped the Buru tetralogy: This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps, and House of Glass. In 1980, after Pramoedya's release from prison, the first two books were published and became instant bestsellers. Both were soon banned, as were Footsteps (1985) and House of Glass (1988). The Buru tetralogy, in underground circulation in Indonesia, will be available in its entirety in the United States in early 1996. In this interview, Pramoedya challenges the government to bring him to trial on the charge that the Buru tetralogy covertly spreads Communism, Marxism, and Leninism, the official rationale for banning the books.

In 1992, using the occasion of Human Rights Day (December 10) to speak out against the regime's abuse of human rights and its violence against demonstrations in East Timor, Pramoedya announced he would no longer report to the Indonesian Government, part of the terms of his city arrest. The government has not lifted its restrictions on Pramoedya's freedom of movement and freedom of speech. In 1988 he received the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award. Most recently, in August 1995, he received the Wertheim Award, from the Netherlands, and, from the Philippines, the prestigious Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature, and creative communication arts. Pramoedya's fiction has been translated into 24 languages.


The organizing principle for presenting the questions posed in the interview was to provide a general sense of Pramoedya's work for readers of the English translation of the Buru tetralogy. These novels, in some respects, need no introduction. Pramoedya's power as storyteller makes their setting, turn-of-the-century Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule, the historical scene for a reading of the present. It is, moreover, as much world history as it is the history of Indonesia that these novels re-imagine.

Yet the imaginative power with which the tetralogy presents the historical past is deeply shaped by an absent, unrepresented history: the bloody events of 1965-66, when the revolutionary nationalism of Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto's military-backed regime. Officially, Pramoedya's voice has been silenced in “New Order” Indonesia, from 1965 to the present. In the Buru tetralogy, and in this interview, those events and their aftermath form a point of reference for situating Pramoedya in present-day Indonesia, and for evaluating his work's struggle to preserve the historical record against the official amnesia of the “New Order.”

As a non-specialist in Indonesian culture and society, my own interest in Pramoedya's work originated in concerns seemingly remote from the politics of Indonesia since 1965—namely, from a study of the importance of turn-of-the-century Indonesia for the fiction of Joseph Conrad.1 The immediate context for the interview, however, has a direct bearing on recent political events in Indonesia. The interview was arranged by Oei Tjoe Tat, a prominent Chinese Indonesian lawyer. A cabinet minister from 1963 to 1966 and trusted advisor of Sukarno's during the events of 1965, Oei Tjoe Tat was imprisoned in Jakarta from 1967 to 1978. At the time of the interview, Oei Tjoe Tat's memoirs had just been completed for publication. Edited by Pramoedya and the journalist and political activist Stanley Adi Prasetyo, Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat, which was published in April 1995, provides detailed information on events before and after the Untung coup of September 30, 1965.

Pramoedya's editorial role in the preparation of Oei Tjoe Tat's Memoar reflects the sort of commitment to historical truth that informs all of his work. As Stanley explained, the work of editing the Memoar was considerable, involving stylistic clarification and the addition of explanatory footnotes. The publication of the Memoar also points to the significance of Pramoedya's work for present-day Indonesia. Although his new books and reprints of his earlier works continue to be banned, and although he may not express his views in the press, Pramoedya is actively involved in writing fiction, editing, and historical research.2 It was Pramoedya who had approached Oei Tjoe Tat with the proposal to edit his memoirs. According to Oei Tjoe Tat, Pramoedya had been looking for eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding the Untung coup of September 30, 1965 for the Encyclopaedia referred to toward the end of the interview.

The active suppression of the facts concerning the overthrow of Sukarno, to which Oei Tjoe Tat's Memoar gives testimony, is by no means, of course, past history. It has shaped and continues to shape “New Order” Indonesia.3 In 1981, when This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations were banned, it was on the grounds that the books surreptitiously disseminated “Marxism-Leninism.” Although Pramoedya has never been a member of the Communist Party, his close association with left-wing politics still provides the excuse to link his name with the official account of the events of 1965: a widespread communist conspiracy, providentially foiled and suppressed by the heroism of Suharto and the military. This account is still manipulated politically by the “New Order” regime, and is firmly lodged in the mainstream cultural and intellectual opinion that has come to dominate New Order Indonesia.

Although the Memoar has not yet been banned, it is unlikely to remain free from censorship for long.4 Nor does it seem likely that the ban on Pramoedya's work will be lifted in the current political climate. Perhaps the censors do not yet know what it is they are attempting to censor—or, to recall Pramoedya's point that such censorship comes from fear, perhaps the censors do not yet know what it is they fear: historical facts which threaten the legitimacy of the “New Order” regime. By the same token, though, it should be clear that the target of censorship is, quite simply, the historical truth.

“New Order” Indonesia is dominated by an official amnesia, a refusal to debate and examine the historical record. This was made clear in my discussions with young journalists in Jakarta, who described their generation's political orientation as confused and who spoke with evident concern about the recent string of attacks on the press. Stanley, the co-editor with Pramoedya of the Memoar, a young journalist himself and an outspoken activist involved in recent demonstrations against the occupation of East Timor, ascribed his generation's “confusion” to the extremism of politics at the present time: the extremism, as he put it, of the right, of the left, and of the center. This diagnosis has a revealing echo in the foreword to the Memoar, written by Daniel Lev, in a passage to which Oei Tjoe Tat drew particular attention. Describing Oei Tjoe Tat's generation, Lev, a political science professor at the University of Washington, writes:

They read widely and were comfortable with intellectual exchange, interested in ideas, and while often fiercely loyal to their own groups and ideological positions, were nevertheless reasonably tolerant of ideas that differed from their own. … Even across huge ideological divides, between Muslims, Christians, Communists, Socialists, Nationalists, they also knew one another, by and large, as men and women with familiar histories.5

In present-day Indonesia there is little place for such debate across ideological divides—indeed, sensitivity to those divides is the excuse for censorship: any speech or action deemed to encourage ethnic, religious, racial, or group conflicts may be censored.6 Nor is the censorship of debate diminishing. In 1994 the popular magazines Tempo,Editor, and Detik were banned for their coverage of corruption in the Suharto cabinet. That this forms part of a wider pattern of increasing intimidation and censorship of the press is confirmed by the recent crackdown, in April of 1995, on the Alliance of Independent Journalists, which is now officially banned, and some of whose members have been arrested.

Pramoedya's Buru tetralogy has a special importance for contemporary politics. Discussing the difficulty facing Indonesian journalism and reporting, Stanley, a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, pointed out that Pramoedya's work on Tirto Adi Suryo (1880-1918), the model for Minke, restores to historical memory one of the most important forerunners of Indonesian journalism. More generally, as Stanley and other journalists I interviewed explained, for the generation indoctrinated by New Order official history, the Buru novels provide a striking, as well as comic, revelation of the “New Order's” official distortions of historical record. One Indonesian journalist who had not read the Buru tetralogy told me he had grown up hearing the story that Pramoedya had stolen books and manuscripts from the library. It is a story that will resonate richly with the moment in House of Glass when the tetralogy turns on a reading of itself through the eyes of official police surveillance. The fabricated story of Pramoedya's theft from the archives registers the power with which his fiction preserves an archive of Indonesian history against the official amnesia of the “New Order.”

Pramoedya has been compared to many writers—Baldwin, Steinbeck, Gordimer, to name a few. The historical scope of the Buru tetralogy suggests an affinity with the great historical novels of nineteenth-century Europe, from Scott to Tolstoy, and Pramoedya's remarks in the interview emphasize the importance of history. Yet throughout Pramoedya's fiction, there is a complex relation between history and autobiography, memory and forgetting. It is evident already in The Fugitive (1949), whose depiction of the guerrilla struggle against the Japanese suggests the genre of heroic nationalist autobiography. Unfolding around the central character's return to family, friends, and love, its spirit of nationalism is premised on loss—of family, friendship, and love. Some of the early stories available in English translation demonstrate, too, a powerful interplay of memory and forgetting. There is “Things Vanished,” for example, the first story of Stories from Blora, translated with a commentary by James Siegel. An autobiographical story of Pramoedya's childhood town, Blora, in central Java, “Things Vanished” may be read as a meditation on the elusiveness of personal memory, as suggested both by the title and the opening description of the Lusi River—“The Lusi: It destroys its own banks.”7 As James Siegel points out at length, however, the problem of memory extends to cultural and historical memory, providing at the same time peculiar difficulties for an English translation:

The erasure or emptying of the past has two dimensions. It is a process of active neglect or turning away from it, and it is one of being rid of it for purposes of one's own. In this sense, it spells out two meanings of the Javanese word for “vanish.” This word, practically the same as the Indonesian (ilang versus hilang), has two compounds that the Indonesian lacks. One of these is “to be remiss.” … The other is “to cause to vanish” as in to make an illness vanish, thus “to cure.”8

A revealing complement and continuation of Siegel's comments on “Things Vanished” is Benedict Anderson's discussion of an earlier story, “Revenge” (from Subuh: Tjerita-tjerita pendek revolusi [1950]), the recollection of a violent incident of reprisal against a man exposed as traitor, from the revolutionary years of the independence struggle. With Siegel, Anderson concentrates on Pramoedya's inventive use of bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia, and the complexity of its interplay with Javanese. Indeed, addressing the question of why Pramoedya “has never published a page in the language of his childhood home,” he argues that “Pramoedya's bahasa Indonesia is a cultural fortress from which to cross swords with his heritage.”9

Anderson shows how, in “Revenge,” the interplay of memory and forgetting works both at the level of language and politics. Commenting on the words “patriot” and “pemuda revolusionger” used in the story, Anderson writes:

these fantasies are also linguistic inventions. … They are what Pramoedya in so many of his stories calls istilah, human inventions in historical time and circumstances, that, by their very novelty and unanchoredness in the world, draw men and women into action through the imagination. One might say, perhaps exaggerating, that it was because so many youngsters had the fantasi that they were or could be “pemuda revolusionger” and “patriot” that the Revolution broke out and had what success it did.10

Bahasa Indonesia is indeed the preeminent form for Indonesian national imaginings, a point confirmed by Pramoedya's own comments on his use of bahasa Indonesia in the interview. What both Siegel and Anderson underscore is the ongoing creative and linguistic process of reinventing the national language and reimagining the shape of Indonesian nationalism.

Max Lane's translation of the Buru novels necessarily lacks the focused attention to language that Siegel and Anderson give to Pramoedya's Indonesian. The power of linguistic and cultural dialogue does translate nonetheless, in part because it is a central feature of the story. The politics of language is an integral part of Minke's story from the beginning, shaped by his dilemma of what language he should write in: Dutch, Javanese, Malay (or even English). Indeed, the historical scope of the Buru tetralogy traces, along with the emergence of Indonesian nationalism, some of the main forces determining how market Malay, the lingua franca of interisland politics throughout the Malay Archipelago, became the basis for a new national language, bahasa Indonesia, adopted in 1928 by Indonesian nationalists. Thus, Minke's increasingly active participation in the mass political movements of anticolonialism becomes, too, the story of the emergence of bahasa Indonesia as the language of anticolonial nationalism.

This story involves a whole variety of linguistic interactions reflecting the multiplicity of cultural confluences that shape Indonesian society. Minke's disparaging comments on Malay capture something of the extraordinary scope of this dialogic exchange of languages and cultures in the novels. As unwilling to write in Malay as in Javanese, the Minke of the second novel asks, “‘What can you say in Malay? An impoverished language like that? Riddled with borrowed words from every country in the world?’”11

The Buru tetralogy itself provides an answer to Minke's questions: it is anticolonial Indonesian nationalism that can be articulated in the Malay of bahasa Indonesia. This is an answer that will be familiar to readers of Benedict Anderson's study of nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Indeed, through Anderson's influential arguments about the nature of the “imagined community” of the nation, Pramoedya's fiction may already be said to have shaped current debates on nationalism and postcolonial theory. For such debates, the wider availability of the Buru tetralogy should be particularly relevant.

Partha Chatterjee, discussing renewed attention to the phenomenon of nationalism in world affairs, calls attention to what he calls “the recent amnesia on the origins of nationalism”: “In the 1950s and 1960s, nationalism was still regarded as a feature of the victorious anticolonial struggles in Asia and Africa. … By the 1970s, nationalism had become a matter of ethnic politics.”12 Chatterjee's own studies of nationalism have done much not only to counter this “amnesia,” but also to establish the importance of anticolonial nationalism for reconceiving world history. His argument, which engages him in debate with Anderson, crucially involves a critique of nationalist discourse and the mythology of nation-building which sustains (ever more tenuously) the legitimacy of postcolonial nation-states.13 “As history,” Chatterjee suggestively argues, “nationalism's autobiography is fundamentally flawed.”14 The generic and narrative features of this formulation help situate the significance of the relation between memory and forgetting, history and amnesia, in the linguistic and narrative structures of Pramoedya's fiction, and most notably in the Buru tetralogy. As with all Pramoedya's work, the Buru tetralogy is shaped around the absence as much as around the documentation of historical fact. In some respects the formal structure of the first three novels, narrated by Minke, fits the genre of what Partha Chatterjee calls “nationalism's autobiography.” Yet side by side with the awakening of Indonesian national identity, these novels develop a critique of the discourse of enlightenment and awakening to modernity, from which the title of the first novel, This Earth of Mankind, forever on Minke's lips, is drawn. The model of an awakening national consciousness itself undergoes a crucial transformation. In the final novel, House of Glass, Minke is replaced by a narrator, Pangemanann, who happens also to be Police Commissioner. What initially had seemed an autobiography of Indonesian nationalism becomes the unfinished story of Indonesia's transition from colonial to postcolonial state.

The current political context of that incomplete story is what Pramoedya foregrounds in the interview, and it was, necessarily, the context for the surrounding interviews to which I have alluded. It also provides a context for the seemingly remote literary concerns that I bring from my study of Conrad. Given the prominence of Conrad's work in current debates about postcolonial literature and society, Pramoedya's comments on Conrad are of obvious general interest. While Conrad is not a major influence on Pramoedya, Pramoedya's fiction may significantly influence evaluations of Conrad's work.

On noticing my question on Conrad, Pramoedya had suggested, indeed arranged for, my meeting with his friend G. J. Resink, a retired professor of law whose work on Indonesian history and historiography includes many essays on Joseph Conrad. Both Resink and Pramoedya emphasize the importance of Conrad's work for a revision of Indonesian historiography, dominated, prior to the 1960s, by Dutch colonial historiography. Both also date their reading of Conrad from the early 1960s. This is the period of Pramoedya's most sustained work on Indonesian history—the work that was confiscated and destroyed with his arrest in 1965, and that Pramoedya reconstructed from memory as the Buru tetralogy.15

The epigraph to This Earth of Mankind draws attention to the tetralogy's reconstruction of the history of Indonesian anticolonial nationalism. Dedicated to Resink, “Han” (for Johannes), the full epigraph reads: “Han, this is indeed nothing new. This narrow path has been trod many a time already, it's only that this time the journey is one to mark the way.”16 This re-tracing of the history of Indonesian nationalism in Pramoedya's fiction may be understood as a re emphasis of the significance of nationalist historiography in light of the events of 1965.

Pramoedya's comment in the interview that “with the fall of Sukarno, the Third World also fell” confirms the centrality of Indonesian nationalism for Pramoedya's stature as writer and intellectual. Forged from that almost paradigmatic struggle of Third World nationalism, and having forged in turn its political conscience, Pramoedya's writing bears a historical memory that is as vital for “New Order” Indonesia as it is for the global predicament of the current “New World Order.” His fiction provides the opportunity for a complete reevaluation of the history of the modern world.

The following interview, which took place on January 16, 1995 at Pramoedya's house in Jakarta, was based on a set of questions (in English) delivered to Pramoedya before the interview. Pramoedya's answers to these questions are presented first, with the rest of the interview organized in two separate sections (one addressing the Buru tetralogy, another addressing Pramoedya's current work). The interview is presented this way to preserve the condensed, almost aphoristic quality of Pramoedya's formulated responses to the questions posed in advance.

The portion of Pramoedya's Buru tetralogy that follows the interview is extracted from chapters 1 and 2 of This Earth of Mankind.



[GoGwilt]: The whole of your “Buru tetralogy” will be available in the United States with the publication of House of Glass in 1996. What interests you most about having your work read in the United States? And in the English-speaking world generally?

[Pramoedya]: Writing begins as an individual experience, but once written, literature becomes collective property. The more readers a writer's work reaches, then, the closer the writer's mission comes to being fulfilled.

What do you consider your most important work to date?

I consider all my works, equally, as my children. I am happy with the publication of Lentera,17 because it has been a child lost in Indonesia, one that I have been trying to publish in Indonesia for 11 years.

What writers would you describe as major influences on your own work?

When I was young, all the great writers influenced me. Now that I am old, all the influences are gone. Long ago I read Balzac and Zola, but they did not influence me as a writer. Steinbeck, from the beginning, taught me plasticity of style.18 From William Saroyan I learned the elements of humanity; and from Lode Zielens, the Flemish writer, how to unify reality and the thinking of humanity.19 Then there is the influence of the great[est] Dutch writer, Multatuli.20 Gorky showed me the importance of social influences.21

Does the work of Joseph Conrad hold any special interest for you?

It wasn't until the 1960s that I came to learn about Joseph Conrad when teaching Indonesian history at university. In Conrad's works there are historical facts which have not been recorded elsewhere. A sailor is usually more democratic in outlook and less prejudiced than people on land—he has experience of many peoples, many races. What Conrad wrote does not merely come from his imagination, but is based on historical fact.

[In response to a question posed about Chinua Achebe's objection to racist distortions in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Pramoedya responded, simply, “That is his own reading.”]

Which of Conrad's works were most important for you?

I don't remember the titles. There was the story about a Balinese prince who is smuggling guns to organize resistance against Dutch colonial rule.

Almayer's Folly?

Yes, there you see how Conrad was writing about the history of armed struggle against colonialism not recorded in Dutch historiography.

I'm struck by the power with which you combine history and fiction in the Buru tetralogy. How would you characterize the relation between history and novel-writing?

Historical facts emerge from literature the way water, flowing through different channels, comes to shape a stream or lake. Embedded in literary form remain the facts of history. Whatever distortions of history there are in literature stem from the deficiencies of autobiography, the circumstances of the author's existence.22

Another striking feature of the Buru tetralogy is its synthesis of different cultural perspectives. How do you achieve that synthesis?

Maybe it's my intuition. The Buru tetralogy was initially told to friends, fellow prisoners, to lift their morale in prison. The figure of Nyai Ontosoroh,23 in particular, emerged as a response to this situation. As a woman who stood up, alone, to the injustices of Dutch colonialism, she was a character who provided a model of resistance and courage for my fellow prisoners to look up to, so that their spirit would not be demoralized by the killings and the cruelties witnessed in the camps.

What, in your view, is so special about the novel form?

In the form of the Buru novels, I wanted to reconceive the history of Indonesian independence, because until that time the movements for independence were seen in terms of the so-called Ethical policy of Dutch colonialism at the turn of the century. The popularity of the tetralogy when it first appeared in Indonesia indicates where the importance of the novel form lies.

Could you comment on your use of bahasa Indonesia in your fiction generally, and in the Buru tetralogy in particular?

My writing in Indonesian is aimed at popularizing bahasa Indonesia, and making it a living, modern language. This is a question of utility, or efficiency. It is also a matter of doing away with flowery words. When people speak Indonesian today, it should be a better, richer, greater language than before. If the independent Indonesia is worse than the Indonesia of colonial times, this is a failure of the Indonesian nation. If bahasa Indonesia is worse than the Malay of former colonial times, then there is a disease in the Indonesian people.

Can you talk about the impact of censorship on the writing of the Buru tetralogy, and House of Glass in particular?

Every book banned is another star, another badge of honor, on my breast. When House of Glass was published, in 1988, the attorney general sent a judiciary team here to interrogate me specifically about House of Glass. There were three reports by the judiciary team which repeated the government accusation in the press, that the books were subversively spreading Marxism, Leninism, and Communism. At that time I challenged them to a court case, with the condition that I be allowed a defense lawyer from a neutral country with expertise in being able to explain the “isms” Marxism Leninism and Communism. As yet, I have not been summoned. I am ready to appear in court at any time. As to the writing of House of Glass itself, and the role of Pangemanann as narrator, there is of course some connection between the role of Pangemanann, Minke's persecutor and also the reader of his writings, and my experience as a writer under censorship. The work of a writer is always in some measure autobiographical.

Under what circumstances can you imagine the ban on your work being lifted?

The present regime rules in fear. All the prohibitions on my writings and ideas reflect this fear. If the government can conquer its fear, then I can imagine the ban being lifted. As for myself, I will go on publishing book after banned book—to educate the censors until they lose their fear.

A recent New York Times article, contrasting the November 1994 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and the 1955 Bandung conference, claimed that “Indonesia saw [the ‘Third World’] born [in 1955], and now is host at its wake.”24 Do you think the spirit of the ‘Third World’ is dead?

On the 15th of August 1945, and then on the 17th August 1945, first Vietnam, then Indonesia declared independence. If these independence movements had not started, the world would still be under colonial rule. These two countries began a struggle for freedom which spread through Asia and Africa. After this, in reaction against these anticolonial independence movements, the Northern countries began the Cold War. It is not by accident that Sukarno is the one associated with the birth of the Third World. Why 1955 and Bandung? At that time Indonesia was considered at the forefront of freedom from colonial rule. At the present time there is no mention of Asian anticolonial nationalist movements. Nationalism has no priority for the current regime in Indonesia. Their concern today is how to get money. Everything revolves around multinational capitalism. I think it is the same in the United States. With the fall of Sukarno, the Third World also fell apart.



The first two novels of the tetralogy are published together, in the British and Australian editions, under the title Awakenings. Do you have any comment on that title?

It is not my title, but I don't mind Penguin using it. That's their business; and, in marketing the book, presumably there is a reason for the title.

I want to ask about the feminist “awakenings” in the novels. Might one say that the hero of the Buru tetralogy is not Minke and his conception of mankind, but the women whose stories and experiences shape that narrative perspective?25

In my view, women deliver everything. In the back of my mind is always my own mother—my mother as teacher, educator, and bearer of ideas.26 That is why, where there is Minke there is always a woman. But when it comes to gender, I don't take sides.

Names in your novels are very important. Could you talk about names in your novels? For example, in This Earth of Mankind, Magda Peters, Minke's Dutch teacher, uses the fact that Minke does not have “a family name” to develop a lecture on the custom of naming, claiming, among other things, that “It was through contact with other peoples that Europeans learned the importance of family names” (215). What is the importance of family names?27

Well, in my opinion, names are nothing more than appearances.

Why is “Minke's” “own name” never revealed?

Because there is no need to give his real name. The historical reality is given in Sang pemula.28

Is that to say that Minke's “real name” is Tirto Adi Suryo?


The Dutch translation of Sang pemula (there is no English translation as yet) is De pionier. Now this title has a peculiar ring for an English reader—pioneer is a term deeply embedded in colonial mythology, evoking the heroism of colonial adventurers, the American pioneers moving westward, the Boer trekkers in South Africa, etc. Is this merely an unfortunate mistake of linguistic associations?

It is not the title. The Indonesian title, Sang pemula, would better be translated, the Beginner, or Originator.

Could you comment on the connection between your book, Hoakiau di Indonesia (The Overseas Chinese in Indonesia), published in 1960, and the Buru novels?

Hoakiau di Indonesia is more of a pamphlet … That book is in the genre of pamphlets, to address the issues at that time.29



Could you talk about your editing of the biography of Oei Tjoe Tat?

Yes, I worked together with Stanley. [Here Pramoedya introduced Stanley, who was present at the interview.] The memoirs of Oei Tjoe Tat give a record of many facts as yet unknown to the general public about the period of Sukarno's fall and the beginning of the New Order. The New Order is born from stone, without any history. The old order, by contrast, was historical. I wanted very much to work on his memoirs because he worked under Sukarno. After all, Sukarno was able to give birth to the nation without losing a drop of blood—in contrast to the New Order. The New Order is simply the New Order, victimizing millions of people.

But there were victims in the struggle for independence, were there not?

Victims? Yes, many. But the question of victims in the New Order is quite another matter. In the New Order, today, when someone dies there is no record. There are no statistics on death victims. To be sure, we can only speculate on how many people were killed in South Sulawesi in the genocide under Westerling.30 Nonetheless, the Dutch did send a commission to attempt to determine the death toll.

Of course, with the beginning of the New Order, there was a Fact Finding Commission31

Sukarno requested a Fact Finding Commission …

… that was manipulated by Suharto …

Sukarno asked for a Fact Finding Commission, but wherever he went he was given the wrong information.

I understand that you have been working on a historical/geographical Encyclopaedia of Indonesia. Could you say something about the scope of this work?

Yes, I have been working on an Encyclopaedia Territorium of Indonesia. Because I was working on it alone without any help, I had to stop after seven years for lack of energy and funds. Now the plan is to establish a foundation to finish this work; to look for funds to pay for staff; and to gather research material. The material I've collected so far makes a stack of documents 4 meters high.32

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on the text for a television film documentary on the Jalan Raya Pos, the infamous Daendels' Road.33 I am producing the text for the narrative voice-over. The documentary is being produced as part of the celebration for the 50th anniversary of Indonesian independence. My feeling about this 50th anniversary is that the further we get from the moment of independence in 1945, the further away Indonesia is from independence. The Indonesian nation is still not free. The aims of the revolution have not been achieved.


  1. See my The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

  2. In 1995, since the interview was conducted, a number of Pramoedya's works, including new works and reprints, have appeared in Indonesia. In February, on Pramoedya's 70th birthday, the first volume of his Buru prison memoirs, Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu, was published, and has since been banned. (Both this and the second volume of letters written from prison have appeared in Dutch translation.) On August 15th, the 50th anniversary of Indonesian independence, Arus Balik (Hasta Mitra), an epic novel set in sixteenth-century Indonesia, which Pramoedya also wrote in Buru, was published for the first time, coinciding with the Dutch translation by Henk Meier, De stroom uit het noorden (De Geus).

  3. As Noam Chomsky has extensively argued, the murkiness of American involvement in the birth of “New Order” Indonesia is also not a thing of the past. The shared official secrets of Indonesia and the United States have helped to shape representations of the “New World Order.” See, for example, Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993), especially 122-123, and World Orders Old and New (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

  4. I have since learned that, after a remarkable five printings, the Memoar has now indeed been banned.

  5. Quoted from a draft kindly provided by the author. See also, for the Indonesian, Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat (Jakarta: Hasta Mitra, 1995), xii.

  6. See Krishna Sen, in Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia, ed. Virginia Matheson Hooker (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993), 123.

  7. James Siegel, “Pramoedya's ‘Things Vanished’ with a Commentary,” in Glyph (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 68.

  8. Siegel, “Pramoedya's ‘Things Vanished,’” 97.

  9. Anderson, “Sembah-Sumpah: The Politics of Language and Javanese Culture,” in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 194-237; quotations from 218 and 219.

  10. Anderson, Language and Power, 227.

  11. Child of All Nations (New York: Morrow, 1993), 109.

  12. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3-4.

  13. See also Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

  14. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, 6.

  15. Pramoedya himself refers to Conrad, quoting from the short story “Karain: A Memory,” in the biography of Tirto Adi Suryo, planned in the early 1960s but not published until 1980. See De pioneer (Amsterdam: Manus Amici, 1988), 179.

  16. The dedication to Resink, along with the first sentence (repeated in the epigraph for Child of All Nations), is left out of the English translations by Max Lane. The epigraph to Child of All Nations, omitted entirely in Max Lane's translation, reads, in loose translation: “Han, this is indeed nothing new. It is tiring and wearisome to follow the path each person must follow to look for a place in the middle of the world and its society. Even more wearisome is to perceive those who do not need any direction. Strike thin roots in the earth and grow to become a tree.”

  17. A facsimile reprint with full index of Lentera (The Lantern), which Pramoedya edited between 1962 and 1965, is currently being prepared for publication. According to Benedict Anderson, the reprinting of these articles provides a crucial rectification of the record of Pramoedya's involvement in the cultural and political affairs of the early 1960s. Since 1965, Lentera has been characterized as a vehicle for a vindictive campaign against conservative-liberal intellectuals. As Benedict Anderson notes, “Most Indonesians accept this version, as do most foreigners, because Lentera has so long been suppressed. The publication we are arranging is to let people see what Lentera actually contained, and make their own judgments.”

  18. Pramoedya translated Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in 1950.

  19. Lode Zielens (1901-1944) is perhaps best known for his Moeder, waarom leven wij? (1932), which Pramoedya translated in 1947.

  20. I have put the superlative greatest Dutch writer in brackets to convey the importance Pramoedya attached to Multatuli, the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, the famous Dutch author credited with awakening the Dutch literary revival of 1880, and whose masterpiece, Max Havelaar (1860), an attack on the injustices of Dutch colonialism, drew from his experiences as a colonial agent in Indonesia. Discussing the importance of Multatuli for Pramoedya, Resink explained that, as “the greatest Dutch writer,” Multatuli articulated the full ambivalence of Dutch colonialism and European humanism. Resink also said that Pramoedya often quoted an aphorism of Multatuli's, paraphrased by Resink as “the calling of a human being is to be human.” In his acceptance of the Wertheim award in August 1995, Pramoedya invoked Multatuli as follows: “Multatuli was a great man, the greatest of Dutch humanists who said ‘The vocation of human beings is to be human.’”

  21. In 1958 Pramoedya translated Gorky's Mother.

  22. This imagery, much of whose power is likely lost in translation, calls to mind the image of the Lusi river in Pramoedya's home town of Blora as developed in the story “Things Vanished” from Stories from Blora, discussed above.

  23. The Nyai Ontosoroh, or Sanikem, is a key character in the Buru tetralogy, from beginning to end. She is the “concubine” of Herman Mellema, the mother of Annalies, and, in This Earth of Mankind, the manager of the Buitenzorg Agricultural Company (“Ontosoroh,” we learn, is a Javanese version of Buitenzorg [see This Earth of Mankind, 24]—“Buitenzorg” might loosely be translated “without care” or “sans souci” to capture the nomenclature of colonial estates generally, and specifically to call attention to the colonial estate built for the first Governor of the Dutch East Indies, to which “Buitenzorg” is clearly an allusion). Sanikem's control of the colonial farming estate provides a kind of utopian projection of the future overthrow of colonial rule—a utopian image that gives way in the course of the novel to the realities of the struggle against colonialism. Resink argued that Nyai Ontosoroh is the central character of the Buru tetralogy.

  24. New York Times, Sunday, 13 November 1994.

  25. One historical feminist who plays an important role throughout the Buru tetralogy is the celebrated Javanese writer and educational reformer, Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) of Jepara, “the first Native woman to write in Dutch,” as she is described early in This Earth of Mankind, where she provides an important model for Minke's beginnings as a writer. There are, however, several possible feminist “awakenings”—indeed, in This Earth of Mankind, the example of Kartini is both explicitly and implicitly contrasted to the example of Nyai Ontosoroh. And in Footsteps, in a passage that powerfully combines historical fact and imaginative fiction, Minke acts as translator between his Chinese lover Mei and the historical Kartini. In their dialogue, when Kartini asks Mei about the prospects for women's educational reform in China, Mei surprises Kartini by saying, “My educated countrymen have set themselves a task they think is more important—the liberation of Chinese society as a whole” (Footsteps, 104). In 1962, Pramoedya published a three-volume “introduction” to Kartini, Panggil aku Kartini sadja: Sebuah Pengantar pada Kartini (Jakarta: Nusantara, 1962), and, in his biography of Tirto Adi Suryo, devotes important attention to the parallels between the work of Kartini and Minke's model. (In historical fact, the two did not meet, although Kartini's letters record the fact that Kartini “longed to have a Chinese girl for a friend”: “I should like to meet the gallant little Chinese girls; I should be so glad to know something of their thoughts and feelings, their ‘soul’” [Letters of a Javanese Princess, trans. Agnes Louise Symmers (New York: Norton, 1964), 173].) For a discussion of the importance of Pramoedya's historical study of Kartini, and its fate in New Order Indonesia, see Danilyn Rutherford, “Unpacking a National Heroine: Two Kartinis and Their People” in Indonesia 55 (April 1993): 23-40.

  26. The second volume of Pramoedya's Buru memoirs, made up of letters written to family members, includes an extended meditation on the image of his mother. Entitled “De Revolutie, moeder van alle deugden” (“The Revolution, Mother of All Virtues”), the letter develops a moving and striking analogy between the memory and image of his mother and the ideals of the Indonesian revolution. See Lied van een stomme: Brieven van Buru (Manus Amici, 1991), 146-158.

  27. As Pramoedya has himself noted, in the opening section of the Buru memoirs cited in the previous footnote, the Javanese often attach much significance to names and naming. Pramoedya is there commenting on his parents' choice of his own given name, Pramoedya, which, “connected with turbulent times in which they lived, signified: first in the fray.” Pramoedya discusses at greater length, and with a great deal of play on linguistic and political associations, the significance of his father's name, Toer. I will not attempt a summary. See Lied van een stomme: Brieven van Buru, 14-17. On a rather different note, Resink explained that he calls Pramoedya by his family name “Toer” (rather than, according to Indonesian custom, by the given name), for its affinity with the Javanese word “toetoer,” for “storytelling.”

  28. Published in 1985 (and banned in 1986), Sang pemula, translated into Dutch as De pionier in 1988, details the biographical facts of Tirto Adi Suryo, a forerunner of modern Indonesian nationalism and an originator of modern Indonesian journalism, and provides historical documentation on Tirto's journalism. See Takashi Shiraishi, “Reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Sang pemula [The Pioneer]” (Indonesia 44 [October 1987]: 129-139), who writes “the book can be read either as Pramoedya's biography of Tirto Adhi Soerjo with many appendices, or as a collection of historical documents with an extensive introduction to place the documents in a proper historical context, although it is in fact both” (129-130).

  29. The immediate issue of the time—1959-1960—was the Presidential Decree No. 10 forbidding Chinese Indonesians to conduct trade outside the cities. This prompted Pramoedya to write a series of letters for the weekly Bintang Minggu and the left-wing daily newspaper Bintang Timur, speaking out on behalf of Chinese Indonesians and underscoring their formative contributions to Indonesian history. The book that came of these letters, Hoakiau di Indonesia, was banned by minister Soebandrio, and Pramoedya was imprisoned for about a year. (See A. Teeuw, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: De verbeelding van Indonesië [Breda, Netherlands: De Geus, 1993], 38.) The incident is noteworthy for its historical timing—Sukarno was in power, and Pramoedya was one of the most prominent cultural figures. Anti-Chinese sentiment remains a highly volatile and crucial factor in Indonesian politics. The “masalah Cina”—the “Chinese problem”—is a term which refers with revealing ambiguity both to Chinese Indonesians and to Indonesia's international relations to the People's Republic of China. Daniel Lev has suggested an analogy might be made between Pramoedya's criticism of official sanctions against Chinese Indonesians in the early 1960s and the criticism from Germans against Fascist anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s. It is, of course, not an exact analogy; but it does call attention to the historical context within which Pramoedya spoke out on behalf of the ethnic Chinese minority: the surge in anti-Chinese riots of the late 1950s; the regulations against Chinese Indonesians in the early 1960s; to which one might add, following the bloody events of 1965-6, the New Order's promulgation, in June 1967, of “The Basic Policy for the Solution of the Chinese Problem,” which made clear that “for the government, assimilation, defined as the eventual disappearance of group as a sociocultural entity, [was] the best way to resolve what is usually referred to as the ‘Chinese problem’ (masalah Cina)” [Mély G. Tan, “The Social and Cultural Dimensions of the Role of Ethnic Chinese in Indonesian Society,” in Indonesia (1991) 114.]

    Despite the distinction Pramoedya makes between Hoakiau di Indonesia and the Buru tetralogy, throughout the latter runs a common concern for showing the formative contribution of Chinese Indonesians to Indonesian history.

  30. A reference to the notorious role of Captain Raymond Westerling in the violent suppression of the strong pro-Republican movement in South Sulawesi following independence in 1945.

  31. The reference is to the Fact Finding Commission set up to investigate the massacres that followed the Untung coup of October 1965 and its suppression. The procedures of this commission are among the topics discussed in Oei Tjoe Tat's Memoirs. In my interview with him the morning before meeting Pramoedya, Oei Tjoe Tat explained his own participation in the Fact Finding Commission, emphasizing that Sukarno had personally given him the charge of going directly to the people to seek out the facts and assess the real figures. Oei Tjoe Tat thus produced two reports—the official report for the Fact Finding Commission; and the unofficial report for Sukarno. By Oei Tjoe Tat's estimates from that time, the difference in numbers was a ratio of 1 to 5; there were 5 times as many victims as in the official report, which listed 80,000 killed. Oei Tjoe Tat also pointed out that the Fact Finding Commission focussed on only certain regions—East and Middle Java, Bali, and Sumatra—and only for the period between December 24, 1965, and January 1, 1966; while killings continued on into the middle of 1967.

  32. A reference to this Encylopaedia in the first volume of the Buru memoirs indicates the affinity between Pramoedya's work on this Encylopaedia and the growth of the Buru tetralogy. In the transcript of an interview at Buru in 1973, Pramoedya explains that, during the events of September 30, 1965, he was engaged in work on “an Encylopaedia of the History of the National Independence Movement 1900-1945” (“Ensiklopedi Sejarah Gerakan Kemerdekaan Nasional 1900-1945” [Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu, Jakarta: Lentera, 1995]. See also Lied van een stomme: Gevangene op Buru (Manus Amici, 1989), 42.

  33. H. W. Daendels, in popular Indonesian mythology, is typically seen as the most powerful and ruthless of all Governor-Generals. A Dutch officer who served with Napoleon after the Netherlands was overrun by the French revolutionary armies, he was sent to Java by Napoleon to defend the Indies against the British. There he introduced a modern system of administration with a ruthlessness that earned him the nickname “Thundering Marshal.” He built the Post-Road along the north shore of Java to permit the rapid deployment of defensive troops against a possible British invasion. The ruthless methods of enforced labor used to build the road resulted in thousands of deaths. Benedict Anderson suggests that Pramoedya may see parallels between Daendels and Suharto.

Works Cited

Works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in English Translation

The Fugitive [Perburuan, 1950]. Trans. Willem Samuels. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

A Heap of Ashes [A selection of various stories]. Trans. Harry Aveling. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1975.

“Revenge” [“Dendam,” story from Subuh: Tjerita-tjerita pendek revolusi, 1961]. Trans. Benedict Anderson. In Indonesia 26 (October 1978): 43-61. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

“Things Vanished” [“Jang suday hilang,” first story from Tjerita dari Blora, 1952]. Trans. with Commentary by James Siegel. In Glyph: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

The Buru Tetralogy

This Earth of Mankind [Bumi manusia, 1980]. Trans. Max Lane. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Child of All Nations [Anak semua bangsa, 1980]. Trans. Max Lane. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Footsteps [Jejak langkah, 1985]. Trans. Max Lane. New York: William Morrow, 1995.

House of Glass [Rumah kaca, 1988]. Trans. Max Lane. New York: William Morrow, forthcoming in 1996.

John McBeth (review date 16 February 1995)

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SOURCE: McBeth, John. “Prisoners of History.” Far Eastern Economic Review 158, no. 7 (16 February 1995): 27-8.

[In the following review, McBeth explores Pramoedya's portrayal of his time as an Indonesian political prisoner in the memoir Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu.]

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's identity card bears two typewritten letters that speak volumes about his life: “ET,” for Ex-Tapol, or former political prisoner. It's a label shared by the nearly 1.4 million Indonesians believed arrested in the aftermath of the abortive 1965 coup—or at least shared by the ones who survived their imprisonment.

Though the vast majority were never charged with a crime, their ET status has largely confined them to the margins of society, even two decades or more after their release.

Lately, the National Human Rights Commission has started trying to erase the stigma. But former prisoners have little confidence it will succeed, especially at a time when charges are circulating of a new communist threat to Indonesia. And any improvement will come too late for many: The aged survivors of the Indonesian gulag are dying in increasing numbers these days.

One former detainee who refuses to fade away is Pramoedya, one of Indonesia's best-known authors. On February 6—his 70th birthday—he launched the first Indonesian-language version of his memoir of 10 years in a penal colony on remote Buru Island, where he was among 14,000 prisoners.

Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu (Silent Song of the Mute), is a Bahasa translation of the original Dutch-language Lied van een Stomme. An English version is also in the works.

The launching comes the same year Indonesia celebrates 50 years of independence, perhaps a fitting time to face the past. But because Pramoedya's works are banned in Indonesia, he's unsure whether the government will permit the book to be sold openly.

“I'm optimistic the government will allow me to go ahead, but if it's banned it doesn't matter,” the author said in an interview at his modest East Jakarta home. “For me, [banning] would be an honour.” Such defiance probably explains why Pramoedya was among the first batch of prisoners to be shipped to Buru in 1969 and among the last to be released from the malarial island a decade later.

Hunched in the Banda Sea 90 kilometres west of Ambon and 2,100 kilometres east of Jakarta, Buru is now an open island. But few Indonesians are familiar with its harsh history, and guide books give the 12,600-square-kilometre chunk of mountain and jungle only fleeting mention. Back in 1969, the sole inhabitants were 45,000 tribal nomads; the 14,000 newly arrived prisoners were confined to a pie-shaped slice of the infertile northeast, living in a string of guarded work camps along the Apu River.

Although his records are incomplete, Pramoedya names 268 detainees in his memoir who died of brutality, disease, starvation and suicide. No one is known to have successfully escaped from Buru. Pramoedya claims that about 40 inmates who staged a mass breakout into the surrounding wilderness in 1974 either died of starvation or were hunted down and killed in the days that followed.

“In the beginning, we all thought we were meant to die one by one because the treatment was so bad,” he recalls of his arrival in Buru in 1969. “But after about five years, conditions gradually began to improve because of international pressure.” He credits his eventual release to then United States President Jimmy Carter.

Today, about 200 ex-prisoners remain on Buru by their own choice, working mostly as farmers. Foreign visitors to the island are rare, but last year the Australian air force sent a team to recover the remains of nine servicemen who died when their Catalina flying boat crashed during a 1944 strike against Japanese shipping. Military sources believe a large amount of unexploded World War II ordnance is still scattered around the island.

In the 1960s, Pramoedya was a member of the communist-sponsored cultural association Lekkra, which made him a prime target for the military in the post-coup backlash. As many as 500,000 people were slaughtered and 1.4 million others arrested during that purge.

Many of those executed were members of the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was blamed for the abortive coup against then President Sukarno. Many others were thrown in prisons on Java. “The people who went to Buru,” Pramoedya says in his quiet manner, “were the people who were spared from execution.”

Authorities placed Pramoedya on a list of those deemed to represent a danger to society, giving him a “B” classification on a sliding scale where “A” represents the greatest threat and “C” a lesser threat. Most of the detainees were never charged with crimes, because no evidence was found linking them directly to the abortive coup. But their classifications haunt former political prisoners to this day.

The former prisoners, and in some cases their relatives, have been officially barred from the civil service and other jobs where they might be in a position to influence public opinion. That includes everything from politics and the press to preaching and puppetry.

Military officers with relatives who were detainees have been thrown out of the service. One colonel recalls the time it was discovered that the father of one of his officers had been a communist party member. The officer was allowed to stay in the service, but the colonel says he told him: “Each day you'll have to show more loyalty than anyone else.”

Pramoedya, who is a favourite focus of Western human rights groups, has stubbornly refused to be silenced since his release. Most other ex-prisoners have spent the last two decades in society's shadows, however. “What could we do,” says former journalist Joesoef Isak, describing a life where surveillance and suspicion have been ever-present companions. “If we had done even the slightest thing to attract public attention, we would have been accused of practising communism or Sukarnoism.”

Isak emerged from 10 years in jail in 1975 with an “A” classification—largely because of his previous position as chairman of the Indonesian Journalists' Association and his membership in Sukarno's Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). Despite his remarks about avoiding controversy, he nonetheless edited Pramoedya's two-volume memoir.

Among other ex-detainees interviewed by the Review were a former field-grade officer and a civilian one-time professional, neither of whom wanted to be identified. In a way, they were among the lucky ones. The former officer has been able to depend on his family for support since his release, while the civilian has survived on odd jobs and his wife's modest income. Many others have died, ground down by their lives as outcasts.

Although he is described as left-leaning in at least one authoritative text on the period, the ex-army officer was out of the country during the 1965 coup and claims to have had no connections to either Sukarno's PNI or any other political movement.

“I had no enemies in the army,” the American-trained officer insists. “Who arrested me? Who put me in jail? Even today, I don't know. This whole ‘B’ and ‘C’ thing is nonsense. There are no rules to the classification. They are only intended to isolate people. They gave me a ‘B’ just to frighten me. The question was not, ‘Are you involved in the communist party?’ Rather, it was, ‘Are you pro-Sukarno or not.’”

The other ex-prisoner, a civilian professional, seems to have even more reason to question the arbitrary way in which he was consigned to the underclass. Taken from his office a fortnight after the coup, he was turned away from three military posts before his escorts finally managed to secure an arrest warrant.

Despite being classified C3, the lowest security-risk rating, he spent 12 years in prison. During that time, he claims to have been interrogated only once—and then it was only to check his birth date and other basic data. “I asked them, ‘Why don't you take me to court?’” he recalls. “They told me it was a political matter and in political matters black becomes white and white becomes black.”

When he was finally released in 1977, prison authorities asked him to act as the guarantor of another prisoner—even though he himself had to have a letter from his mother saying she would be responsible for his future actions. “My mother asked them how could I possibly guarantee someone else, when I had to be guaranteed myself. It was ridiculous.”

Two years ago, he says, a surprised military-intelligence officer asked him why he had spent so long in jail when he was only classified C3. Although he has no way of knowing why he was picked out for arrest, the answer may lie in the fact that he had visited a communist country in the early 1960s during the course of his work.

Ironically, Pramoedya and other former prisoners liken their treatment at the hands of the government to that meted out by the communist, totalitarian regimes that the government warns against.

None of those interviewed shared more than a faint hope that Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission would succeed in its bid to end their existence as second-class citizens. “They want to use us as a deterrent,” charges the ex-officer. “If anyone does something against the government, they can say, ‘You can become like them.’ They have to make people afraid.”

Indeed, the commission does appear to face an uphill battle. Like in 1988-89, the existence of a latent communist threat has again bubbled to the surface as an issue in recent weeks. This time, the allegations are pointed at the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the country's only recognizable political opposition.

First, a presidential adviser warned of a “new-style” communist threat, a remark that fanned rumours that PDI was being infiltrated by communists. Since then, Information Minister Harmoko—chairman of the ruling Golkar party—has kept up the drum beat: At gatherings across east Java he has repeatedly warned of a communist revival. Also joining the chorus has been Golkar legislator Soerjo Handjono, who claims that some prodemocracy student leaders in central Java are the children of communist sympathizers.

Members of the Human Rights Commission say military leaders appear willing to scrap the Ex-Tapol classification system. But they say the real obstacle is the Home Affairs Ministry. It was a ministerial decree that served as the basis for the system in the first place.

“If what the Human Rights Commission is doing actually happens, it will be too late because we're all old and have had to endure great hardship in struggling through our lives,” says Pramoedya. “Many have died because they couldn't make a living.”

Goenawan Mohamad (essay date 28 September 1995)

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SOURCE: Mohamad, Goenawan. “Indonesia's Prize Scars.” Far Eastern Economic Review 158, no. 39 (28 September 1995): 39.

[In the following essay, Mohamad describes the controversy surrounding Pramoedya's acceptance of the 1995 Magsaysay Prize, citing claims that Pramoedya worked as a “counter-revolutionary” during the 1960s.]

He is 70 years old, half deaf, a kind of hero. His past is the subject of a bitter controversy, involving intricate moral problems, political conflict and endless bickering among intellectuals. His name is Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

He is a novelist, detained for 13 years by the Suharto government simply because he was a suspected communist. Today, free from prison, he remains a caged man. He cannot speak in public. His books are banned. Paradoxically this has made him Indonesia's most respected outcast, and there have even been whispers about the Nobel Prize for literature. Now he has been named the winner of the 1995 Magsaysay Award, a prize presented each year to those who have made a significant contribution to their societies.

Pramoedya did not go to Manila to collect the award. The Indonesian government refused to issue his passport in time.

Curiously, the move received unwitting moral support from a segment of the Indonesian intellectual community. Soon after the Magsaysay Committee announced its decision, 26 Indonesian writers sent a letter of protest to Manila. They point to Pramoedya's role in the 1960s, when he, with the backing of the then-powerful Communist Party (PKI), started a series of articles against those he regarded as “counter-revolutionary.”

Among the signatories are Mochtar Lubis and H. B. Jassin. Both are also in their 70s, earlier recipients of the Magsaysay Award—and living witnesses to Indonesia's traumatic political conflicts. A writer who was detained by the previous Indonesian government for nine years, when Sukarno was president and “Great Leader of the Revolution,” Lubis returned his own prize when the committee refused to heed his protest. Jassin is Indonesia's most famous literary critic. His mere signature on the letter has a formidable impact. In 1963, during the heyday of the PKI's dominance, Jassin signed, with other intellectuals, the “Cultural Manifesto,” a document attacking the Stalinist “socialist realism” the communists wanted to impose upon Indonesian culture.

The communists believed that the manifesto was a part of an army plot to corner them politically. A campaign was launched by the PKI-supported writers, and on May 8, 1964, President Sukarno banned the manifesto. A purge followed. Jassin lost his teaching job at the University of Indonesia, and works by Indonesian writers supporting the manifesto were not allowed to circulate. Intellectuals who co-signed Lubis's letter to the Magsaysay Committee insist that Pramoedya played a role in the purge.

Pramoedya has never admitted that he was personally responsible for the purge that took place more than 30 years ago. But how guilty was he? Many of his supporters, who didn't live through that turbulent period, doubt that he could have had the will and capacity to persecute writers for being outside his political camp. After all, Pramoedya never had an official job, and the PKI was not in power. It was the army, the other pillar of Sukarno's “guided democracy,” that banned newspapers and put people like Mochtar Lubis in jail. In fact, when Pramoedya published a book defending the ethnic-Chinese minority, he was put into custody for a year or so and the book was banned.

This is all true. But during the latter part of the “guided democracy,” it was the communists who took the lead, and, as one of the writers who drafted the “Cultural Manifesto,” I knew that Pramoedya, a staunch supporter of “socialist realism,” took part in the campaign against writers whom he labelled “counter-revolutionary.”

Yet to join Lubis in condemning Pramoedya's past is to me morally and politically unacceptable. The political transformation taking place in 1965 did not stop state repression against free expression. If anything, the change has created a more ruthless kind of coercion. In a painfully ironic turn of fate, it is now Pramoedya who is the victim of intolerance. To attack him today is to give a new layer of legitimacy to the prevailing government's repression.

In many ways the whole affair is a reminder of how fragile is the idea of freedom—and how plain human decency becomes difficult in the midst of national political traumas. Perhaps if Pramoedya could only admit that he did something wrong in one brief, terrible moment in the past, it would be easier. Everyone could then start from a clean slate. But is it fair to demand from him an apology? Again, I don't think so.

Pramoedya has suffered for so long, and the magnificent strength that has allowed him to survive lies in his pride. This is his last hold. I do not wish to destroy it. My priority is today's victims, not the past. I do not want to revive the bitterness of the '60s. It continues to hamper the quality of Indonesia's political debate, which is tarnished by a mutual malignity between writers of the opposing camps as well as by the fact that Pramoedya is not free to speak in public. For this reason, Pramoedya's freedom should be completely restored. To make a debate worthwhile and fair, you have to give your opponent a means to defend himself.

To me, anyone involved in the political conflict of the past 35 years was a participant, however unwittingly, in a conspiracy of repression. This includes Pramoedya, Lubis and people like myself. Unfortunately for Indonesia, we seem to have forgotten that prosecution, both in the past and the present, entitles no one to an exclusive claim to purity. In fact, it can bring along rancour and bitter memories that take us precariously closer to the sanctimonious, avenging god.

Carlo Coppola (review date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Coppola, Carlo. Review of Footsteps, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 239-40.

[In the following review, Coppola praises Footsteps as a worthy continuation of Pramoedya's Buru series but comments that the author's emphasis on “broad humanistic ideals” may be unattractive to some readers.]

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's “Buru tetralogy,” based on the life of the preeminent Indonesian nationalist and pioneering journalist Tirto Adi Suryo, was written on Buru Island, where the novelist was imprisoned without trial for fourteen years for his communist sympathies and alleged implication in the cataclysmic 1 October 1965 coup. This fictionalized account, starting in 1898, traces in bildungsroman fashion the story of Minke, the protagonist-narrator, a “Native” who, in the first novel of the series, This Earth of Mankind (1992), leaves his village to go to the port town of Surabaya, where, as one of only two “Natives” in the prestigious Dutch-language grammar school, he experiences firsthand the racial, social, and religious prejudices of the Dutch toward all non-Europeans. In the second volume, Child of All Nations (1993; see WLT 69:1, p. 226), Minke encounters the ruthless antics of powerful sugar planters, against whom exploited peasant workers eventually revolt; he also learns of a general nationalist awakening in the Philippines, Japan, and China.

In Footsteps Minke moves from provincial Surabaya to Batavia, or Betawi (today known as Jakarta), the political and intellectual center of the colony, where he attends a medical school, the only school of higher education for “Natives” in the East Indies. This move is a metaphor for the larger movement and growth which Minke experiences in the wider world of a major Southeast Asian society, which contains many of the contradictions and problems found in any society in transition. On the one hand, Minke seems strongly drawn to Western science, education, and notions of personal and national freedom; yet, on the other, he also realizes the alienation these features bring to colonized people. He remarks, “Modernity brings the loneliness of orphaned humanity, cursed to free itself from unnecessary ties of custom, blood—even from the land, and if need be, from others of its kind.” This observation encapsulates Minke's life quest generally, but is particularly applicable to Footsteps.

Minke does well in medical school, but because of writings the Dutch authorities deem seditious, he is forced to leave before completing his degree. He marries again (his first wife, Annelies, half “Native” and half Dutch, died in the first novel), this time to a princess, with whom he finds considerable personal happiness for a while. However, he learns the wrenching news that he is unable to sire children, a revelation that seems to release in him other kinds of creative energies, particularly those as a writer and editor, in which capacity he undertakes the arduous and seemingly impossible job of raising the political and social consciousness of his countrymen from all classes. At the end of the novel, with his parents' hard-won approval, Minke plans an extended tour of Southeast Asia, where he hopes to organize “Natives” into a political and social force in the country: the Dutch his target in the political sphere; conservative Islam, especially its attitudes toward women, in the social. At the same time, he also divorces his wife, whom he deeply loves, because he realizes that the public life he has chosen will leave little if any time for a private one. Their leave-taking is particularly poignant.

Footsteps, like all of Pramoedya's works, demonstrates a strong commitment to broad humanistic ideals. For some readers, these ideals may seem to appear too close to the surface and to be discussed too lengthily, giving the writing in some places the tenor of a political tract. However, Pramoedya's skillful characterization and abilities as a storyteller more than compensate for such possible minor flaws. As with any good novel in a series, the story ends leaving the reader eager to move on to the next installment. One hopes the wait in this instance will be brief.

Clifford Geertz (essay date 22 April 1996)

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SOURCE: Geertz, Clifford. “Java Jive.” New Republic 214, no. 17 (22 April 1996): 31-4.

[In the following essay, Geertz traces Pramoedya's personal and literary development, commenting on the “peculiarly didactic and reiterative quality” of the author's writing, particularly in Footsteps and House of Glass.]

The displacement of political engagement toward literature in authoritarian countries—those with undeveloped, stultified or forcibly shrunken civil societies—is a commonplace. There is nothing like banning parties, eviscerating representative institutions, muzzling the press, incarcerating dissenters, appointing soldiers to ministries of justice and education, and ideologizing popular culture for turning the imaginative writer into a power. Solzhenitsyn and Havel, Ngugi and Solinka, even the fugitive Rushdie, the reticent Mahfuz, or the exported Fugard, make generals, presidents, ayatollahs and party chiefs nervous in a way that their colleagues in less constrained settings seldom attain. There is usually a price for this, and it is often, as the fate of Ken Saro-Wiwa recently reminded us, a heavy one. But that, too, seems to contribute to the public force of the writer.

When this happens, when a novelist or a playwright or a poet takes on political significance as a player in the game—as someone whom the authorities have somehow to deal with, to bring into line, to isolate, to appease, or to silence—critical judgment is forced in uncomfortable directions. Such writers become emblematic, signs as such. Their lives are rivals to their work, which may come, as a result, to seem almost an ancillary matter, the occasion of their significance rather than the substance of it. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's most famous writer and the country's perpetual candidate for the Nobel Prize (his 1983 curriculum vitae already lists him as a “nominee,” whatever that means, and there is something of an international lobby promoting his cause), is surely a case in point. His career has been as political as it has been literary, a matter as much of insurgencies and prisons as of novels, translations, essays in criticism and short stories.

Not that there hasn't been a prodigious flow of those. His first major works, two novels and a collection of short stories, were written while he was locked up by the Dutch between 1947 and 1949, during Indonesia's war for independence. During the Sukarno period, a time of rising ideological passion that ended with the failed coup, the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party and the popular massacres of 1965, he produced no less than eight novels, three collections of short stories, three historical-cum-literary studies (Socialist Realism and Indonesian Literature,The Intellectual Community in the Third World,The Chinese in Indonesia) and fifteen translations (Steinbeck, Tolstoi, Sholokhov, Gorki, Pascal). After Suharto came to power, he was again imprisoned, this time for fourteen years, and passed the time assembling—the verb is exact—the enormous four-volume historical novel sometimes called The Buru Quartet, after the penal colony in which it was composed, on which his fame will surely rest. For fifty years, Pramoedya (the appropriate form of reference for him), who is now 71, has been committed to his trade.

The theme of all his work—aside from the translations and the critical work, which seem to have been mostly ideological gestures—has been the same: the moral dislocations brought into being by the rise, the triumph and (to his mind) the betrayal of Indonesian nationalism. Since his participation, in his early 20s, in the radical and romantic literary movement, the so-called “Generation of '45,” that revolted against the combination of literary conventionalism and spiritual earnestness that had grown up in the closing days of colonial rule, Pramoedya has been the chronicler of what he once referred to as the “victim[s] of patriotism and inadequate leadership.” His stories are stories of the rages and the desolations of an aborted revolution.

Pramoedya's life has followed the same course, as though he were composing his oeuvre and his career as a single effort, to the point where his works seem intensely autobiographical, even when, as in the tetralogy, they are set in a period other than his own, about predicaments other than his own, with characters at some distance from his own. Born in eastern Java in 1925, the son of a schoolteacher who left a comfortable position in a Dutch “native” school to become an ill-paid headmaster in a nationalist “free” school and a mother from a strongly Islamic family, he left home in his teens during the occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, working for a time for Domei, their press agency, in Jakarta. When the revolution broke out in August, 1945, he joined a youthful guerrilla group which harassed the British re-occupation forces around the capital.

Rather than accept incorporation into the rationalized army of the Sukarno-Hatta Republic—the formation of which set professional Dutch and Japanese soldiers against populist irregulars intent on keeping the cause pure and the struggle unremitting—Pramoedya wandered about revolutionary Java, a scene of intimate treacheries and private retributions, for some months. By the time the Dutch launched the first of their two military campaigns to retake the country, he had gone reluctantly to work for the new government's radio station, “The Voice of Free Indonesia,” and he was arrested, tortured, imprisoned and, apparently a hard case, released only at the very end of Dutch rule in late 1949.

During the Sukarno regime, Pramoedya drifted steadily leftward as the regime itself did, sharing first in its popularity and then in its fate. Whether or not he was ever formally a member of the Indonesian Communist Party, he became increasingly identified with it in the public mind, and apparently in his own mind, as its power grew. He journeyed to Beijing and returned an enthusiast. He became the cultural editor of an influential left-wing newspaper, an editorial adviser to the Czech cultural journal Orient, and editor for Indonesian literature for The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Most fatefully, he emerged in 1958 as the leading figure in LEKRA, or the Institute of People's Culture, the Party apparatus which, in the early 1960s, came to dominate literary and artistic life in Indonesia.

There is much debate about what Pramoedya did or did not do in this period. He has been accused of, and has denied, an involvement in book burning; but it is a matter of record that, amid the increasing hysteria of the Party's massive, near-miss surge toward power (LEKRA alone claimed a half million members), he called for “smashing,” “crushing,” “devouring” and “eliminating” non-communist writers, inveighed against the translation of Doctor Zhivago into Indonesian, and generally engaged in what one Indonesian news magazine recently called “terror mental.” When, in 1963, twenty-three of Indonesia's leading writers and painters, most of them former compatriots of his in the battle of “the Generation of '45” against late colonial gentility, published a manifesto—a rather anodyne document, actually (“we do not regard any one sector of culture as superior to any other. All [should] work together … to the best of their ability”)—Pramoedya led a fierce assault against them. This resulted in the suppression of their work, their journals, and, in 1964, the official prohibition by Sukarno of their movement altogether. “Uniformity,” as A. Teuuw, the Dutch historian of modern Indonesian literature, mordantly remarks, “had been achieved.”

Pramoedya was riding high. He was, for the moment, Indonesia's Zhdanov. But only for the moment: the reversal of fortune, when it came, was swift and total. After the failure of the coup and the accession of Suharto in October 1965, he was dragged from his house amid a hail of stones and the cries of an angry mob. His library and his papers were burned; he was passed through a number of prison camps and again tortured; and finally, along with perhaps 10,000 other “special cases,” and still untried in a public court, he was transported to Buru, a small island in the Moluccas. It was not until the end of 1979 that he was released, and then into city arrest in Jakarta.

The first decade or so in this south sea gulag was extraordinarily brutal; many prisoners perished from beatings and starvation. Yet the last two or three years, though grim enough, saw something of a relaxation. Freed suddenly from manual labor, provided with writing materials, and permitted a small study in his barracks, Pramoedya turned from reciting his tale piecemeal to other prisoners to writing, at what seems to have been a feverish pace (the whole is dated “spoken 1973, written 1975”), the 1,500-page tetralogy, of which Footsteps—a better rendering would have been Footprints—is the third volume and House of Glass the fourth. The first two, This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, appeared in English in 1982 and 1993.

Western critics have been generally at a loss to convey the peculiarly didactic and reiterative quality of Pramoedya's writing in general, and of the tetralogy in particular—its relentless succession of desperately earnest conversations between typified characters in schematized scenes. So they have reached, in worried confusion, for all sorts of Western analogues: Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Dickens. Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and (the only one with very much to be said for it) a television miniseries. It is, in fact, a narrative, or a series of narratives, that consists almost entirely of talking heads explaining and re-explaining themselves to one another over a thirty-year period of political upheaval, almost all of which takes place offstage as summarily reported event—all of which fits oral patterns of literature and the memory devices that sustain them a good deal better than it does the plots and subplots of the realistic novel. The told tale, later transcribed, moves in a different way than a tale that has been constructed from the start as a written text. For the reader used to crises and conclusions, to peripeties of character, and to the seaward flow of cause and consequence, it may seem hardly to move at all.

What Pramoedya has produced in The Buru Quartet is not, or anyway not primarily, a saga, though it traces the career of a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat, oppositional journalist, and pioneer nationalist (a figure based on an actual personage, never that well-known and now largely forgotten) from the end of the nineteenth century through the First World War. It is not a psychological portrait, though the protagonist's self-questionings and self-justifications are as endless as they are arch and formulaic. Nor is it even a moral tale, though the good guys and the bad guys are very clearly marked. It is a sociological tableau: a drawn, re-drawn and re-drawn-again depiction of a multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-racial, multi-cultural society that, challenged to change its nature, merely rearranges its parts.

Pramoedya's hero is called Minke, which, as he says, may or may not mean “monkey,” and therefore may or may not suggest the Ramayana, Hanuman, and the simian army that recaptures Sita from the demon king and restores the realm to Rama. The name is given him by a racist schoolmaster, but its Javanese resonances, upon which the novel continuously plays, are rather more complex. Minke is Indonesian nationalism personified. What happens to him happened to it, and to Pramoedya.

The first volume, This Earth of Mankind, is set in turn-of-the-century Surabaya, Indonesia's Hamburg or Marseilles, a polyglot, disorderly passage port where the exiled, the radical and the imaginatively violent tend to wash up. The book immediately plunges Minke—he is in his teens, “the age of a corn plant,” and has come there from his village to study in a Dutch school and make himself modern—into an extraordinary swirl of human types. There is his “Indo,” that is, Eurasian, schoolmate (“He was taller than me. In his body ran some Native blood. Who knows how many drops or clots”), a violent thug who will become his pursuer throughout his life. (“He thought he knew my weakness. I had no European blood in my body.”) There is the immensely wealthy “Pure Blood” Dutch businessman, into whose household, “a castle of puzzles,” the thug introduces Minke. There is the businessman's elegant and accomplished Javanese concubine (“Should I offer my hand as to a European woman, or should I treat her as Native woman and ignore her?”) who, despised alike by Dutch and indigenes, becomes his protectoress and confidante. (She will return in the final volume after his death, looking for him like a lost son.) There is the beautiful “Mixed Blood” daughter of these two, “white skinned, refined, European face, hair and eyes of a Native,” whom he marries and who soon declines and dies in Holland, where he has been forbidden by the colonial government to follow her. There is her brother (“He looked European, except he had brown skin”) who is later suspected of murdering the father.

And so it goes. Through the subsequent three volumes, the types pile up, talking their way through allegorized history. A Chinese brothel keeper; a peg-leg French doctor; various sorts of Dutchmen variously placed; and various sorts of Javanese, including his father, a native district chief in the colonial bureaucracy, full of propriety and caution; his steadfast mother, with whom he seems to be always exchanging apologies; his village-educated nationalist cronies, brave, unspoiled and dog-loyal. We get a literary Haji, a Eurasian, a former sailor and recent convert to Islam, who publishes anonymously a novel exposing life on a sugar plantation and departs for Jeddah. We get a Chinese agitator for the Kuomintang who is killed by the secret societies, a wealthy Arab cloth trader with Turkish-educated sons, and, at one giddy point, the Governor General of the East Indies, a hardened soldier who holds palace soirées on preparing natives for the modern age. And, last but not least, we get the petty bourgeois colonial policeman, a Catholic Christian “Native” from the northern Celebes who studied in France and dreams helplessly of returning there. He brings about Minke's arrest and transportation, and it is in his voice, a ventriloquized version of Minke's own, that the last volume is told.

After the expiration of his delicate Eurasian beauty, Minke marries a ferocious Chinese nationalist, born in Shanghai and raised in a Catholic convent. (“[The] cultural barriers between us … had been magically made to vanish. … [We] had come out of the same factory called the modern age.”) When she too soon wastes away and dies, he marries an exotic, dark-skinned Princess from the extreme Melanesian east of Indonesia. (“She was tall and slender and her skin was an attractive ebony color. … Perhaps she had Portuguese blood.”) Along the way he manages as well to get himself seduced by the pretty French wife of his repulsive Eurasian lawyer. (“Whose child was now growing in Mir's womb? … Who would it look like? Me, Mir, or Hendrik? Would it be Native, Eurasian, or White?”) “The Indies,” he says, the Indies Pramoedya has placed him in, “is just an untamed jungle and I am just one of its million monkeys.”

Minke's attempt—a quixotic, confused, or, since history finally is on his side, merely premature attempt—to tame the jungle and replace its million monkeys with a modern, self-propelling, organized national community is the subject of Footsteps, the axial novel in the series and the one that is most transparently based on Pramoedya's own struggles. Set in Batavia, the colonial capital (“Not as busy as Surabaya. And so clean”) during the first two decades of the century, when the nationalist movement emerged for the first time as a visible public force, the book traces, though again largely through set-piece conversations, his meteoric career as a journalist, agitator, organizer, conspirator and ideologue. Beginning in exultant promise (“Into the universe of Betawi I go—into the universe of the twentieth century. … I am here … to do great things … to free [humanity] from the unnecessary ties of custom, blood—even from the land …”), it concludes, barely a dozen years later, in treachery, defeat and exile. “All that I have built has been destroyed … [I have been] pierced from the front and stabbed … from behind. … I will be leaving Java. … Things will go hard for me now. I have always been hard with the world.”

In the end, with the crushing of radical nationalism after the First World War, and their leaders—Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir—sent off to their own Devil's Islands, the monkeys remain an undisciplined, chattering throng, powerless and divided. His newspaper long closed by the authorities, his nationalist organization passed into careerist, collaborationist hands, his wife disappeared as though she had never existed, Minke is released from prison and returned to Java. Unbowed, he refuses to sign a document promising abstention from politics—“[Do] you want me to sign my own death sentence without there having been any trial, just as I was sentenced to exile without any trial?” Apparently poisoned by yet another brutal Eurasian, he soon dies, “leaving behind in this world only the imprints of his footsteps.”

Minke's story may be over, but Pramoedya continues to leave footprints. He has been under city arrest in Jakarta, forbidden to travel or to make public appearances. His books are banned in Indonesia. Students have been jailed for attempting to distribute them, though they usually circulate for a while before disappearing, and in neighboring Malaysia they are required reading in the schools. His international audience is immense: his publishers claim a million people in twenty languages. Pramoedya savages the Suharto government at every opportunity. “It is I who should give them amnesty,” he told reporters from The Economist when they came round recently to see if he was mellowing. He has just edited the memoirs—they were also immediately banned—of a Chinese minister in Sukarno's last cabinet, who refers to “The Smiling General” as “blunt” and “cruel.”

But all that, by now, is standard on the Jakarta scene: Hanuman at work. It was the decision by a committee in Manila last summer to give him the Ramon Magsaysay Prize that thrust Pramoedya back into his old role of cultural lightning rod—that made him, his career and his work the focus once again of a deep and divisive public debate. Ramon Magsaysay, the reformist president of the Philippines in the mid-1950s, put down the communist-led Huk rebellion, warred on corruption, and sought to improve the condition of the Philippine poor. He remains in many circles in Southeast Asia an exemplary, almost sainted figure, especially in the light of what followed him. After his death a foundation was set up, in large part with American money, to award a prize in his name to Asian journalists, writers and artists who represented the ideals—democracy, freedom and peaceful progress—for which he is held to have stood. And the notion of the people in Manila that Pramoedya, the ex-commissar, was such a figure, broke upon the Indonesian intellectual community like a return of the repressed.

Twenty-six of the country's most prominent artists and writers, erstwhile opponents of Sukarno and objects of Pramoedya's LEKRA assaults, immediately protested. About as many, most of them also ex-targets of his, and all of them critics of Suharto, protested the protest. A former winner of the prize—a passionate anti-Sukarno and anti-Communist journalist who won it nearly forty years ago, when times were different—returned it to Manila. A leading poet, who remembered mass meetings at which he and his friends had been cast into outer darkness as counter-revolutionaries, suggested that Pramoedya might deserve the Lenin Prize, the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, or even the Literary Prize of the Jakarta Arts Council that the poet himself had won, but not a prize named for Magsaysay, and that the Foundation had thrown mud upon its own principles.

A former anti-Sukarno youth leader, now a sociologist, agreed that Pramoedya's sins should not be forgotten, but insisted that he deserved the prize as Indonesia's finest writer; and in recognizing that fact, and accepting it, those who had fought the culture of denunciation that Pramoedya once represented could demonstrate that it had been truly overcome. Another such youth leader and later editor of the country's leading news magazine, now himself in the courts struggling to overturn a ban put on his magazine by the Suharto government, said that “Pramoedya has already been imprisoned for thirteen years in a prison colony without trial, and has been unable to speak in public for thirty years. Isn't that too much? Isn't that enough?”

Apparently it was neither: Pramoedya was forbidden to go to Manila to collect his prize. His wife picked it up for him. Meanwhile the writer sits in Jakarta, writing (most recently, one hears, a thoroughly intransigent, in-your-face diary of his Buru years) and trying to outwait history and Suharto. The general is three years older than the writer, and he seems to be gearing up to run for another five-year term in 1998. The country has changed enormously since both began their careers a half century ago, but the structure of feeling changes, apparently, more slowly than the production system or the transport network. A voice of and from the past, Pramoedya still seems capable of disturbing the present, however separated he has become from its workings. “The writer continues to develop,” he once wrote, “but not his writing.”

Margaret Scott (essay date 10 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Scott, Margaret. “Mixing Memory and Desire.” Far Eastern Economic Review 159, no. 41 (10 October 1996): 55-7.

[In the following essay, Scott provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Pramoedya's Buru Quartet and argues that the series is a “classic of Indonesian literature.”]

There is nothing quite like an authoritarian society for turning a writer into a martyr. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, despite his checkered past as a censorious cultural commissar under former President Sukarno, fits squarely in the company of Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel and Nigeria's Nobel-winning Wole Soyinka—creative writers whose words seem to get under the skin of generals and presidents in a way that has no parallel in more-open societies. Isolation, jail, muzzling and sometimes even murder have been the price.

Pramoedya, Indonesia's most famous writer, has paid a heavy price of his own. In the orgy of murder and mass arrests of anyone suspected of communist links that followed the failed coup in 1965, Pramoedya spent 14 years in an unforgiving penal camp on the island of Buru. Since his release in 1979, he has lived under city arrest in Jakarta. And his many works—especially his four-volume historical novel, known as “The Buru Quartet,” composed orally for his fellow prisoners on Buru and only later written down—are banned in Suharto's Indonesia.

Yet, Pramoedya, now 71, continues to intrude on the present. Whenever he has the chance, usually with foreign journalists, he condemns the Suharto government. Samizdat copies of his novels circulate widely among young Indonesians, some of whom are eager to turn him into an emblem of opposition to the powers that be. Outside Indonesia, he is often cloaked in the mantle of the persecuted writer. Such literary attention fuels the perennial talk of a Nobel Prize for Literature.

In this, Pramoedya has become more than what he has written. His role in politics, symbolic and actual, competes with his work, making critical judgments difficult. Still, there is little doubt that his fame as a writer will rest on The Buru Quartet, his sweeping narrative of the birth of Indonesian nationalism. Pramoedya traces the career of his central character, Minke, a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat-turned-journalist and pioneering nationalist. Now, with William Morrow's publication of the final volume, House of Glass, Pramoedya's entire master-work is available in English. (Penguin has recently reissued the other volumes in paperback: This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations and Footsteps.) The novels belong on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Indonesia, or indeed the bittersweet history of the rise of nations out of the debris of the colonial world.

It is both a majestic and disconcerting achievement. It is majestic for its sheer ambition and imagination, for the parade of characters swirling around Minke as he is buffeted by ideas from Europe and Asia and stumbles through the shards of memory and experience on his march towards creating an Indonesian personality. Majestic, too, is its delivery of the theme that dominates Pramoedya's work: the rise, the triumph and, for him, the betrayal of Indonesian nationalism. Tellingly, the word Indonesia is conspicuous by its absence in all four books; for Pramoedya, it remains only a possibility.

The series is disconcerting, partly because of its origins as an oral tale. Episodic and repetitive, its characters talk in waves of dialogue about themselves and events that mostly happen off the page.

A deeper reason, though, is Pramoedya's signature didactic style: His allegory of 30 years of political tumult in the Dutch Indies and Minke's understanding of their significance serves not only Pramoedya's version of Indonesian history, but his version of his own life story. It's as if he set out to create both his work and his life as part of the same narrative, insisting that his literature and his autobiography become inextricably bound.

Minke personifies Indonesian nationalism. What happens to Minke happened to Indonesia. In a different period with different players, it also happened to Pramoedya, at least in his version of what remains a bitter struggle over the history of modern Indonesia. Pramoedya insists on being a player in that contest, leaving a tension between his didactic voice and his literature.

Pramoedya has said he wrote the quartet “as shock therapy” for Indonesians, to reawaken the dream of nationalism. To do that, he turned to the long-forgotten figure of Tirto Adhisurjo, a journalist who founded a “freedom group” in 1909. On Buru, Pramoedya melded memory and imagination to transform Tirto into the fictional Minke.

The Buru Quartet opens in 1898, when Holland was at the height of its power in the Dutch Indies and Minke, then one of the few natives allowed to attend school, discovers science and the world of his colonizers. He treasures a photograph of Queen Wilhelmina.

But Minke is soon confronted by the cruelty and hypocrisy of Her Majesty's colonial overlords. Armed with that knowledge and newly acquired European ideas, coming-of-age for Minke means acknowledging the corruption and the vulnerability of the European colonial enterprise.

Slowly, with many hardships and loves lost along the way, Minke finds another future: the dream of independence for the peasants and colonial subjects of the Dutch Indies. By the second novel, Minke becomes a journalist; he abandons Dutch and begins writing in Malay. “Columbus was not the only person to discover a new continent. So, too, have I,” he writes of his exploration of his native tongue.

By the third novel, Footsteps, the tetralogy's linchpin and the book most weighted with connections to Pramoedya's own troubles, Minke has become a crusading newspaper editor and the founder of a nationalist group. Exuberant and filled with promise at the beginning (“I am here to triumph, to do great things,” he writes), the book ends with colonial strongmen cornering Minke. Barefoot but unbowed, knowing he has history on his side, Minke is led to exile on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas.

House of Glass, the last and most peculiar volume, is the only section in which Minke does not serve as the narrator/writer. Instead, Pangemanann—the brilliant native who joined the colonial establishment and has watched Minke's every move and engineered his exile—takes over as storyteller. His is a tale of power, disillusion and decay. Our wise but self-loathing, hating narrator has placed Minke, as he puts it: “into a house of glass which I will place on my desk, I will be able to see everything. That is my assignment. … The Indies must not change.”

Like Pramoedya on Buru, Minke writes the first three volumes of a quartet of novels on Ambon. They are stolen and given to Pangemanann, who reads them in admiration. “Europe now confronted a product of Europe itself—an awakening and exploding nationalism,” he writes. “And it was strange to see nation formed by speech and pen alone.” He calls Minke his teacher, the first modern man in the Indies, a revolutionary who could have been a leader in the style of Sun Yat-sen or Aguinaldo. Yet it is Pangemanann's job to destroy him.

His exile over, Minke returns to Java and refuses to sign Pangemanann's document promising to avoid politics. Soon, in the grim denouement to Pramoedya's rich tale of a dream unfulfilled, Minke is poisoned by a Eurasian who is presumably working for the Dutch, though the connection is not made explicit. He dies, “leaving behind in this world only the imprints of his footsteps.”

There is no question that Pramoedya has written a classic of Indonesian literature, even if it is illegal to read it there. And like his memorable Minke, Pramoedya's footsteps continue to leave imprints. Last year's ruckus over granting Pramoedya the Ramon Magsaysay Prize—instigated by those who have long accused him of attempting to muzzle writers during Sukarno's time—and his recent interrogation are signs of his continuing ability to serve as a flashpoint for the political and cultural cleavages that divide Indonesians.

Now, with The Buru Quartet available in English, a wider readership can decide the question of whether Pramoedya will be remembered as a political player or a novelist. It would be a shame if he weren't remembered as both. A past master at blending his politics and his art, he did contribute to Indonesia's sad pattern of silencing writers during his heyday of running a pro-communist cultural organization under Sukarno. He also has made a lasting contribution through his novels that no ban can stifle. As a young nation's greatest writer, his words carry the power of having a hold on the future.

Carlo Coppola (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Coppola, Carlo. Review of House of Glass, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 652-53.

[In the following review, Coppola commends House of Glass as an effective conclusion to the author's Buru series and notes that the Indonesian government's ban on Pramoedya's literary works only reinforces the dominant themes of his novels.]

Some facts concerning Pramoedya Ananta Toer's magnum opus, the Buru Quartet, are well known: he “wrote” it while a political prisoner of the Indonesian government on notorious Buru Island from 1965 to 1979; refused writing materials, Pramoedya composed the novels orally and spoke them to fellow prisoners, who memorized them for him; only late in his prison term was he given pen and paper; more recently, he has been under city arrest in Jakarta for years; and his English translator, the Australian diplomat Max Lane, was expelled from Indonesia for having made the translation.

House of Glass is the final installment of this tetralogy. The first three—This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations, and Footsteps (see WLT 69:1, p. 226, and 70:1, p. 239)—are an extended autobiography of Madan Ras Minke, who is modeled on the early-twentieth-century Indonesian patriot-journalist Tirto Adi Suryo. Whereas the first three novels are narrated by Minke, House of Glass shifts away from him and is presented as a set of office notes made by Jacques Pangemanann, the first high-ranking Native officer in the Dutch Indies colonial service. An orphan, he was adopted by a French couple who took him to France, reared him there, and educated him at the Sorbonne. Married to a Frenchwoman, he is the major senior expert on Native nationalist activities. Through the course of the novel the idealistic, principled Pangemanann degenerates into a corrupt, morally compromised, womanizing, drunken political hack who follows his superiors' orders to track and, when necessary, to undermine the nascent nationalist organizations in the colonies.

The title refers to Pangemanann's ability, through his elaborate and highly efficient spy network, to place his subjects in a house of glass where he is able to observe them closely and, if necessary, arrange vital and crucial aspects of their lives to conform to the wishes of the Dutch colonial government. The narrative itself is also a glass house in which Pangemanann is similarly held up to the reader's scrutiny. Eventually his power, like that of the Dutch, is curtailed by the social, political, and religious forces unleashed by Minke's activities. These have grown into numerous movements which, in various ways, foreshadow the decline of Dutch colonial power. Most of these events occur while Minke is in exile for five years. When he returns, Minke finds that his indirect, respectful challenge of unjust colonial laws has been replaced by the confrontative, antagonistic methods of his younger followers. He feels obsolete and dies under suspicious circumstances. In the traumatic aftermath of World War I, Pangemanann too is made to feel obsolete by government policies which run to appeasement of native demands rather than the underhanded, strong-armed attitudes that previously dominated the colonial hierarchy and allowed him to shine.

What has caused the current Indonesian regime to ban the tetralogy and all of Pramoedya's writings is the powerful metaphorical presentation of the political realities in the East Indies at the start of this century and those of modern-day Indonesia as well. Not much has changed, Pramoedya suggests. Oppression and corruption remain. The only change is the color of the oppressors' skin.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Michael Vatikiotis (interview date 11 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Pramoedya Ananta, Toer, and Michael Vatikiotis. “A Nation's Conscience.” Far Eastern Economic Review 161, no. 24 (11 June 1998): 46.

[In the following interview, Pramoedya discusses his reaction to the political situation in Indonesia after the fall of the New Order.]

The acrid smoke from a kretek cigarette curls up from his mouth as Indonesia's best known writer pauses to think about the momentous events in May that saw an end to Suharto and his New Order government. Finally, Pramoedya Ananta Toer gives a throaty chuckle. “Suharto's resignation is a comedy,” he says. “How can we have a real reform? The new cabinet is composed of people from the New Order, simply enjoying the national cake.”

He thinks for a while, takes another long draw on his cigarette and takes careful aim at the new government: “Reformasi,” he says using the popular Indonesian term for student-led demands for a complete overhaul of the political system in the wake of Suharto's May 21 resignation, “will be corrupted to become “Proformasi.” The word appears to have come to him on the spur of the moment; it appeals to him, so he repeats it: “Proformasi.”

Despite Suharto's departure, these are strangely unhappy times for a writer who spent 14 years as a prisoner of the New Order on a remote island, and remains, for the time being, confined to the city under virtual house arrest. His epic four-volume chronicle of the Indonesian struggle for independence, known as the Buru Quartet after his island jail, was composed orally while he was a prisoner and later banned in Indonesia.

Throughout Suharto's rule, Pramoedya suffered more or less in silence; his books were banned, and moves by the international literary community to recognize his enormous contribution to Indonesian literature were muffled by a government too afraid to let him accept awards overseas. Naturally, the 73-year-old journalist and writer admits that his suffering gives him a jaded view of the Suharto regime, but why is he so bleak about the future after Suharto?

Basically, because he sees no change to the fundamental structure of the system Suharto built. Giving an interview, he perches on the edge of a couch in his humble house in East Jakarta. A grandchild plays in the background. “The New Order was based on militarism,” he declares. The army's role in politics, which remains in force by law despite the transfer of power to a civilian president, means that “civil society is always under the army's control, whatever politicians say.”

Suharto came to power through violence, he argues, pointing to the still unresolved murder of six generals on September 30, 1965, after which Suharto seized control. “The important thing is that all the generals who were murdered were above Suharto,” he asserts. Once in power, Suharto relied on the Javanese culture to reinforce his power. “In the Javanese culture, if you become the Number One person you're God's choice and you can do whatever you like.” The problem in Indonesia is that culture is a barrier to change, he argues: “As long as the culture never changes, the political system remains the same.”

Many Indonesians reject this rather deterministic explanation, arguing that improved standards of education and higher incomes will support a flowering of democratic institutions. But Pramoedya has been there before. He was a communist activist riding a crest of popularity—and critics say behaving arrogantly—in the 1950s when Indonesia enjoyed a flourishing multiparty system. Now, he says with a wave of his hand, “it's all theoretical.” The New Order still exists, he insists; militarism is still in force.

“Sukarno used to say, ‘Don't take Western democracy, we must develop our own,’” he continues. “Well, we did; the New Order adopted ‘Democracy Pancasila,’ with a puppet parliament with puppet parties. Democracy in the purest sense has never happened in Indonesia.”

Pramoedya's one hope for real change reflects his own experiences during the Indonesian revolution of 1945-49, during which the younger generation spearheaded the nationalist movement. He sees this reflected in the thousands of students who demonstrated on campuses nationwide for over two months before occupying parliament just days ahead of Suharto's resignation. “It's a pure movement,” he insists, contradicting many Indonesian intellectuals who like to paint the students as political naifs and stooges.

Echoing the heroic idealism that runs through his writing, Pramoedya sees the young generation as the engine of change in Indonesian history—albeit without the benefit of perpetual motion. “In a simple way the modern history of Indonesia is a history of generational conflict. The old generation strives to stay established, while the young generation paves the way for the future.”

That's certainly the way Diding, a 22-year-old student at Jakarta's institute of technology saw it as he breathlessly explained how he and his fellow students would push for reform a day before the students were evicted from parliament on May 22. “We have faith in our generation because our national leaders were young when they led the revolution. We have to be like them and seize this moment to create a new Indonesia.”

Oddly enough, many students haven't found the generation gap a barrier to seeking advice from Pramoedya, who was interrogated by the authorities after an earlier incident of student rioting in July 1996. His advice to them is firm: “If the students stop their action, they'll face guns again. There might possibly be genocide and what they present today as reform would become a revolution. And if Indonesia descends into violence, it will disintegrate.”

Tough words from a man who has endured repression for almost half his life. But when asked if he plans to write another book, he looks dreamily away. “I have lots of material,” he says. “But in the current situation, there is no consensus that we have reached the end.”

Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Matthew Rothschild (interview date 21 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Pramoedya Ananta, Toer, and Matthew Rothschild. “Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Progressive 63, no. 10 (October 1999): 31-3.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 21, 1999, Pramoedya discusses the Buru Quartet, his time in prison, the influence of his parents on his writing, and the political situation in Indonesia.]

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the preeminent novelist of Indonesia and is frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize. Born on February 1, 1925, on the island of Java, Pramoedya was brought up to be an Indonesian nationalist. From 1947 to 1949, he was imprisoned by the Dutch for possessing anti-colonial materials. A supporter of Indonesia's first president, the nationalist and nonaligned leader Sukarno, Pramoedya was a marked man when General Suharto seized power in September 1965. On the evening of October 13, 1965, Pramoedya was at home editing a collection of Sukarno's short stories when the military came for him. He spent most of the Suharto era behind bars without trial, including fourteen years at the Buru Island Prison Colony. For the first few years there, he was held with sixteen other prisoners in isolation from the other inmates.

During Suharto's thirty-three-year reign, Pramoedya's works were banned in Indonesia. Today he is most famous for his Buru Quartet, which he wrote from 1969 to 1979 while imprisoned there. The quartet consists of This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps, and House of Glass (all republished in English by Penguin). The hero of the anti-colonial quartet is a journalist named Minke, who gradually becomes a leading voice for Indonesian independence. Minke narrates the first three installments of the quartet. But in the last one, a new narrator takes over, Minke's captor—Jacques Pangemanann, who arrested him for publishing an attack on the Dutch rulers. While guarding Minke, Pangemanann comes to admire him and sympathize with the nationalist movement though he still treats him with cruelty.

Toward the end of the quartet, Pangemanann and a couple of police officers present Minke with a release form to sign. It demands that he not get involved in politics or organizations. Minke spurns the request:

What do you gentlemen mean by politics? And by organization? And what do you mean by ‘involved’? Do you mean that I have to go and live by myself on top of a mountain? Everything is political! Everything needs organization. Do you gentlemen think that the illiterate farmers who spend their lives hoeing the ground are not involved in politics? The moment they surrender a part of their little crop to the village authorities as tax, they are carrying out a political act because they are acknowledging and accepting the authority of the government. Or do you mean by politics just those things that make the government unhappy? While those things that make the government happy are not political? And tell me, who is it that can free themselves from involvement in organization? As soon as you have more than two people together, you already have organization. … Even those who become hermits, who take themselves away into the middle of the forest or the ocean, still take with them something of the influence of their fellow human beings. And while there are those who rule and those who are ruled, those who exercise power and those who are the objects of that exercise of power, people will be involved in politics. While people live in society, no matter how small that society, people will be organizing.

Pangemanann releases Minke anyway but heaps further humiliations upon him. A few months later, Minke dies in obscurity.

This year, Pramoedya has come out with a new book, The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir (Hyperion). In it, he provides sketches of what life was like in prison.

“For the first few months, torture was the prisoners' constant diet,” he writes. “I saw prisoners whose hands and legs were bound tightly being thrown out of trucks. I witnessed how one young man, who was being interrogated beside me, had pencils placed between his fingers, at their base, between the middle and lower knuckles. Every time the interrogator asked the boy a question, he'd crush the young man's fingers together, causing him to scream and moan in pain.”

One surprise in the book is that Suharto wrote a letter to Pramoedya at Buru, and Pramoedya responded in a polite but jousting way. Both letters are reprinted in the text.

The longer Pramoedya stayed in prison, the more he seemed to doubt whether he would be able to reach anyone with his writings. “I recall someone saying, ‘Let him holler; he'll soon wear himself out.’ Now what I hear is, ‘Let him be. It won't be long before he dies anyway.’ I have lost my voice. Were I able to sing, would anyone hear this mute's soliloquy?”

Part of the memoir is addressed to his children, and much of it consists of autobiographical entries. But above all, the book continues his quest to gain true independence and freedom for Indonesia. Like the Nobel Prize-winners Naguib Mahfouz and Wole Soyinka, Pramoedya has felt the crush of disappointment after colonialism yielded not to democracy but to corruption and repression. Nonetheless, he has not given up.

“There was a time when the people of Indonesia wanted, demanded, and fought for national freedom,” he writes. “Now that's been won, personal freedom is trammeled. I've often heard people say, ‘Your country is beautiful, a virtual paradise.’ When will the people of Indonesia be as beautiful as their land, with a civilization and culture that contributes to the great beauty of humankind and no longer smothers and strangles the mind?”

I spoke with Pramoedya on May 21 in Madison, where he was a guest of the University of Wisconsin. I was told that he rises early, keeping to the same schedule he had in prison, so we met at 6:30 A.M. for coffee at the Madison Inn, where he was staying. He came downstairs with his wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, and with his longtime editor, Yusuf Isak, an Indonesian journalist who had also served time in prison under Suharto. Dressed casually and wearing a University of Wisconsin cap, Pramoedya got his wife a bagel, sat down, and offered me a clove Djarum cigarette, the first of many over the next hour. Speaking quietly in Indonesian, he was careful not to aggrandize his prison experience. And he showed an almost blasé attitude toward his Buru Quartet, laughing when he appeared not to recognize his own words. When we were through with the interview, he asked for a tour of The Progressive magazine, which I was more than happy to give.

[Rothschild]: In This Earth of Mankind, one of your characters says, “Without a love of literature, you'll remain just a lot of clever animals.” Where did your love of literature come from?

[Pramoedya]: I couldn't do anything else, apart from writing.

Ever since you were a boy?

At first I had no inclination to write. But I failed in trying to do other jobs, so I decided to become a writer.

How did you manage to write your quartet while in prison?

Before I got permission, I had to do it behind their backs. For a long time, I was not permitted to write, so I had to do it orally. From 1971 until mid-1973, we were not allowed to socialize with the others. During mass executions of political prisoners, in the isolation cell I told the stories to my friends. During official ceremonies, my fellow isolated friends told the stories to other friends who were not being isolated, and that's how they were spread.

How did you convey such a long and involved story orally?

Only the general outlines were orally transmitted. The details had to be written down later, when paper was available.

Tell me about your time in prison and the treatment you received.

Practically everyone has their own scars due to torture.

What conclusion did you draw from the sadism of the guards about human beings in general?

I saw how low culture and civilization could go. In Indonesia, the guards torture people in order to feel mighty and feared. They are happy if people are scared of them.

Your latest work, The Mute's Soliloquy, is a collection of your writings and reflections in the Buru prison. It's not a novel at all. What were you intending to do with this?

The book was for my children so that they would know they once had a father. Because on Buru, you have to be prepared to be executed at any time. I knew that the quartet would be smuggled out; it was intended to be read by the public. But this one was not; it was private.

You write in The Mute's Soliloquy that your imprisonment was “a consequence of nation-building.” What did you mean by that?

The army imprisoned me because I was actively involved in the process of nation-building. I write my books to make the nation as one. I write using the Indonesian language because that language is a bond that unites us. I don't use my mother tongue, the Javanese language. Indonesia is comprised of many ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. It has to be built into one nation.

In a sense, your anti-colonial quartet is a chronicle of nation-building, isn't it?

The spirit is anti-colonial because I was socialized from childhood to be anti-colonial.

Your dad was a nationalist?

Yes, a non-cooperator. There were cooperators and non-cooperators. It has to be emphasized here: He was a non-cooperator.

Did he encourage you to become a writer?

My father practically never spoke with his children.

So how did you pick up his anti-colonial attitude?

By example.

What about your mother?

Since childhood I was taught by my mother to be a free person. Not ordering others around, and also not being ordered around by others. That was how my mother socialized us. My mind has been free since childhood. I create freedom for myself.

Minke, the hero of your quartet, is a journalist, and you, for a time, were a journalist, too. Did you become a journalist as a way to fight for Indonesian independence?

No, when I was a teenager, I had to find a job. And journalism was the one open to me.

But you soon began to realize the power of the word?

Yes, the power of the word. Even though no one admits it, writers are leaders in their communities. And Indonesia, especially, needs writers who can reach the people evenly, regardless of class or station.

But you have a character in your quartet warn Minke “to be a writer, and not a speechmaker.” Are you making the point that speechifying gets in the way of art?

I chose to write, and not to make speeches, though I did make some speeches before I was imprisoned. But writing is still writing. And it depends on the quality of the writing itself whether someone is creating art or not.

In Child of All Nations, Minke's mentor also says, “A good author, Mr. Minke, should be able to provide his readers with some joy, not a false joy, but some faith that life is beautiful.” What did you mean by that?

I don't know; I never reread my own writing.

Why is that?

If I reread it, I'll keep rewriting it, and it'll never be finished.

But were you advising yourself to provide joy in your own writing?

No, no. This is about Minke; it is different for myself.

But surely as a writer, you must think it's important to provide some joy, some faith?

I don't write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.

Do you think writers who try to give joy are spreading false hope?

I don't have the right to judge those who write to give joy, but it's a struggle to give conscience and not joy.

I've got to ask you the obvious question about your quartet: Why did you remove Minke as the narrator of your fourth installment, House of Glass, just as he enters confinement?

Because, practically, Minke's life story has already finished. The fourth book is about how power defeats Minke—colonial power. His life doesn't continue. If there is a continuation, then the continuation is with the history of independence. And that process of continuation is in the hands of others.

Near the end of House of Glass, Minke's guard writes up a release form for him to sign, which says that Minke forswears future involvement in politics and organizing. Minke rejects the offer with an eloquent speech. Is this scene at all autobiographical?

With me, I did sign it. But in the letter of release it mentioned that it was not legally proven that I was involved in the Indonesian Communist Party.

Your quartet centered on the quest for independence. But since 1945, Indonesian independence cannot have turned out as you imagined. What happened?

I had idealism when I was young, but in reality the interference from abroad has been too much.

From the West?

Yes, and from multinational corporations. Eisenhower wanted to overthrow Sukarno; there is a document about it. Sukarno wanted to turn Indonesia into an independent country, not one ordered around by any superpower. But the United States wanted Indonesia to become the playing field for multinationals. Sukarno didn't want that. He was loved by the people, and that was why it wasn't that easy to murder him. He survived seven assassination attempts. So the United States cooperated with a wing of the army that was favoring the West and the multinationals. Great Britain played the most important role in overthrowing Sukarno, but the United States was giving weapons and providing a list of people's names who had to be murdered. The list was from the U.S. embassy.

You write that we're in “The Age of Capital” or “The Age of the Triumph of Capital.” How long is it going to last, do you think?

Now is the absolute victory of the multinationals. Now, in reality, the whole of the Third World hopes for the aid of capital. Even the still-existing communist countries have started to accommodate capitalism.

But what's their alternative?

There is an alternative. That's what Sukarno taught. Do not invite capitalism, but if you want to develop, it's OK to borrow money. I'm against capitalism but not capital.

Are you optimistic about democracy in Indonesia?

I am optimistic. Why? Because Indonesia has the young generation, who are still in the process of forming their own identities. They are activists. They are more educated than their parents, and their hearts are pure.

In one of your prison notes in The Mute's Soliloquy, you wrote that you wanted to live long enough to see the end of Suharto's New Order. Were you surprised when he was forced out on May 21, 1998?

When Suharto stepped down, many reporters came to me, wanting to write about my happiness at his fall. I said, “This is just a comedy.” He's using other hands and other faces. He transferred the presidency to Habibie. How is it possible that a president can appoint a president?

Do you support Sukarno's daughter Megawati, the leader of the main opposition party?

I have many problems with her. How could she have played a role as a member of Suharto's parliament after he killed two million of her father's supporters? And as a member of parliament, she never raised the issue of those massacres, she never raised the issue of people who were robbed of their rights, such as myself. Never. She was among Suharto's yes-men.

Minke, in This Earth of Mankind, says, “Maybe one day I could become a great writer like Hugo.” Now you are like an Indonesian Hugo. Are you comfortable in that role?

I feel I am in the place that I have chosen for myself my whole life. I feel it's more appropriate for me to be where I am today than to be a member of parliament or a minister or president.

You're often mentioned as someone who is likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Is that important to you?

Every award for me is important because it means a slap against militarism and fascism in Indonesia.

Sebastian Tong (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Tong, Sebastian. “Unexpected Convergences: Bakhtin's Novelistic Discourse and Pramoedya Ananta Toer's ‘Epic’ Novels.” World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 481-84.

[In the following essay, Tong links Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on literary forms with Pramoedya's Buru Quartet, asserting that the series functions as “the locus of a Bakhtinian convergence between esthetic form and political power.”]

Yes, Ma, we fought back … even though only with our mouths.

—Minke to Nyai Ontosoroh1

As prominent opponent and victim of his country's former New Order regime, the literary work of Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer has been inevitably entangled with his politics. His fourteen-year political imprisonment and his outspoken resistance to the Suharto government have made him a symbol of democratic struggle, with student activists risking jail sentences to defy the ban on his books, particularly the novels of his best-known work, the Buru Quartet.2

Composed orally in the absence of pen and paper over ten years in the prisons of Buru Island, the tetralogy has attracted the attention of scholars of both Southeast Asian politics and comparative literature. Much of the discussion of the work, however, has been sidelined by the story of its author's persecution. Indeed, Pramoedya's status as cause célèbre has detracted somewhat from the vital importance and relevance of his Buru Quartet to literary theory, specifically Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas on literary form, which focus on the evolution of the novel and the epic and the implicit ideology behind them. This relationship between form and power provides the link between the Russian literary theorist and the Javanese writer.

For an author previously known for his short stories, Pramoedya's sprawling Buru novels—This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps, and House of Glass—represent an ambitious yet deeply personal3 attempt to re-create a seminal moment in Indonesia's history: the turbulent transition of the colonial world from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Despite dealing with the quintessentially epic subject of the rise of a nation and possessing generic “epic” characteristics such as a broad historical and geographic sweep and a kaleidoscopic cast of characters, the tetralogy remains grounded in the polyphony of novelistic discourse outlined by Bakhtin in his famous essay of 1935, “Epic and the Novel.” Here, Bakhtin declares the epic and the novel to be antagonistic literary genres, arguing that unlike the polyglot, polyphonic, and heterodox world of the novel, the epic engenders nationalistic myths of history, because “‘The world of the epic’ is the national heroic past: it is a world of ‘beginnings’ and peak times in the national history, a world of fathers and founders of families, a world of ‘firsts’ and ‘bests.’”4 Consequently, one may perceive the epic to be “monologic,” with a single, authoritative voice presenting an orthodox and absolute version of history.

Novelistic discourse, on the other hand, is “dialogic,” because it accommodates different and competing systems of thought and does not presume to possess a monopoly on truth and discourse. It exhibits an “indeterminacy” and “semantic open-endedness” and, unlike the epic, remains in “living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality.”5 This is evident both stylistically and thematically in Pramoedya's tetralogy as it traces the emotional and intellectual journey of its central character, Minke. Throughout his progress from a young Javanese student feted for his Dutch-language short stories, to a fiery revolutionary journalist of the Malay-language press, and finally to a defiant political prisoner, Minke frequently finds himself in earnest dialogue with other characters, examining and debating issues of political and social significance.

In the first two novels, for instance, Minke is resistant to writing in Malay, the most widely used language in the linguistically diverse Dutch Indies, preferring instead the language of the ruling Dutch. But in several heated arguments with his friends—Kommer, a Native journalist, and Jean Marais, a French artist working and living in Java—his implicit belief in the superiority of the European language is profoundly challenged. They insist that Malay, a language he dismisses as “impoverished” and “riddled with borrowed words,”6 is the appropriate medium for the social and political mobilization of the disparate peoples of the Dutch Indies.

In the later novels, the polemical scope is widened from language to the direction and nature of nationalism, and Pramoedya even enlists key figures from Indonesian history to cross intellectual swords with Minke.7 The early nationalist Douwager,8 for instance, is brought in to discuss the linguistic and ethnic basis of Indies nationalism in the third novel of the series, Footsteps. Whereas Douwager envisages a nation of “one people”9—namely, the Dutch-speaking “Indisch,” a category not dependent on ethnic and racial origin but on identification with and loyalty to the Indies—Minke disputes the choice of Dutch as a national language and questions Douwager's dismissal of ethnic differences. For Minke, the unifying bond of Islam and the support of the Native middle-class are crucial to the emergence of the nation.

However, the character who most embodies the voice of the Other—that most central of Bakhtin's conditions for social and political challenge to the voice of authority—is Nyai Ontosoroh, the iron-willed, charismatic Javanese concubine of a Dutch businessman. Her fiery independence and her success as a businesswoman constitute a challenge to orthodox Javanese views on women, especially concubines, and she is by far the most important influence on Minke. Significantly, Minke begins calling her “Mama” even before he marries her daughter, the beautiful and frail Annelies. It is a term of address as apt as it is affectionate, for she proves to be the nurturer of intellect and character throughout his life. It is Ontosoroh who frequently highlights for Minke the value of alternative systems of thought. For instance, she urges him to look beyond his Eurocentric education and to pay equal attention to “ideas that aren't European”10 after they meet a young Chinese revolutionary working to overthrow the enfeebled and corrupt ancien régime in his country.

Replete with political discussions between characters and references to banned or orthodox newspapers, books, and pamphlets, the Buru Quartet displays a dialogic awareness and tolerance of the “tumult of ideas”11 surrounding the emergence of Indonesian nationalism. By allowing for the existence of competing voices and conflicting viewpoints in the Quartet, Pramoedya, a university historian before his arrest in 1965, is consciously challenging the monologism of the official version of history. What Bakhtin observes of Dostoevsky, therefore, may be applied to Pramoedya as well. His characters do not exist as mere mouthpieces for a dominant authorial voice but are “polemicized with, learned from” while “attempts are made to develop their own views into finished systems.”12 One of the essential qualities of the “polyphonic novel,” Bakhtin insists, is a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses.”13 The Buru Quartet is emphatically polyphonic not only because its characters form a social tableau reflecting the diversity of the turn-of-the-century Dutch Indies, but also because each character is treated as “ideologically authoritative and independent.”14

Reinforcing this polyphony is one of the most striking stylistic elements of the novels: the frequent shift of narrative voice. Although the novels take the form of written first-person records—the first three ostensibly by Minke and the fourth by a government spy named Pangemanann—their narrative voices are constantly interrupted by epistles, testimonies, and eyewitness accounts. The first shift in narrative voice occurs when Minke learns about the “extraordinary Nyai Ontosoroh” through Annelies. The transition of voices is announced in this manner: “It was only several months later that I found out from Annelies the story about her mother. After re-ordering, it came out as follows …”15 From this point, the girlish voice of Annelies takes over, recounting how, unable to sleep after the excitement of Minke's “first visit”16 to her home, she sought the comfort of her mother. The conversation between mother and daughter leads to Ontosoroh's account of how she was sold to her Dutch master at age thirteen. Annelies's narrative, therefore, frames Ontosoroh's extended first-person account of her lost childhood.

The use of an embedded first-person narrative is also notable in one of the subplots of This Earth of Mankind: the murder of Ontosoroh's Dutch master, Herman Mellema, by a Chinese brothel-owner named Babah Ah Tjong. Reconstructing the event in the narrative, Minke uses the trial testimonies of Ah Tjong and one of his prostitutes, Maiko, and recasts them in his “own words.”17 This inclusive vision is further evidenced by the Buru Quartet's frequent use of the epistolary form. The letter, Bakhtin states, is addressed to a specific person and therefore takes into account the other's possible reactions. As such, it acts like a “rejoinder in a dialogue.”18 One of the most extended dialogues is that between Minke and a Dutch girl named Miriam. They meet as teenagers, and their friendship continues in the form of a lifelong correspondence based on a conviction, expressed by her and later by her father, that “it's only normal that there should be an exchange of views between educated people.”19 Her letters offer Minke an insight into “the views of Europeans”20 and provide him with a link to a world beyond the Dutch Indies. Miriam comments, for example, on the English-Dutch struggle over South Africa and on the transformations affecting the colonial metropole. Like Miriam's letters, Minke's correspondence with the liberal Dutch journalist Ter Haar also widens the novels' scope beyond the island of Java. Ter Haar's letters, for instance, offer a vivid description of the heroic resistance of the Balinese against the invading Dutch. Whenever introducing his letters into his narrative, Minke consciously informs us that he has ordered them in his “own way.”21 As with the testimonies of Maiko and Ah Tjong, Minke alerts us to his fallibility as a narrator who is neither authoritative nor omniscient.

While not vital in terms of plot, these changes in narrative perspective reveal a polyphonic concern with the importance of all the characters and their respective individual histories, with allowing all the characters to become “full subjects … telling their own tales.”22 Little wonder, then, that Pramoedya's account of national awakening was considered dangerous by Suharto's regime. Despotism, as Nyai Ontosoroh points out in the novels, continues to exist because “no one raises [a] voice” in order to “fight back.” If the combined voices of the victimized and the persecuted were roused, she declares, “what a roar there would be.”23 Within the polyphony of Pramoedya's epic novels, each character has a distinct voice, and they all contribute to a portrait of a nation that is, in the words of one character, “formed by speech and pen alone.”24 In depicting the flux of competing ideas from which modern Indonesia emerged, the novels challenge the orthodoxy of Indonesian nationalism as the “expression of an Indonesian ‘spirit’ which produced the Indonesian Revolution, independence, and ultimately the military-based New Order regime of President Suharto.”25

Pramoedya's criticism of traditional Hindu-Javanese epics in the novels of his tetralogy also corroborates Bakhtin's view of the epic form as inescapably related to the dominant power structures. An avowed leftist, Pramoedya has frequently derided what he calls literature “born in the lap of power.”26 By this he refers to Hindu-Javanese epics such as the Mahabharata and the Baharatayuddha, which are popularly retold throughout the archipelago in traditional shadow-puppetry or wayang kulit. Such epics, he charges, have consistently provided the cultural basis for past and present oppression, promoting the Javanese notion of tepo seliro, of knowing one's place in the feudal hierarchy.

Pramoedya's dispute with the epic is not just social critique, but rather is tied to his attack on the present regime, which has manipulated Javanese myth to create what Bakhtin calls a “sacred and sacrosanct”27 epic past. In the Quartet, the contradiction between the Javanese obsession with social caste, on the one hand, and political and social progress on the other comes into sharp focus when Minke's mother, who embodies the values of feudal Java, learns of his involvement with the Javanese peasant-farmers' struggle against the rapacious European Sugar Syndicate. She is unable to comprehend her son's concern, and asks him, “Have you ever seen a farmer in any wayang story? Never. Because they are just not there. There are only kings, the knights, the priests.”28

The epics of Javanese tradition or what Minke calls “the misguided songs of the misguided Javanese”29 are hence inextricably linked with the status quo, with the rigid social hierarchy of feudal Java. Thus, in Footsteps Minke laments:

This wrong view of blood and ancestry had such strong roots in the literature of Java. … These great epics had become obstacles to the people's advancements. These century-old teachings had lost touch with real life.30

As it had been to previous regimes, the Javanese emphasis on hierarchy and deference was tremendously useful to the New Order. The political commentator Lucian Pye, for instance, refers to the recurring ideal in Javanese myth of “the satria, or Javanese warrior” who remains “loyal to his king even when, or more correctly, especially when, the king has done wrong.”31 In fact, observers of the New Order frequently detected the old regime's inclinations toward projecting itself as “an idealized traditional Javanese kingdom,”32 with Suharto casting himself in the role of a patriarch-monarch.

Although inextricable from its social and political context, the significance of the Buru Quartet is not circumscribed by these circumstances. Maintaining an epic scope and subject while repudiating the inherent political structures behind the form, the Quartet demonstrates the capacity of the novel to accomplish the grand political and social agenda ascribed to the genre. In effect, the books become the locus of a Bakhtinian convergence between esthetic form and political power. The Quartet is therefore intrinsically subversive in esthetic form and not merely because of the marginalized position of its author in the previous regime. When one recognizes this, the author and his work are once again freed from his oppressors' prison.


  1. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Awakenings, tr. Max Lane, Penguin Books Australia, 1991, p. 556.

  2. The first book was published in 1979 and banned shortly thereafter for promoting Marxism in a “disguised and refined manner,” according to the Indonesian attorney-general on 8 June 1988, as cited in Claire Davidson, “Ruma kacah: Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Indonesia's ‘Hidden History,’” Inside Indonesia, 16 (1988), p. 31.

  3. Pramoedya is, after all, a nationalist first and foremost. Between 1947 and 1949, he was imprisoned by the Dutch for his role as a propaganda officer in the Indonesian struggle for independence.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trs. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 13.

  5. Ibid., p. 7.

  6. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 357.

  7. Minke himself is loosely based on Titro Adi Suryo, one of the pioneers of Indonesian journalism, largely neglected in the official accounts of Indonesian nationalism.

  8. The radical Eurasian founder of the first nationalist party, Indische Partij, also known as Ernest F. E. Douwes Dekker. See Fritjof Tichelman, “Early Emancipation and Inter-ethnic Relations on Java,” in Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun: Essays to Honour Pramoedya Ananta Toer's 70th Year, ed. Bob Hering, Kabar Seberang special ed., Sulating Maphilindo, 1995, pp. 240-65.

  9. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Footsteps (orig. Jejak langkah), tr. Max Lane, Penguin Books Australia, 1990, p. 235.

  10. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 333.

  11. Ibid., p. 314.

  12. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. & tr. Caryl Emerson, 3d ed., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 5.

  13. Ibid., p. 6.

  14. Ibid., p. 5.

  15. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 49.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., p. 126.

  18. Bakhtin, p. 205.

  19. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 106.

  20. Ibid., p. 145.

  21. Pramoedya, Footsteps, p. 122.

  22. Daniel Booth, in the introduction to Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. xxiii.

  23. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 259.

  24. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, House of Glass (orig. Rumah kaca), tr. Max Lane, Penguin Books Australia, 1992, p. 270.

  25. Adrian Vickers, “Reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Writing Indonesian History,” New Literatures Review, 22 (1991), p. 83.

  26. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, “Literature, Censorship and the State: To What Extent Is a Novel Dangerous?,” tr. Alex G. Bardsley, accessed April 1998.

  27. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” p. 16.

  28. Pramoedya, Footsteps, p. 320.

  29. Pramoedya, Awakenings, p. 94.

  30. Pramoedya, Footsteps, p. 292.

  31. Lucian W. Pye, Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority, Cambridge (Ma.), Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 114.

  32. Robert Cribb and Colin Brown, Modern Indonesia: A History since 1945, London/New York, Longman, 1995, p. 137.

Works Cited

Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Awakenings. Max Lane, tr. Penguin Books Australia. 1991. (Combining This Earth of Mankind [orig. Bumi manusia] and Child of All Nations [orig. Anak semua bangsa.])

———. Footsteps (orig. Jejak langkah). Max Lane, tr. Penguin Books Australia. 1990.

———. House of Glass (orig. Rumah kaca). Max Lane, tr. Penguin Books Australia. 1992.

———. “Literature, Censorship and the State: To What Extent Is a Novel Dangerous?” Alex G. Bardsley, tr. Accessed December 1996 and April 1998.

Mikhail Bakhtin. “Epic and Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Michael Holquist, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trs. Austin. University of Texas Press. 1981.

———. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Caryl Emerson, ed. & tr. 3d ed. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1987.

Robert Cribb and Colin Brown. Modern Indonesia: A History since 1945. London/New York. Longman. 1995.

Claire Davidson. “Rumah kaca: Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Indonesia's ‘Hidden History.’” Inside Indonesia, 16 (1988), pp. 30-31.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun: Essays to Honour Pramoedya Ananta Toer's 70th Year. Bob Hering, ed. Kabar Seberang, special edition. Sulating Maphilindo. 1995.

Lucian W. Pye. Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority. Cambridge, Ma. Harvard University Press. 1985.

Adrian Vickers. “Reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Writing Indonesian History.” New Literatures Review, 22 (1991), pp. 82-102.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Michael Vatikiotis (interview date 15 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Pramoedya Ananta, Toer, and Michael Vatikiotis. “Unreconciled.” Far Eastern Economic Review 163, no. 24 (15 June 2000): 78-9.

[In the following interview, Pramoedya discusses the political situation in post-Suharto Indonesia.]

Nothing has changed, says Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Indonesia's greatest living writer, for decades a political prisoner and outcast in his own country, doesn't buy the idea that the fall of former President Suharto in May 1998 has created a new Indonesia. And, as President Abdurrahman Wahid grapples with the grim task of trying to bring about reconciliation after decades of state-sponsored violence, Pramoedya staunchly resists the idea.

“How can we have reconciliation?” he asks. “Nothing has changed. The bureaucracy is still the same. Everything is as it was under Suharto's New Order. It's all hot air.”

After what he's been through, it is perhaps not hard to understand Pramoedya's reaction. It's just two years since he was released from 18 years of city arrest, which barred him from travelling outside Jakarta. Now 75, he is physically and spiritually broken: His hearing damaged by a rifle butt to the head; his inspiration to write, he says, lost to long years of imprisonment and persecution.

Indonesians now have easier access to his books, but they are still technically banned. Bitter and seemingly incapable of forgiving his former jailers, he refuses to trust the idea of reform when all the history he has witnessed teaches him that Indonesia does not change so easily.

“They took everything away, even my house,” says the writer whom many believe will soon win the Nobel Prize. His work includes a quartet of novels spanning the rise of nationalism and struggle for independence in his country. Indonesians may have to look hard to find these books at home, but Pramoedya mentions that Hollywood is planning a film.

In the spirit of reconciliation President Wahid visited Pramoedya in early May, when the author asked him if he might get his old house back. “It's about a kilometre from here,” he says, as he sits on the narrow porch of the modest home he's lived in for the past 20 years. “It was completely wrecked. All my papers were burnt.” Pramoedya has legal title to his old house, which is currently occupied by a military officer. “I asked the president about it. He said he knew nothing.”

It was from this house in East Jakarta that Pramoedya was forcibly taken on October 13, 1965. He was jailed and eventually exiled on the barren prison island of Buru in eastern Indonesia for 14 years. His suffering makes him a prominent symbol of all the nameless thousands who died in political custody—which is why reformist intellectuals like Goenawan Mohammad would like to see Pramoedya come to terms with the past and help the country make a fresh start.

In an open letter to the author published last April, Goenawan asked Pramoedya to consider emulating former South African President Nelson Mandela. On his release from jail, Mandela sought reconciliation with his former enemies, helping to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy.

Pramoedya firmly rejected the idea. “I am not Nelson Mandela,” he said. “And I don't want to become him.” Pointing out that he was jailed without trial, lost the best years of his life, and had his works banned, he suggested a simple apology from the government was not enough.

So what does Pramoedya want? It seems to go beyond the restoration of his property. He worries that Indonesians have no sense of their history. He's afraid that if everything is quickly forgiven, and so forgotten, nothing will be learnt from the past. “If we don't know our history, we'll always make the same mistakes, the same year after year.”


Official accounts of Indonesian history glory in tales of revolution and popular solidarity. Reality is different. Indonesians don't like to talk about the past because the revolutionary struggle was as much about killing each other as defeating colonial powers. Pramoedya isn't shy about this hidden history.

“Everything came from the government, everything was a provocation,” he says. Communists were attacked by the army in 1948, he believes, to impress the West. In reaction, the left turned on Islam and slaughtered many Muslims. Then more communists—perhaps as many as a million suspected sympathizers—were killed in the aftermath of the alleged communist-backed coup in 1965.

Wahid's offer of an apology was supposed to carry weight because members of the huge Muslim association he has long led were in the forefront of massacring communists in 1965. But Pramoedya still sees a country “divided by murder.”

It's a belief many feel is borne out by the bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Maluku islands. “The people of Maluku tell me that it is impossible to talk about reconciliation,” says journalist and publisher Aristides Katoppo. “They saw their relatives murdered.”

And, like Pramoedya, he thinks reconciliation has become a slogan. “Reconciliation is not a bureaucratic process,” Katoppo insists. Even if it were, the government does not seem to be laying the groundwork for it. For instance, efforts have been made to bring experts in reconciliation over from South Africa, but when Wahid visited South Africa recently the topic never came up, sources close to the president say.

Yet as much as Indonesia's struggle to come to terms with the past is about real suffering, it is also about a divided intellectual elite. Pramoedya was a leading left-wing writer in the mid-1960s when the Communist Party of Indonesia was close to the centre of power. His harshest critics today accuse him of complicity, if only by association, with the persecution of artists and intellectuals not aligned with the left.

Countering this, the author's close friend and editor of many years, Joesoef Isak, points out that Pramoedya was arrested and jailed during the Sukarno period for a book he wrote about Indonesia's Chinese. In any case, Pramoedya is bitterly dismissive of many of his critics. The intellectuals who rose to prominence under Suharto's New Order are not to be trusted: “The New Order has a truly remarkable machinery of lying,” he says.

But if Pramoedya rejects the government's attempts at reconciliation, what is his alternative? Simply, he believes Indonesia can confront its past only by revealing the truth and delivering justice to victims by openly acknowledging their suffering. The long list of silent victims weighs heavily on him. At the end of his recent memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy, he publishes the names of the many prisoners who shared his captivity on Buru, and when and how they died.

“I remember giving the list to the newly formed Human Rights Commission some five years ago,” he recalls. “An official at the commission refused to receive it. He said the book is banned.”

Ronny Noor (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Noor, Ronny. Review of The Mute's Soliloquy, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 586-87.

[In the following review, Noor lauds Pramoedya's “sagacious” personal reflections in The Mute's Soliloquy and argues that Indonesia should lift the ban on his works.]

I first became familiar with Pramoedya Ananta Toer a few years back, in graduate school, when I read his masterpiece This Earth of Mankind (1991). It was an eloquent indictment of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, a piercingly vivid portrayal of the power of the colonizer and the impotence of the colonized. Since then, I have read three more spectacular novels by him, all written in a penal colony. So I was eagerly waiting to learn about his life when The Mute's Soliloquy, his memoir, arrived for my review. It not only records the author's first fifty-four turbulent years, but also demonstrates the veracity of what Thomas Mann once said: good work comes from bad life.

The eldest of nine children, Pramoedya (as he is usually referred to) learned to resist oppression and tyranny from his father, a “fiery nationalist” who had exhibited his disobedience of Dutch imperialism in his country. As the director of a primary school, his father dropped the Dutch colonial government-established curriculum and replaced it with a nationalistic one, which he himself had developed. Like his old man, Pramoedya defied the Dutch when he joined the People's Defense Force following the declaration of Indonesia's independence in August 1945. Soon he was arrested by the colonial authorities and thrown into prison. Suharto did not spare him either when the general overthrew the popular government of Sukarno, the first president of independent Indonesia, in 1965. After arresting the author, the military regime shipped him to desolate Buru Island, where he languished in a penal colony for fourteen years as a political prisoner without charges before he was released. During this time he wrote, among other works of literature, the Buru Quartet—This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps, and House of Glass (see WLT 69:1, p. 226, 70:1, p. 239, and 71:3, p. 652)—to “help correct the accepted colonial version of the history of the rise of Indonesian nationalism.”

This memoir, written in the form of letters to his children and random thoughts craftily translated by Willem Samuels, also informs us about the people who shaped Pramoedya's life, his foreign trips, and the influence of Indian philosophers like Tagore and Krishnamurti on Indonesian culture. Vivid depictions of tragic events in the penal colony are interspersed with profound wisdom. “Every person is delivered his death sentence at birth,” he writes to his daughter, reminding us of the Trojan leader Hector in Homer's Iliad. We hear echoes of Socrates, Crèvecoeur, Kafka, and Solzhenitsyn reverberating through the pages of this erudite and insightful memoir. Unfortunately, the Indonesian people are deprived of his wisdom, as the possession of his books is still a “punishable crime” in his native land. Hence they are the real losers, the Indonesians, who, like many once-colonized populations, have the misfortune of being ruled by those who have stepped into the oppressive shoes of their former colonial masters. “I would have you know,” Socrates told the Athenians, “that if you kill such an one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.” By banning Pramoedya's books in his native country, the Indonesian authorities are injuring themselves and their nation more than they are injuring this internationally acclaimed sagacious mind, certainly worthy of the Nobel Prize.

Linda K. Yoder (review date August 2002)

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SOURCE: Yoder, Linda K. Review of Tjerita dari Djakarta: Sekumpulan Karikatur Keadaan dan Manusianja, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 3 (August 2002): 1125-26.

[In the following review, Yoder examines the English translation of Tjerita dari Djakarta, commenting that the translators have ably retained the “spoken quality” of Pramoedya's writing.]

To open a dog-eared photocopy of the 1957 collection of stories, Tjerita dari Djakarta: Sekumpulan Karikatur Keadaan dan Manusianja, is to tumble backwards into Jakarta of the early years of independence. The darkly moody pen-and-ink sketches and the story-telling aura that is created with the first lines of almost every story, while not really a substitute for the smells of Jakarta, set the memories of this reviewer in motion. Could those illustrations have been reproduced in this English-language edition, what a treasure it would be. A full-page (8 × 5) sketch prefaces each story, darkly moody but revelatory of the details of everyday Jakarta life. The artists' names are not given in the first edition, but the initials “H. S.” or “A. M. M” appear on most of them. The illustrations are a fitting accompaniment to the sounds of story-telling and a scene-setting entrance into the world of each story, the keadaan (circumstance) that surrounds and delimits each of manusianja (its human beings).

This English-language collection of the Jakarta tales, which has been long enough in the coming, provides an invaluable addition to the works of Pramoedya in English for student, scholar, and lover of Indonesia. And while this reviewer is wishing, a dual-language edition of the tales would give a reader or scholar the pleasure of teasing out riches of language play in the text, of hearing alternate voices in one's head.

Pramoedya, as he is generally known, considered by many to be Indonesia's leading prose writer, was born in Blora, Java, in 1925. The stories in this collection were written between the years of 1948 and 1956, years of transition for the nation from revolutionary hope to postwar dejection. Most of the stories reflect this mood of disillusion and loss of enthusiasm of the Indonesian people. Some tales were written in Jakarta; some were written in Amsterdam during the six months that Pram spent on a grant from the Dutch Sticusa (Foundation for Cultural Cooperation), about which he was exceedingly ambivalent; and one was written in Bukit Duri Prison, the source of some of his most acclaimed works.

After these tales were written, Pramoedya for the most part abandoned the tale form, concentrating on his essays and novels. In 1958 he became a member of Lekra, the Institute of People's Culture, which called for social responsibility on the part of artists and championed the radical nationalist ideals of the revolution. As editor of Lentera, the cultural section of the news magazine Bintang Timur, he reprinted early works of literature and contributed articles on Indonesian cultural history. He also taught in various institutes. During the events following the September 30th struggle in 1965, as the “New Order” under Suharto and other generals was being created, Pramoedya was arrested. His work was banned, and much of it was destroyed. He was in prison from 1965 to 1979 and after that served a long period of house arrest.

Most of the translations in this collection were made by members of a Berkeley collective that calls itself the Nusantara Translation Group. This association of Malay/Indonesian language and literature scholars deserves accolades for its effort, which calls forth the hope that other high-quality translations of important Indonesian works will be made available in the future. Members contributing translations are Ray Chandrasekara, Kevin Dixon, Gary Nathan Gartenberg, Julie Shackford-Bradley, and Brandon Spars. Other translations in the collection were made by Sumit Mandal of the Institut Kajian Malaysia dan Antarabangsa and by Benedict Anderson of Cornell University.

Two valuable additions to this volume are the foreword written by Goenawan Mohamad, a journalist and writer in Indonesia, and the introduction by Benedict Anderson. There is also a three-page glossary, although many expressions are explained in footnotes. Mohamad's foreword is provocative. “Pramoedya Ananta Toer's stories are forceful pieces of writing in which the beginning is not the word. … [They are] written with ideas, not with words” (p. 9). He warns about the misleading ease of translating the semantic content, because Pramoedya's prose, with the warmth of the author's physical presence, demands a reader who is a part of an “Indonesia-shaped circle” for understanding. How to create such an “Indonesian-shaped circle” that draws in people who never were a part of the Djakarta of those days—this is the question that must have faced Pramoedya himself, who even as a young man was never a merely provincial thinker. And how much more must this question have faced the translators. Mohamad calls translation of these tales “almost a hopeless effort” (p. 9). One way of drawing the reader or listener into such a circle is by retaining certain crucial Indonesian-language expressions, whether untranslatable or almost translatable.

Another way of drawing the reader or listener into this circle is by striving to be true to the sense of writer as story-teller, by casting the language into the sound of the voice that can be heard telling tales by the flickering light of a dirty lampu tembok, the small kerosene lamp that was ubiquitous in the days of minimal electricity. Anderson's thoughtful and generous introduction reminds the reader to treat the stories as dongeng (tales), to listen for their spoken quality. He relates a conversation with the highly regarded writer Idrus, in which Idrus dismissed Pramoedya's stories as “simply dongeng” (p. 11). Yet it is the voice of the story-teller, in turns “urgent, sardonic, compassionate, and melancholy” that creates the moment of truth.

To help readers become a part of this circle, the translators had to choose words throughout that create a closeness of speaker and listener. Not all the translations have retained this spoken quality equally, but for the most part they succeed in doing this. There are times when a storyteller might choose Latinate diction, aureate language, just for effect, while most of the story flows on in a down-to-earth, colloquial, face-to-face style. However, the careful translator must make a word-by-word judgment of what register to use. So Shackford-Bradley, in translating “Houseboy + Maid,” might be affirmed for the phrase “bottom of the barrel” to describe the progenitor of the title pair (titik derdjat hamba jang penghabisan), and might be questioned a few lines earlier for the choice of “rapidly reproduce” for berbiak. But perhaps a translator's thoughtful judgments deserve questioning no more than do an author's.

Razif Bahari (essay date April 2003)

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SOURCE: Bahari, Razif. “Remembering History, W/Righting History: Piecing the Past in Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru Tetralogy.” Indonesia 75 (April 2003): 61-90.

[In the following essay, Bahari discusses fiction from the Orde Baru period of Indonesian history and examines how Pramoedya's Buru Tetralogy demythologizes literary interpretations of the period.]

The narration of time is a crucial determinant in the writing of both fiction and history in—the now old—Orde Baru Indonesia.1 It not only impinges on the way the present is bound to the past within the scheme of cause and effect, but serves as well to show how truth and meaning relate to a discourse that urges the reader always to discern the temporal landscape beyond the text's internal configurations. For the writing of history in the former New Order Indonesia, the contingencies of truth and meaning are profoundly unsettling.2 I do not mean this in a positive sense—that a cogent and restorative debate compelled Suharto's Orde Baru regime to question either its significance or its authenticity within the flow of Indonesian history. Unsettling here alludes to the tensions of narrative paradox. On the one hand, it suggests the absence of choices and alternatives in framing history within a discourse that narrowly construes truth. On the other, it insinuates the virtual capacity of discourse to deepen the resonances of dissent and to open narration to difference, not as a construct of reference, but within narrative structure and time. Matters of truth, meaning, and time (and, in this instance, the correlative issue of intellectual dissonance) are implicitly held up to scrutiny in all narrations. In Orde Baru Indonesia, however, they stand resolutely at the core of discourse and inhere critically in the authority asserted over the past by historians of the state. The full diversity of the past is therefore either expanded or constricted into particular types of narrative structures. Both prose fiction and historiography3 lay claim to the process of revealing the past in pre-Independence Indonesia, but their way of knowing history is contentious and contestatory, not only in intention but also in performance and experience.4

This essay focuses primarily on the way that Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru tetralogy—novels that evoke past time through subjective remembering, for the most part through first-person narration—explores history and makes it discernible. The past that each examines (the external referent of the text) is the past largely eschewed or appropriated by historiography first under the royal courts of ancient Java, then under Dutch colonialism, and later under the Orde Baru state apparatus, the lived past of Indonesia's first nationalist awakening and the strains of dissent and conflicts that anticipated Kemerdekaan (Independence) and persisted in its aftermath. I am not concerned, however, with the specific historical or factual content of these novels (i.e., I am not trying to get at the so-called facts of the matter as they may or may not have occurred in the real world). My aim instead is to disclose certain narrative strategies, as well as the conception of writing history these strategies convey, in order to reveal the imbrications of truth and meaning that lie at the heart of the Buru tetralogy. It is through (historical) truth and the courage to correct the inaccuracies, falsities, and fallacies of history—wrought firstly by “produk perkahwinan … antara kolonialisme dan feodalisme” (“the product of marriage between colonialism and feudalism”), and lately by Orba—according to Pramoedya, that Indonesians can finally shed their “budaya panutan” (“culture of followers” or herd mentality).5

Historiography under the Orde Baru era was largely intended to affirm the regime's morally correct role within Indonesian history.6 The government therefore used strategies both to suppress and to engender the past, that is, to arrest dissonance in the discourse of history as well as to assert continuity between the glories of Orde Baru prosperity and stability and the continued development of the modern nation-state that it purportedly ensured. Suharto himself frequently linked his regime to the restoration of the “true” Indonesian state:

The New Order is nothing else but the life pattern of the People, Nation, and State which we have restored to the implementation of the purity of Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution.

The New Order was born with a strong resolve to straighten out again the history of the course of our Nation and State, founded on the philosophy and moral of Pancasila as well as on the truest direction as set forth in the 1945 Constitution. The New Order, is, therefore, a total correction to every kind of deviation of our history in the past from 1945 up to 1965. The New Order also preserved and, as a matter of fact, defended the justifiable and rightful deeds during our past experience and history. Therefore, the New Order is in principle a total correction of ourselves, by ourselves, a total correction of our errors for our own benefit. This total correction covers all our minds and deeds, our spirit and actions, which must all, once again, be restored to the purity of the ideals of Independence, to the implementation of the purity of Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution.7

The New Order security and intelligence bodies comprising the State Intelligence Coordinating Body (Badan Koordinasi Intelijen Negara, or Bakin), the Coordinating Agency for the Maintenance of National Stability (Badan Koordinasi Bantuan Pemantapan Stabilitas Nasional, or Bakorstanas), and the attorney general's office, insisted that a diversity of discourses on the past would compel the dehiscence of all that was held noble and authentic. Thus, in almost every case, the rationale for censorship offered by the attorney general's office when it decided to ban certain historical studies (which had been a leading target of the censors) was usually that the offending work “inverts the facts” which could “lead the public astray” and ultimately “disturb public order.” Under President Suharto's New Order regime (1966-98), the state-scripted dominant historical discourse—as disclosed in school textbooks, biographies of national heroes, monuments, and national commemorations—expressed a particular national narrative, in which anti-communist campaigns and the military figured as guardians of the nation and as central leitmotifs. Stefan Eklöf characterizes this national historiography of the New Order regime as “extremely monolithic” and “all but void of nuances and [providing] no room for discussions of alternative interpretations.”8 Historical censorship thus presupposes an official history. In at least one case, this was made explicit. In 1990, the attorney general banned Permesta: Kandasnya Sebuah Cita-Cita (Permesta: The End of Hope), by K. M. L. Tobing, an account of the Permesta Rebellion in Sulawesi during the late 1950s. According to the censorship decree, the book was banned because it “contains analyses that conflict with the work Cuplikan Sejarah Perjuangan TNI Angkatan Darat (Aspects of the History of Struggle of the National Army),” a work published by the Armed Forces.9 New Order historiographer Nugroho Notosusanto, in fact, goes so far as to affirm that the Indonesian Education Ministry desired to “achieve absolute uniformity in the presentation of national history. Such a uniformity would, in this view, become an important factor in molding the national character.”10 The agenda of the government plainly crystallized in the consequences of the official discourse: the New Order intended to keep a firm hold not only on history, but also on the truth of that history.

Certainly many of the “truths” of New Order historiography have been denounced and subverted by critics and writers alike, and recent historians in Indonesia have become aware that all historiographic assumptions are tenuous. But still, even today, the history textbooks used in Indonesian schools are written by state-sponsored historians whose pattern of writing and structures of narration embedded in their discourse are largely mythic.11 The concept of myth that is crucial to New Order historiography refers to the exaltation of the static, to the adherence to a pattern of discourse that eschews equivocation and ennobles all that is fixed and unvaried.12 It functions both to coerce belief and to compel silence in the laying out of history, and its overriding power for the state stems from the intransigence of tautology: its truths are a matter not of confirmation, but of affirmation; it turns not on the intrusion of external facts, but on the self-verifying immediacy of its own narrative structure. Myth in the hands of the regime is epic in scope and heroic13 in value. As Suharto himself insists,

Today, if we look back at the passage of history, it is obvious that our major asset in achieving victory was our unity and readiness to make sacrifices in defending our Independence and its lofty ideals. Herein lie the noble values, ideals, and aims of the struggle that unified us together … [Pancasila] reflects the identity of Indonesia and stimulates the emergence of a highly unifying spirit and strong nationalism … Such a spirit of unity and nationalism enhances love for our Motherland, and awakens our determination to protect and defend our country.14

Such a pronouncement legitimates the regime's rhetorical agenda, which is neatly compressed into the lapidary dictum “one Indonesia, one race, one language.” In short, the mythical conception of history serves as the founding matrix for historiography under the New Order era, and its discourse of closure bears directly on the openly dissentient narration of history in Pramoedya's Buru tetralogy.

One of the most intriguing forms of dissent against the history propagated by the state was shaped by a group of Indonesian writers who published their first important works during the early 1950s—among others, Utuy Tatang Sontani, Mochtar Lubis, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, Idrus, and Pramoedya. Their social-realistic15 fiction stands as the dominant narrative force in Indonesia from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s and reflects a small but compelling cluster of literary tenets: the belief that objective reality is available to the writer and translatable into a story; the perceived coincidence between the sign and its referent; the assertion that to narrate life is to represent it in the whole of its authenticity; the faith that literary engagement can transform the world into something other than it is. Of course, not all Indonesian writers of this period adhered to the ideas of social realism, but the writers who did inscribed its precepts rigorously in their novels.

Yet these novelists' dissent with official history has something paradoxical about it. The paradox is not that dissent should spring from writers of fiction, but that it inheres in narratives that focus exclusively on the present. The paradox is easily set straight, however, if we pursue the larger field of intention (i.e., what the novelists meant to reveal and transform) and context (the implicit dialogue that social realism maintains with temporal causality and historical narration). Since the domain of the past had become the exclusive (and exclusionary) enterprise of the state both under the New Order and the Guided Democracy period before it, and since writers could not directly contest the official version of that domain by narrating the past, social realists set about depicting the full scope of the real in the present. On the one hand, their novels convey a reality that is less discursive than experiential (i.e., it is “lived” life written into discourse, rather than discourse reframed in another discourse) and thus less overtly vulnerable to corruption by other narrations. On the other hand, the casual arguments in these novels imply a past necessarily divergent from the one trumpeted by the historiography of the state. While state historians sought to expurgate the contingencies of dissonance with a mythic historiography, social realists contested the state's myths by creating a mythic discourse in reverse: their novels portray a specific present that suggests a specific past. Indeed, instead of implying the ennobling continuity of an epic past, this fiction calls forth the bathos of the mock epic.16 Rather than ennoble the individual, social realists esteem the virtues of the collective, and rather than deify the heroic, they celebrate the mundane and quotidian. In this way, social realism places itself in what Paul Ricoeur in another context calls the “sphere of the horrible”17—the countermyths of poverty, isolation, alienation, and the like that the state sets out not only to forget but to annul.

These contentions are well illustrated by Achdiat K. Mihardja's collection of short stories, Keretakan dan Ketegangan (Cracks and Tensions) (1956). Set for the most part in post-independence Indonesia, the stories tell of the suffering and misfortune that befall a motley group of misfits, members of society's underclass, in their struggles with injustice, falsehood, corruption, poverty, and widespread unemployment. The picture that emerges from the stories is not so much a portrait of development that the state envisaged, but a collage depicting the conditions of urban life created by the migration of large numbers of people from rural areas, the breakdown of traditional values and social units, the human dislocation resulting from structural change, extensive unemployment, and the high incidence of personal violence. In the first story in the collection, the destruction of family life wrought by upheaval and revolution adds a layer of meaning to our understanding of the war, inflation, hunger, fear, hate, sabotage, and fanaticism which together made up the price to be paid for a nation's idealism. Here was a country riven by anarchy within, invasion from without, a country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain. Revolution was at its height. Some were convinced the terror had to occur, either to sweep away the remnants of the old colonial regime or, from a more critical perspective, because the revolutionaries had inadvertently introduced authoritarianism into their seemingly democratic principles. Others believed that the Revolution had simply been swept off course and viewed the terror and lawlessness with dread, fearing that all the gains of revolution and independence had been lost as a result of the frantic policies of the period, which engendered ongoing foreign and civil wars, multi-layered internal political strife, constitutional paralysis, economic hardships, and religious conflicts. According to the orthodox nationalist perspective, execution of these policies constituted a grand strategy for national self-determination, but for Pak Sarkam—one of the characters in Keretakan dan Ketegangan, a peasant whose house was torched to the ground by a group of insurgents who terrorized his village in the name of revolution; whose wife was killed in the crossfire of a gun battle between the military and rebel forces; whose elder daughter became the mistress of a military officer in the city; whose son was arrested for theft and his other daughter forced into prostitution—they add up to an incomprehensible and very personal tragedy. We are also made aware that what is personal at one point in time becomes political at another. The exigencies of the struggle for independence led the revolutionaries to wage terror on supposed counterrevolutionaries and collaborators, heralding mayhem and mass suffering.

This disquiet about the state's attempts to expunge and annul the personal dimension of human tragedy brought about by the vicissitudes of war and revolution is echoed in Idrus's novelette, Surabaja (1948).18 Written after the events of November 1945, which saw internecine skirmishes around the city between Indonesian and British forces (the battle was eventually lost by the Indonesians, but interpreted by them as a moral victory), the story gives a sobering account of the lives of Surabaya's city dwellers amidst the euphoria of nationalism that swept the nation. Poverty, deracination, lawlessness, and a brutish everyman-for-himself attitude, wrought by revolution, maim the spirits of the refugees and grip them with paralyzing fear and uncertainty, as the third-person omniscient narrator reflects: “Distress and trepidation can be seen and heard everywhere; on people's faces, by the cacophony of cars on the roads … in the noise of dogs howling … Nobody seems aware of where they are going.”19 The collage of vignettes painted by Idrus, which shows destitute refugees fleeing the mayhem and violence in Surabaya, confronts the reader with the immediate brutality of war: the gruesome picture of women killing a young man, whom they discovered trying to flee Surabaya by disguising himself as an old man, by dropping huge rocks on his head; of women prostituting themselves to the guards at their refugee camp for more food; of a newlywed severely beaten by a lynch mob after she was wrongly suspected of being an enemy spy because she was wearing the red, white, and blue of the Dutch. Although the narrator struggles against demoralization and tries to see openings for change and hope, there is little in the narrative to relieve the images of loss and victimhood. Interestingly, the author interprets the plight of the refugees in their exodus from Surabaya and how they behave towards one another as a symbol of social disintegration.

Indeed, what these stories seek to counter is the unqualified success that the state has had in depersonalizing the fate of human beings in politics. The state's categories of reference and conventions of argument have ensured that in key areas the human consequences of the action of state policies are not a subject for consideration. The preeminent case is the treatment of war by the state; it is as if the concepts and terminology have been so well screened so that we do not think of people as being involved at all. It is much the same with respect to poverty. If it even appears on the state's agenda, poverty is likely to be presented as a structural condition rather than a human tragedy. This is where Achdiat's and Idrus's stories, which focus on people pursuing their ordinary lives, can provide an important corrective. It is partly a matter of the level of analysis, which brings different aspects of a subject into focus. It is also a function of particularizing an issue by presenting it as a problem in someone's life. We, the readers, are thus encouraged to think and to feel differently than before and to make connections which might otherwise have escaped us.

The novels of social realism do not, however, co-opt or manipulate the historical within a dissident narrative structure, but, rather, convey the sense that history is received in an eternal and unvariable story that conforms to life itself. The representation of time in these novels is an example. When social realism implies temporal causal antecedents (i.e., argues that the past must have been thus to produce a present that is thus), it does so without accounting either for the aporias of time or for discourse as a conditioner of time. Social realist fiction generally represents a brief period with external markers (rhetorical markers conventionally used in textual narratives) of time clearly delineated. This is true, for example, in such prototype social-realist works as Pramoedya's Perburuan (The Fugitive) and Keluarga gerilja (Guerrilla Family), in which the felt presence of time is at once specific and eternal. It is specific in the way that hours, days, and weeks oppress the characters and intensify their suffering, but eternal in that the vastness of time afflicting the characters knows no origin and portends no end. The same organizing principle informs Mochtar Lubis's novel, Djalan Tak Ada Udjung (A Road with No End) (1952) at a more metaphorical level. The motif of the road recurs throughout the novel from the first page, when the wheels of a truck drum through the empty streets, following their own twisting road with no end—a motif that grips the protagonist Isa's imagination and haunts his dreams in terrible nightmares:

The wheels of a patrol truck with hard-faced soldiers drummed through the empty streets. It turned to the right, went straight ahead, then to the left, then to the right, then on and on through the silent, empty and deserted streets, traveling through a night of dark drizzle on a course endlessly turning—a road with no end.20

Just as the revolving wheel turns and spins endlessly (which recalls, here, the cyclical wheel of time, or Swadarshan Chakra, of Hindu mythology), transporting the truck and all on board on its tortuous and interminable journey, so too are Isa and thousands of meek wong cilik (little folk), such as himself, borne like driftwood, trapped in a vicious circle of fear and uncertainty. These novels embody a sense of time as repetition and sameness, and preclude the troublesome uncertainties of narrative that reveal the self engendering a personal and variable time pertinent only to the individual experiencing it. Like historians of the regime, social realists assume that linguistic existence is merely a copy of another existence outside language, which we commonly call the “real.” Such thinking, of course, affirms that the pure and direct relation of facts is simply a matter of getting things straight. And getting things straight, in turn, is equal to affirming truth. Narration thus becomes for the social realists both sign and proof of reality, a mechanism enabling history to tell itself.

With the referential illusion firmly embedded in its narrative, social realism at once opens itself to the world and closes itself to the contingencies of its own storytelling. It urges a kind of necessity and certitude in what it relates (i.e., it imitates the actual) and thereby converts the real into a series of essences by reciprocally asserting both its own truth-value and the value of its truth. Within this scheme any particular myth (e.g., that New Order values embody the values of the “true” Indonesia [“nilai Indonesia sejati”] or that the Javanese people are the chosen people of God) may be countered or neutralized by a divergent myth (e.g., that the young bourgeois are disillusioned or that the rural peasants are isolated and poor), but the mythic foundations of both discourses are bound up by the same narrative assumptions. The purpose of myth, as Roland Barthes suggests, is “to immobilize the world.”21 Myth establishes the structure within which human beings must envisage their possibilities, and it advances a hierarchy of values and meanings within that structure. Thus it forecloses the possibility of change and affirms the constancy of its truth based on what it contends is the solid terrain of the real. There is a prevailing irony here, of course, since mythic discourse actually deprives things of their historic quality by denying origin and openness and emptying reality of happenstance. Like a parent responding to a child's persistent questioning, myth says forcefully that things are as they are because that is how they are.22

What the historiographic discourse of the regime achieved by mythifying the past in the sphere of the admirable, and what the social realists grafted on the past through mythic counterpoint in Ricoeur's sphere of the horrible, is eroded and dispersed in the novels of the Buru Tetralogy. Though by no means single-voiced in their propositions or tied to a precise set of literary tenets, these novels portray the individual self (most frequently, but not exclusively, through first-person narration) seeking definition by commingling the past and present in the process of remembering. This process may be activated either voluntarily or involuntarily, but it turns consistently on a bimodal correlation: the self in search of definition; the definition of self perceived always within the flow of history.

Utuy's early historical novel, Tambera (1949) sought to accomplish much the same feat, but with less success. It is set in the time around 1600 when the Dutch were establishing themselves in Banda. After a fairly peaceful beginning, the relations between the Dutch and the Bandanese deteriorated rapidly, for the Dutch not only built a fort, but also set about establishing an exploitative monopoly of cloves. Under the leadership of the young Kawista, fierce opposition flared up, but this was snuffed out by the Dutch, with heavy losses on the Bandanese side. The principal figure in Utuy's story is the young Bandanese, Tambera, a dreamy, sensitive youth who meets and falls in love with Clara, the niece of the Dutch commandant Van Speult. Tambera is so fascinated by Clara's knowledge, by her being so completely different, that he betrays his own people. He applies to become a soldier for the Dutch, and even prematurely abandons his mother's deathbed when his new duties call him back to the fort. Clara and the West and the new and the strange have him completely in their power, and three centuries will pass, as we understand from the novel, before the Tamberas begin to free themselves from this spell.

This is certainly a work committed to the ordinary Indonesian. Except for the Van Speults, the main characters come from the lower echelons of Bandanese society. They are buffeted by forces over which they have no control. First there is the intrusion of the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) personnel into the island, and then the Bandanese are faced with the capitalist economic transformation of their home. Their failings are presented as part and parcel of life, and there is an understanding that it is only by working collectively that they can grow as individuals and improve their lot. Utuy uses folklore and symbolism to establish that the lives of his principal characters remained linked to the traditional village culture of the Bandanese. We note, for example, Wubani's traditional beliefs in the existence of machluk lembut yang djahat (diabolical sprites) and of the importance of maintaining blood-ties; Swamin's cave dwelling, and his ascetic philosophy that embraces fasting as a means of purification; the shaman Ki Dukun's prescription of small green chilies, onion, and egg, which he instructs Wubani to bury in order to protect Tambera from Clara's bewitching spell. Tambera's mother, Wubani, plays a key role in bringing an awareness of the communal past into a present which, in her own words, knows only one law: “You eat somebody or you are eaten.”23

Superimposed on this picture of ordinary but dislocated life is another text about the evils of imperialism and colonialism in Banda and what must be done to make the society whole again. No reader can have any doubt about the economic and social costs of an externally imposed, and to some extent, externally propelled, capitalism, nor about the need for workers and peasants to take collective action to repel colonial magnates such as Van Speult, Willington, and Huyten, expose the corrupting influence of capitalism's mercenary and venal dealings, and resist the appeals of the tribalism promoted by Kawista and his followers. But because of its rehearsed nature, the political argument in the novel too often stands at a remove from the lives we are following. It has a reductionist, doctrinaire quality, not easily digestible in a novel about people involved in their everyday affairs.

While it can scarcely be denied that the text exudes a sense of political purpose, the novel is much more than an exercise in “propaganda,” and, at the same time, it is more convincingly “historical” than a pure romance, though some scholars have questioned its portrayal of historical events in Banda in the 1600s.24 Like its politics, the novel's history is largely internal: not an analysis of the national archive or public record, but impressions and recollections drawn from the private consciousness. There are two elements to the politics of this narrative. The first is an interpretation of external intervention in terms of unmitigated violence and exploitation, which clearly is intended to release Indonesians from the psychological bondage of colonialism. The second is a description of precolonial values and social patterns that might promote rethinking about the post-imperial order. Arguably, Utuy has mixed success with his first objective and very little at all with his second. We are given diagnosis and prescription, and they accord neatly—much too neatly to generate either good fiction or sound politics. Despite the vibrancy of the characters and the immediacy of the action, the proletarian emphasis in this novel is overly deliberate, and one can see shades of the Soviet socialist realism of the 1930s. History is nudged by the author to move in directions that support his agenda, and the author's political agenda is evident in the way he shapes the characters and manages the plot. At last, the story is a good deal less interesting than the novel's themes and the assumptions they embody.

Nevertheless, whatever flaws this novel might have, we do not turn to it for a “dates and facts” historical narrative, because we would be disappointed if we did. The nub of our interest lies in the novelist's presentation of history as a space within which to search for meaning, open up new ways of seeing and patterning, and posit suggestive connections between then and now. This may be done by revisiting the past (as was done in some early Indonesian novels, such as Utuy's Tambera, discussed above, as well as M. R. Dajoh's Pahlawan Minahasa [1935], and Abdul Muis's Surapati [1950]). Alternatively, it may take the form of presenting the past encapsulated through symbols, cultural fragments, or personal remembrances (as was usual in later Indonesian novels, such as Y. B. Mangunwijaya's Durga Umayi [1991], Pramoedya's Arok Dedes [1999], and Remy Sylado's Ca Bau Kan [1999]). Whatever the mode, history is preeminent in these novels: it places the individual in “real” time and serves as the backdrop against which characters are revealed, ideas conveyed, and beliefs posited or disaffirmed. While any of these functions may be played out in the novels, history emerges most resonantly as what Hayden White terms “the content of the form.” It is offered both as a consequence of memory and as the originator of memory; it gives meaning to the narrative and shapes that meaning. Above all, however, history occupies the narration in a way that subverts the structured rigidity of mythic discourse and advances in its place the contingencies of time and meaning. Though clearly sharing social realism's opposition to the historiography of the New Order regime,25 these novels differ from social-realistic fiction in stripping history of its structured oneness, of its mythical enactment of progression, and, most important, of discourse that prohibits dissent in the narrative capturing of the past.

Prose fiction mediates by self-assertion rather than by self-effacement. This is especially true of the Buru Tetralogy, but in an ironic sense, since what is asserted is the impossibility of narrative assertion. On the one hand, the tetralogy reveals (and asserts) the determinants of its own form, and thus lays bare the contingencies of narration as a way of knowing the past. On the other hand, it is self-effacing in the content of its form, in what it proposes about the discourse of history. In contrast to the single-voiced discourse of myth that shapes social realism and New Order historiography and asserts authority over the real (i.e., truth) and the meaning of the real, the Buru tetralogy offers a different claim on history and historical truths. Propositional rather than assertive, this claim implies the recognition that to know the historical is to mediate and to narrate it with the voice of a subject in the present who is also positioned within history. If one of the proclaimed truths of our existence is that “being” means always being in time, it is a derivative but no less cogent conclusion that we are also in history—we belong to history: “[h]istory is like a home from where we traverse the world. If one does not know where one departs from, then one does not know where one's direction is.”26 As Wilhelm Dilthey suggests, the only way to be objective about history is not to objectify it, not to devise a subject-object dualism that plays out the myths of a univocal epistemology.27 Thus, in This Earth of Mankind,28 the first novel in the tetralogy, the whole notion of creating a self is tied up with Minke's urgent desire to find his place in time and history. Change in turn-of-the-century Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule is perceived as both virtual and real within the meditations of the narrating self. In the same fashion that Faulkner portrays post-Civil War society in Sartoris as “silent, sickly desolate of motion or any sound,”29 Nyai Ontosoroh establishes the silenced voice or voices, in her metaphor, as the foundation of stasis:

Everybody in authority praises that which is colonial. That which is not colonial is considered not to have the right to life … Millions upon millions of people suffer silently, like the river stones. You, Child, must at least be able to shout. Do you know why I love you above all others? Because you write. Your voice will not be silenced and swallowed up by the wind; it will be eternal, reaching far, far into the future.

(COAN [Child of All Nations], pp. 336-7; American edition, pp. 82-83)

This notion of stasis-induced silence is especially relevant to the writing of history, for it points to the silence of the masses engendered by the hegemonic control of the historical archive, both of the colonial Netherlands East Indies government30 and the New Order regime, that Pramoedya allegorizes. Colonialism, through its myriad discourses—from political treatises to lowbrow reports by missionaries and administrators—and institutions (schools, law courts, media, to name but a few), deploys this archive to establish the legitimacy of the colonizer, in the process effacing the native voice in order to facilitate colonization. How this archive has been appropriated in contemporary history in order to interpret colonial confrontation is determined as much by assumptions that govern how the archive is read as by present sociopolitical pressures brought to bear on the historian to make use of certain interpretative strategies. In “Realisme Sosialis dan Sastra Indonesia—Sebuah Tinjauan Sosial,” Pramoedya asserts Maxim Gorky's idea that “[t]he people must know their own history,”31 and he affirms this principle throughout his fiction. As Maarten Nijman, the Dutch editor of the Soerabaiaasch Nieeuws van den Dag, and one of Minke's “informal” teachers, proclaims in Child of All Nations, “People can believe in many things that are not right. History is indeed the story of liberation from wrong beliefs, of struggle against stupidity, against ignorance.” (COAN, p. 429; Am. ed., p. 195) The challenge for Pramoedya, then, is not only to recover the past by setting narrative over and against the historiographic myths of both the colonial archive and the New Order regime, but also to undermine the myth-generating mechanisms that constitute the founding matrix of such writings.

In the Buru tetralogy, history does not stand outside individual consciousness as a form imposed, but rather, impinges on the consciousness of characters and forces its way into their considerations. History supervenes against the discourse of myth in these novels because it both shapes and is shaped by the private affairs of the self. In a practical sense, the most transparent manifestation of this reciprocity appears in the mechanisms of plot. While the social realists transferred life to literature through logical causality and traditional emplotment (i.e., by depicting past events accumulating to produce present consequences), the Buru novels turn on what Lennard Davis is another context calls “teleogenic” plots—the ordering of action and information to suggest “the transformation of past events by subsequent ones.”32 The novelists of social realism generally conceive their plots as reporting the real through a temporal unfolding that leads to an inevitable conclusion (in a narrative sense rather than a deterministic one). The Buru tetralogy, in contrast, unravels the plot of the past and transforms the potential for historical knowledge into a web of relations and interactions between the self and history. Its teleogenic plotting thus works on two levels: firstly, the fragmented composition compels the reader to reconfigure the design of storytelling through the evocation of a past that is not static but dynamic and ever changing; secondly, the external referent of the narrative, the history of Indonesia, is now an internal component of the self and thus open to re-formation as the individual claims authority not over truth but against myth.

The teleogenic plotting of history is perhaps most purposefully exemplified in the prominent role of the narrator-protagonist;33 the use of documents and published texts (some of them fictional), letters, diaries, transcripts of court proceedings, newspaper reports; and the use of conspicuously historical figures and events. The tetralogy is full of references to prominent nineteenth and twentieth centuries historical figures such as Eduard Douwes Dekker, the liberal Dutch colonial functionary who wrote (under the pseudonym Multatuli) the novel, Max Havelaar (1860)—a scathing indictment of Dutch colonial injustices and oppression of the East Indies, and a novel that has had a significant influence on Pramoedya; the tyrannical early-nineteenth-century Dutch Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies, General H. W. Daendels; Governor-General J. van den Bosch and his Culture System (an iniquitous forced cultivation system that imposed Dutch monopoly over its colony's cultivation of exportable crops like tea, coffee, quinine, sugar, etc.); C. Snouck Hurgronje, who advocated association with local native aristocrats to bolster Dutch rule over its colony; and so on. Some of the characters in the tetralogy are patently modeled either directly or indirectly on prominent historical figures such Marie van Zeggelen (first Dutch woman parliamentarian in the Volksraad), Kommer (the Indo journalist-cum-author of early proto-Indonesian novels), Tirto Adhi Soerjo (a prominent early nationalist figure after whom the character of Minke is modeled), and Raden Adjeng Kartini (the daughter of a provincial aristocrat from Jepara who became the first Western-educated native woman in the twentieth-century East Indies). Pivotal historical events that shaped the course of early Indonesian nationalism are interwoven too into the narrative to provide the backdrop and intertexts to his-story, for example, the establishment of the Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan movement in 1900, the formation of Boedi Oetomo, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and so forth. Pramoedya seems to do his utmost to create a “truthful” verisimilar rendering of a particular historical event or episode: and he is undeniably an excellent “realist,” as evidenced by the horribly convincing descriptions of the terror and suffering that are necessarily part of a revolution, descriptions found in earlier works such as Keluarga gerilja and Perburuan. Yet it is precisely the prominence in the Buru tetralogy of “real” historical figures and events that, paradoxically, exposes not only the illusion of verisimilar writing, but also of historical writing itself; the very skill with which the author succeeds in blending his fictional and his historical characters makes it almost impossible to say which is which.

Another element in the Buru tetralogy that points us to the paradoxical nature of all historiography, and of the remembering character shaping the narration of history, is that of intertextuality and the use of texts. Narrators who consistently evoke the past in the first person most often give their historical accounts the feeling of a memoir. First-person narration generally provokes anxiety over matters of truth, less because a narrowed perspective suggests overt unreliability than because special pleadings are inherent in a highly personalized discourse on the past and because of the associative uncertainties of memory. To diminish the imputation of reliability in their treatments of the historical (and, conversely, to enhance the authenticity of their perspectives), narrators of memory often insert a wide variety of texts into their discourses: news items, reports, photograph albums, maps, portraits, and the like. These texts appear in narrated form, of course, and bear on two issues that directly confront all first-person discourse: firstly, the preoccupation with providing corroborative evidence to buttress the remembering narrator's evocation of events; secondly, the fundamental role of interpretation in the discernment, not of the truth, but of the meaning of discourse. While social realism derives its historiographic impact largely from the way it collapses truth and meaning into a structure that seeks to close itself to interpretation (i.e., to make truth evident and available for all to see), the “novelists of memory” imply several possible answers and intimate that each text engenders several possible questions. In this sense, the narrative not only states and asserts, but also possesses a horizon of unasserted possibilities of meaning (i.e., propositions) that lie beyond intention and beyond myth.

For example, the Buru tetralogy contains preexisting texts both as a sign of the real and as a mechanism for foregrounding the operations of interpretation. Minke's reliance on letters, court testimonies, newspaper reports, and other documents to piece together the past (Indonesia's as well as his own) reveals the reciprocity between history as a formative component of the self and the self as a formative component of history. The texts validate the “realness” of the past (i.e., confirm that people, places, and events actually exist), but the meaning of this past must be determined. What is crucial about the determination of meaning here is that Pramoedya does not set out to reconstruct the past as past, as if it were an isolated whole within its own structure of meaning. Instead, as narrator, he draws on texts as framers of experience and integrates them into his own thoughts, desires, and needs in the present. Minke does not stand apart from all that surrounds and precedes him; he is firmly attached to history; he is in history. As Joel Weinsheimer writes, summarizing Gadamer, “[o]ur present, our difference from the past is not the obstacle but the very condition of understanding the past … and the past to which we have access is always our own past by reason of our belonging to it.”34 The history that Minke is in, of course, is only knowable through his narration of it, laid out by the multitude of telescopic relations among the events, notes, and documents of the past. The texts themselves stand inert and lifeless until they are awakened to meaning by memory and narration. History is thus set forth as a component of narration and is shaped by Minke's complementary needs to interpret the past and to define himself.

The Buru novels make abundant use of fragmented memoirs, letters, diaries, archival material, and so on. All these are edited and manipulated to form a seemingly concrete basis for the verisimilitude of the text and the reliability of its rendering of the past. The apparent objectivity and verisimilitude of this account, however, are problematized by the narrator-protagonist's prologues to segments in the novels in which he admits that the story he is about to tell, though reproduced from memory, notes, and letters, is fraught with his own imaginings and fantasies. This Earth of Mankind, for instance, opens with:

In the beginning I wrote these short notes during a period of mourning: she had left me, who could tell if for a while only or for ever? (At the time I didn't know how things would turn out.) …

Thirteen years later I read and studied these short notes over again, I merged them together with dreams, imaginings. Naturally they became different from the original. Different? Ah! But that doesn't matter!

And here is how they turned out.

(TEOM [This Earth of Mankind], p. 1; Am. ed., p. 15)

Situated on the outer limit of the narrative, these prefatory intimations of the accounts' lack of objectivity constitute a frame for the novel's story; and since frames are quite literally liminal, paradoxical constructions, at once participating in the meaning of the objects they demarcate and occupying a place in the world beyond, we might read these prologues and qualifications as an implicit interrogation of the boundaries between such oppositions as written and oral, truth and non-truth, history and fiction. We are continually reminded of the fact that we are completely dependent on the narrator, whose source of information is his notes commingled with “imaginings” (TEOM, p. 1; Am. ed., p. 15), “re-ordering[s]” (TEOM, p. 49; Am. ed., p. 74; FS [Footsteps], p. 122; Am. ed., p. 162), “dreams” (HOG [House of Glass], p. 97; Am. ed., p. 102), and “fantas[ies]” (COAN, p. 537; Am. ed., p. 323; HOG, pp. 285 and 288; Am. ed., pp. 302, 305). The same goes for the letters, reports, and accounts by other characters with which the four novels are interspersed, no matter how authentic they appear to be. In the novels, for instance, one frequently finds remarks that suggest the selectivity and subjectivity of Minke's narration: “After re-ordering, it came out as follows” (TEOM, p. 49; Am. ed., p. 74); “So that this story of mine runs in order, let me first of all relate what happened … I've put together the story below based on what … others told me; and this is how it has ended up” (TEOM, p. 116; Am. ed., p. 157); “I don't think I could tell my imagination it was wrong if I said that the papers also reported this event … I'm afraid I must end my fantasy here” (COAN, p. 257; Am. ed., p. 323); “Now allow me to fantasize a bit about this particular character, and forgive me that I am unable to imagine what he looks like” (COAN, p. 255, Am. ed., p. 321).

Whereas Pramoedya appears eager to set up alternative and seemingly more reliable frames of historical reference, at the same time he is determined to break these frames, thereby effectively reminding the reader of the fictionality of all historical “sources” and of the fact that, in trying to determine the meaning of a text, at best we are merely interpreting an author's verbal recreation of the past. Therefore the reader is implicated in the creative process: he becomes part of the fictional frame, part of the process of historiography, which includes the past, a mediated text, and a historiographer, who may either be an author or a reader.

That being said, the importance of Pramoedya's perspective on both colonial Dutch and New Order historiographies lies less with what he denounces than with what he conceives as the alternative. Instead of inventing new myths that dispute the old ones, he posits a counter-discourse in which history is “reconceived”:

In the form of the Buru novels, I wanted to reconceive the history of Indonesian independence, because until that time the movements for independence were seen in terms of the so-called Ethical Policy of Dutch colonialism at the turn of the century. The popularity of the tetralogy when it first appeared in Indonesia indicates where the importance of the novel form lies.35

Thus when Pramoedya contemplates a historical discourse of his own, he calls forth the creative authority embedded in the metaphor of his Lusi river imagery:

Historical facts emerge from literature the way water, flowing through different channels, comes to shape a stream or lake. Embedded in literary form remain the facts of history. Whatever distortions of history there are in literature stem from the deficiencies of autobiography, the circumstances of the author's existence.36

In the Buru tetralogy, Pramoedya clearly opens the theme of history to the reader, but it is the novels' teleogenic plotting that impels his view of history beyond myth. It reveals the transformative power of individual memory to undermine the inertial monologism and fixed continuity of the past and to show instead that history is necessarily malleable. Such thinking reverses the traditional formula of first-person plotting, “Once I was lost but now I am found,” and posits in its place an open-ended “I” whose discourse is epistemically fundamental to both the self and the understanding (i.e., the writing) of history.

The conception of history as the discourse of remembrance configures the opposition to myth. In the tetralogy, Pramoedya relies heavily on the exigencies of memory to disclose the unreliability of a single-voiced historiography. As his remark on “reconceiving” history suggests, Pramoedya's concern is with retelling, with renarrating, and re-creating the past to lay out the historical in an alternative frame. The Buru tetralogy traces the history of anticolonial Indonesian nationalist awakening at the turn of the century through an individual, Minke. The first novel, This Earth of Mankind, is set amidst the tensions and contradictions created by the collision of the liberating aspects of the expansion of capitalist industry and its technology, on the one hand, with the power of the colonial state, on the other. Though Minke's travels are not limited to Surabaya and the native politics of the world of Java, this doubly coded area of colonial mapping and native inscriptions of the earth is the central site of departure and return for him.

The tetralogy can be read as a critical reflection on dominant and oppressive white Dutch colonialism. It is also a text that addresses the contradictions of native political practice, within the structure of feudal Javanese internal colonialism. I emphasize the need to be aware of who “constructs” history, as discussed in the earlier part of this essay, in order to suggest that the tetralogy provides a textual space for considering an alternative inscription of the history of Indonesian nationalist awakening. If, as Frederik Barth suggests, one response to colonialism is the strategic demarcation of cultural boundaries which involves “the codification of idioms” and “the selection of signals for identity and the assertion of value for these cultural diacritica, and the suppression or denial of relevance for other differentia,”37 then, in the context of inscribing the history of the turn-of-the-century Indonesian nationalist movement based on a non-colonial construction, the Buru tetralogy represents an important textual formation of the struggle over which “diacritica” came to be relevant and which did not.

The first novel, This Earth of Mankind, offers a set of signals that identify a coded idiom of native difference from the dominant imperial Dutch culture:

Metaphors/Concepts of Colonial Dutch Culture Native Culture
power nuts, screws, and bolts elephants and rhinoceros
train horses, cattle, buffalo
war bullets spears and arrows
authority white man's law village law
government's law Muslim law
language Dutch Malay
Madurese, etc.
education HBS
Doctor Jawa School “university of life”
European history Babad Tanah Jawi
knowledge auction papers wayang stories
Panji stories
Personal stories, e.g. Nyai

The diacritica mapped out above become, in the emergence of Minke's critical consciousness in the proceeding novels, the objects of scrutiny in an analysis of the hierarchical relationship between Native and Dutch cultural values and of the ways in which different cultural valorizations have an impact on the historical archive. As we begin to see, the root motive of this archive is not curiosity, but domination. Through it, the colonialist is able to “know” the Native, not for altruistic or humanistic purposes, but instead as a means to power. Miriam's letter to Minke in Child of All Nations, for example, tells us that the archive through which knowledge about the Dutch East Indies is generated and assembled within colonial institutions of research and explication in the metropolises of Europe is administered by western colonial personnel:

The European nations have studied the character and capabilities of the Indies Natives, while on the other hand the Natives hardly know anything about Europe. Come to the Netherlands, Minke; you will be astounded to see the collection of material we have about the thinking of your ancestors, beginning with what was chiseled onto stone up until what was inscribed onto palm leaves. And none of it, not one thing, was saved by its heirs, your people, but by Europeans, Minke, Europeans.

(COAN, p. 353; Am. ed., p. 104)

By using this colonial archive, Europeans maintain their exploitation and oppression by containing the subjectivity of native peoples in the images, stereotypes, and representations deployed in colonial discourse. What is exchanged and delivered back to the Native is a representation of him/herself as, for instance, the civilized barbarian or the evil non-conformist, to name two sides of the same coin. Abdul R. JanMohamed explains this phenomenon in relation to colonial literature in his essay, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature.” His critique is relevant to the production of history when he observes that:

… just as imperialists “administer” the resources of the conquered country, so colonialist discourse “commodifies” the Native subject into a stereotyped object and uses him as a “resource” for colonialist fiction. Once reduced to his exchange-value in the colonialist signifying system, he is fed into the manichean allegory, which functions as the currency, the medium of exchange, for the entire colonialist discursive system.38

We should examine this dehistoricizing process of “othering” more closely. The European characters in the tetralogy are quick to remind their native counterparts of the native people's contretemps, defeats, and failings in history, while at the same time selectively replaying and reinforcing white civilization's past victories. While Western triumphs in the East have been preserved to serve as proof of supposed white superiority, reports of native defeat memorialize their “inferior” way of life, thinking, and values, as Miriam de la Croix writes to Minke:

On those still nights in this big and empty building, if Papa is not tired we like so much to sit and listen to his explanations about the fate of your people. How they gave birth to hundreds and thousands of leaders and heroes in their struggle, against European oppression. One by one they fell, defeated, killed, surrendering, gone mad, dying in humiliation, forgotten in exile. Not one was ever victorious in war. We listened and were moved, and became angry also to hear how your rulers sold concessions to the Company, benefiting no one but themselves. It was a sign that their character and souls were being corroded. Your heroes, according to Papa's stories, always emerged out of a background of selling concessions to the Company; and so it was over and over again, for centuries and no one understood that it was all a repetition of what had gone before, and that as time went on the rebellions all became smaller and more and more stunted … According to Papa, the fate of humanity now and in the future is dependent on its mastery over science and learning. All humanity both as individuals and as peoples, will come tumbling down without such mastery. To oppose those who have mastered science and learning is to surrender oneself to humiliation and death.

(TEOM, pp. 143-44; Am. ed., pp. 191-92; my emphasis)

This notion of a timeless and fixed native essence works as a normalizing discourse to codify difference, to fix the Other in a timeless present where all native actions are repetitions of their static and torpid “natural” habits, traits or characteristics—a process that strategically useful to a colonial society that prides itself on its march of progress, its “mastery over science and learning.” The Native here is othered by being homogenized into a collective “they” which is distilled even more pointedly in the quote above as “your people,” “your rulers,” “your heroes.” The abstracted “your/they” is held culpable, as if anything the Native is or does is not the result of a particular historical event, but an instance of a pregiven custom or trait:

Listen again to the gamelan, said Papa once more. It has been that way for centuries. And the gong in the life of the Javanese has still not arrived. The gamelan sings of a people's longing for a Messiah. Just longing after him, not seeking him out, not giving birth to him. The gamelan translates the life of the Javanese, a people who are unwilling to seek, to search, who just circle around, repeating, as in prayers and mantras, suppressing, killing thought, carrying people into a dispirited universe, which leads them astray, where there is no character.

(TEOM, p. 145; Am. ed., p. 193)

This colonial version of history and the way it lays claim to the process of revealing the Indonesian past to its colonized subject—its way of “knowing” history—is, the tetralogy argues, contentious and contestatory, not only in intention but also in performance and experience. Even at the beginning of the tetralogy, Minke already expresses skepticism in response to the lessons of his Dutch masters, who speak from within the colonial archive where the “universal” adequacy of its representational logic is dutifully accepted as transparent. For example, in the second chapter of the first novel, Minke reflects on what the seemingly benign, institutionalized voice of the Director of his school has said:

The Director of my school once told my class: your teachers have given you a very broad general knowledge, much broader than that received by students of the same level in many of the European countries. Naturally this breast of mine swelled. I'd never been to Europe. So I did not know if the Director was telling the truth or not. But because it pleased me, I decided to believe him. And, further, all my teachers had been born in Europe, and educated there. It didn't feel right that I should distrust my teachers. My parents had entrusted me to them. Among the educated European and Indo communities, they were considered to be the best teachers in all of the Netherlands Indies. So I was obliged to trust them.

(TEOM, p. 2; Am. ed., p. 16)

As the tetralogy progresses, Minke realizes that colonial education does not equip him to understand the contradictions of the colonialism he sees around him:

I was a child of a conquered race. The European teaching that I had received had not equipped me to understand Japan, let alone the greatness of Europe.

What I was feeling then was that Europe had obtained its glory from swallowing up the world, and Japan from overrunning China. How strange it was if every glory was obtained only at the cost of the suffering of others.

(COAN, p. 309; Am. ed., pp. 48-49)

This leaves him with a feeling of anomie: “From the very beginning, our studies took the form of learning rules and categories. We were forced to bow down to things, dead and living, so that you disappeared among all that you learnt. The learning you received made you feel worthless, drowning your personality.” (FS, p. 34; Am. ed., p. 54) In the second novel, during a consciousness-raising discussion with Ter Haar, which is worth quoting in full, Minke is told:

Capital wanted to turn all the Natives into its coolies. The Natives' land would become its own land. So the capitalists resisted with all their might any moves for European education to be given to Natives. They were afraid the given source of their power, cunning and evil, would be revealed. But capital needs more than just coolies; it also needs foremen who can at least read and write. So schools were set up to teach a few people to read and write. Then that too wasn't sufficient; they needed some who could count. And those schools needed teachers, so a Teachers' School was set up. Then they felt the need for a few people who could speak a little Dutch. The primary schools that were operating were divided into grades I and II; students in first grade received a little tutoring in Dutch. So, as things developed, capitalist interests in the Indies found they needed educated Natives for their own enterprises. And so on, and so on. More advanced schooling, at high-school level, in special subjects were instituted for Natives: Agriculture, Administration, Medicine, Law. It could not be avoided. It was necessary because of the growth and development of capitalism itself—including the medical school you yourself are about to enter. And you're given good money to stay with the Government, to make government service attractive.

(COAN, p. 494; Am. ed., p. 271)

Minke also realizes that, just as “uncooperative” Natives are tagged with racist labels that identify them as predictably savage and primitive, the extraordinary Native is praised precisely for his usefulness as an instrument in the service of colonial exploitation, as this exchange between Governor-General van Heutsz illustrates:

“The Government has high hopes that the educated Natives will help it carry out its work, its work in implementing the new Ethical Policy, a policy based on the Netherlands repaying its debt to the Indies … And if the result of educating Natives is simply to produce a question factory like yourself, then, that, of course, would be disappointing to the Government.”

“But, Sir, all my life, I have only ever asked you two questions, once when you were a general and once as Governor-General.”

“Yes, but questions asked in public, and such sharp questions,” he smiled, and smacked his lips a little. “Yes-yes, perhaps you didn't realise just how sharp your questions were. The Government's efforts will have been of little use if all they produce are such cutting questions as yours. And of not much use to the Natives either.”

(FS, p. 169; Am. ed., pp. 222-23)

In these passages it is clear that education in the colonial context becomes an ideological apparatus by which the dominant colonial culture attempts to school members of subordinate cultures to accept their perfunctory and less-than-human status—in fact, to acquiesce to their own negation as social subjects. What Abdul JanMohamed observes in this context is useful: “… the most crucial aspect of resisting hegemony consists in struggling against its attempt to form one's subjectivity, for it is through the construction of the minority subject that the dominant culture can elicit the individual's own help in his/her oppression.”39 For colonialism to function as an efficient sociopolitical and economic system, the colonized must to some extent agree with their degraded status. Thus Minke is constantly made to see by his colonial “teachers” that Java is a “nation of worms” (TEOM, p. 143; Am. ed., p. 190), made to feel like “a monkey that had been put in the wrong cage” (FS, p. 19; Am. ed., p. 37) under their gaze, and that he is a “child of a conquered race” (COAN, p. 309; Am. ed., p. 48). The colonized Native's sense of dishonor has always been a crucial aspect of any colonial system: the colonized is required simultaneously to accept the standards of the oppressor's value system, and the responsibility for his or her exclusion from it. While the Natives are forced to acquiesce, at least superficially, to their dishonor and denigration, they covertly maintain a fierce sense of honor. But where the white master's honor is established as a given, the Native's honor is hard bought. An important aspect of Minke's story, then, is detailing how he creates a sense of personal honor as he rejects his social negation by Dutch colonial system. His struggle provides the basis for a strong critique of the subject-space he has been denied within the colonial system. As he stakes out a clear position of subjectivity for himself, he carefully reconstitutes it in a way that highlights its epistemological space and value, which diverge from the position relegated to him by the Dutch.

The incidents of colonial exploitation become for Minke the material for his own storytelling about the milieu that surrounded a nationalistically awakened native intellectual in “this earth of mankind” in turn-of-the-century Indonesia. We can say that in the Buru tetralogy, Pramoedya attempts to locate in the archival texts of history information about the specificity of native experience in the colonial encounter. This shift in the object of investigation from the colonizer to the colonized is constitutive to the production of post-colonial knowledge; the epistemology of this approach involves the overturning of binary oppositions. The Native transforms himself from “passive victim”—a code of colonial discourse in which the colonized are placed in an inferior (passive) position—into an “active agent.” By positioning the Natives as active agents, Pramoedya enables his readers to gain a fuller understanding of the workings of the drama of the colonial encounter in Indonesia from a native point of view.

Minke's critical consciousness is formed when he acquires the hermeneutical skill of interpretation, learning to read the painful experiences of not only historical negation, but also negation in the day-to-day life of colonial Netherlands East Indies society, as evidence that Dutch colonialism is grounded in a racist, oppressive ideology. Minke is made painfully aware that:

… the Natives of the Indies, and especially the Javanese, who have been defeated again and again in battle for hundreds of years now, have not only been forced to acknowledge the superiority of Europe, but have also been forced to feel inferior. And the Europeans, wherever they saw Natives not contracting the disease of inferiority, viewed them as a fortress of resistance that must be subjugated …

Is the European colonial view appropriate? It is not only inappropriate, it is not right. But colonial Europe doesn't stop there. After the Natives have fallen into this humiliation and are no longer able to defend themselves, they are ridiculed with the most humiliating abuse. Europeans make fun of the Native rulers of Java who use superstition to control their own people, and who are thereby spared the expense of hiring police forces to defend their interests. Nyai Roro Kidul [The Powerful Goddess of the South Java Sea] is a glorious creation of Java whose purpose is to help preserve the authority of the native kings of Java. But Europe too maintains superstitions—the superstition of the magnificence of science and learning. This superstition prevents the conquered peoples from seeing the true face of Europe, the true nature of the Europe that uses that science and learning. The European colonial rulers and the Native rulers are equally corrupt.

(COAN, p. 332; Am. ed., p. 76)

The hermeneutics of remembering and writing history in Pramoedya's scheme claim historical authenticity not through the proclaimed objectivity of the referential illusion, but by the insertion of a self (Minke) into the telling of a (his) story. In fact, history in the Buru tetralogy is conveyed by several “selves” in a series of scattered recollections, as they try to piece together the “dismembered” and brutalized past of their own histories. The reminiscences of Pangemanann, the native intelligence officer working for the Dutch, and also a tortured admirer of Minke, illustrate this process:

I tried to remember what Minke had written in his manuscripts. But my memory sometimes disappeared into a kind of night-time darkness, and then sometimes a flash of lightning would illuminate the dark. But what it illuminated and what remained hidden never came together. It was all a broken jumble.

(HOG, p. 334; Am. ed., p. 355)

The tetralogy's narrative rejects the traditional perspective of third-person omniscience for more stylistically and technically intricate machinations in the novels, where the retelling of the past grows ever more personal and subjective. The long and ruminative sequence on the checkered history of the Netherlands Indies and its colonial forays into other parts of the world at the beginning of chapter seventeen (COAN, pp. 531-38; Am. ed., pp. 316-25) illustrates the intensity of the subjective within a discourse whose subject is history. The narrator first proposes: “So that the story runs in sequence, I have put together a selection of writings and opinions that I have heard at one time or another and which are connected with this story of my life. Some of the material I obtained several years after the events, but that is not important” (COAN, p. 531; Am. ed., p. 316), and then lays out how such a retelling of history can be opened to diversity (through personal imaginings) and dissent:

In the history of the Netherlands Indies (I did not need to learn this from a book or a teacher) the Dutch were not just proud, but almost arrogant, about the strength of their army (COAN, p. 534; Am. ed., p. 320) … And if I keep on drawing upon my imagination, I can come up with some more ideas … And if I let this imagination of mine get out of control altogether, this would be the next part of the story (COAN, p. 536; Am. ed., p. 322) … Probably he was famous throughout the land … and a pile of other probablys as well. My imagination can be squeezed no further (COAN, p. 535; Am. ed., p. 321) … I don't think I could tell my imagination it was wrong if I said that the papers also reported this event. I'm afraid I must end my fantasy here (COAN, p. 537; Am. ed., p. 323) … Whether all these stories are true or not, only Dulrakim knows. I was amazed at the number of stories he had stored away. He told all these stories as though they had nothing to do with him personally. Uh! you sailor, you untiring collector of stories …

(COAN, p. 538; Am. ed., p. 325)

What emerges from the lengthy sequence that brackets the historical here points to the two important levels of the tetralogy that oppose social realism: firstly, the way in which history, still the referent of the narrative, is demythologized through the drawing forth of a range of dialectical propositions; secondly, the mediation of history by a subjective voice whose very subjectivity implies a hermeneutics based not on “being there” (i.e., the “objectivity” of social realism), but on narration and memory—history that is “true” not because it inheres in an abstract or found discourse outside the text, but because it is tied to a subjective life that is always bound up with the past, with history. In the tetralogy this “withinness” supersedes “being there” and reveals that history (and historiography) must always be redeemed outside the static structures of myth and within the discernment of a narrating self The double redemption of history and the self is embodied through the evocation of an individual past and, as Proust puts it, “the joy of rediscovering what is real.”40 Proust's discovery of the real hinges, of course, on the way in which the self and history open the contingencies of their truths to each other and on the way in which these contingencies are narrated.

Thus when Minke contemplates his writing in relation to the past (both his own and that of events outside himself), he rejects the exhortation of Maarten Nijman, Dutch editor of the Soerabaisch Nieuws, who said that “[w]hen you are writing about reality, you must make sure that you provide enough documentation” (COAN, p. 429; Am. ed., p. 195), enough “evidence and witnesses” (COAN, p. 427; Am. ed., p. 193), and not to allow “[t]he spirit of this story—your spirit, your enthusiasm—[to] influence the story too much” (COAN, p. 426; Am. ed., p. 191), or his old landlord Telinga's feeble, fatalistic protestation that “it must be true if it's written in the histories” (COAN, p. 311; Am. ed., p. 51), that is to say, in any single-voiced discourse. Minke recognizes that discourse may congeal into a solidified mass of repetitive musings:

The old people teach us through their legends that there is a mighty god called Batara Kala. They say it is he who makes all things move further and further from their starting point, unable to resist, towards some unknown final destination. And I too, a human blind to the future, could do no more than hope to know. Uh! While we never really understand even what we have already lived through.

People say that before mankind stands only distance. And its limit is the horizon. Once the distance has been crossed, the horizon moves away again. There is no romance so strong that it could tame and hold them—the eternal distance and the horizon …

Whether light or shadow, nothing can escape being pushed along by Batara Kala. No one can return to his starting point. Maybe this mighty god is the one whom the Dutch call “the tooth of time” (de tand des tijds). It makes the sharp blunt, and the blunt sharp; the small are made big and the big made small. All are pushed on towards that horizon, receding eternally beyond our reach. Pushed on towards annihilation. And it is that annihilation which in turn brings rebirth.

I don't really know whether this beginning to my notes is fitting or not. At the very least everything must have a beginning. And this is the beginning I have written.

(COAN, pp. 281-82; Am. ed., pp. 13-14)

But he opts finally for the creative dispersion of subjective narration over the sterile imposition of the referential illusion. In this way, Minke combats the implicit agenda of myth according to which change bears no meaning and meaning can undergo no change. This process is explicitly carried out through the retelling of personal accounts, testimonies, recollections, and the “re-ordered” narratives of other characters in the tetralogy, all of which are merged into Minke's own narration of historical events: Annelies's recounting of Nyai Ontosoroh's story about her wretched childhood and how she was sold by her own father to Herman Mellema (TEOM, pp. 49-72; Am. ed., pp. 74-103); the Japanese prostitute Maiko's court testimony about her ignoble involvement in the flesh trade that plies from Nagoya to Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Surabaya, and, finally, Wonokromo, and her illicit liaisons with both Herman and his son Robert Mellema (TEOM, pp. 126-32; Am. ed., pp. 169-75); Robert Jan Dapperste (alias Panji Darman)'s reports of Annelies's deteriorating mental condition during the journey to the Netherlands, the land to which she has been extradited (COAN, Chapter 2); the letters of the liberal Dutch journalist, Ter Haar, and Miriam Frischboten née de la Croix (FS, pp. 122-27; Am. ed., pp. 162-70); and, of course, there are the accounts of Pangemanann, the policeman who spies for the Dutch colonial authorities, who takes over the task of narration following Minke's exile, and whose notes make up the last novel, House of Glass. Pramoedya controverts the rigid chain of chronological progression, first by inserting the various motley characters—whose lives had been affected by the history he is telling and who in turn brought life to this history—squarely within it, and then by undermining the possibility of temporal certitude. Despite Minke's apparent concern with the correct order in the chain of events he is narrating (“So that this story of mine runs in order” [TEOM, p. 116; Am. ed., p. 151]; “Also because I consider the time sequence to be important” [TEOM, p. 126; Am. ed., p. 169]), he is quick to remind us that his retellings are “re-ordered”, and “merged … together with dreams, imagining” (TEOM, p. 1; Am. ed., p. 15), to suggest that “human consciousness invents and re-invents its own histories,”41 that the alternative of a contingent fact can only be another contingent fact. Nothing can be preserved for the present without being changed, and Minke's rumination on the “Batara Kala” and “de tand des tijds” confirms both his own indeterminacy in history and the tentativeness with which his discourse exposes the aporias of being in time.

The narrated texts also inform the historiographic concerns of the Buru tetralogy. Though intercalated by a number of texts (e.g., the letters, court testimonies, newspaper articles, notes, and paintings), the tetralogy is overtly shaped by Pramoedya's view of narrating history. Most pertinent here is the way in which text, memory, and history are balanced on the fulcrum of interpretation to convey that history is always provisional. While Pramoedya explicitly sets the tetralogy over and against the texts of social realism as an example of a mode of writing, he does not deny it a social agenda. Here the social coincides intimately with historiography and with the appropriations of the past under Dutch colonial rule, as well as with more conventional methods for conveying the past. From the chronicles of the Babad Tanah Jawi and the myth of Nyai Roro Kidul and the legend of Si Pitung, to the recurrently invoked images of the gong and gamelan interspersed prominently throughout the narrative, the tetralogy affirms how interpretation of the past is always ongoing, always contingent on memory even when a text offers compelling evidence of truth. Memory forgets, revises, and transforms, so that the past remains ever open to rewriting and reinterpreting in ways that defy the design of myth. The texts that Pramoedya infiltrates in the Buru tetralogy are both in history (existing in “reality,” outside his novels) and about history (used by Dutch colonialism and—by implication—the Orde Baru to tell their versions of the “truth”). They are converted to narration within the frame of memory, and what they recover is history itself. As Pramoedya writes:

… it is not the materials of history that I examine, but its spirit. This I began with the tetralogy Bumi manusia, particularly working on the currents that ebbed and flowed during the period of Indonesia's National Awakening. And so there came to be a new reality, a literary reality, a downstream reality, whose origin was an upstream reality, that is, a historical reality. A literary reality that contains within it a reorientation and evaluation of civilisation and culture, which is precisely not contained in the historical reality … Step by step I am writing [my way] to the roots of its history, that for the moment is not ready to be published, or perhaps may never be published. In this way I have tried to answer: why did my people get to be like this, like that?

… whatever befalls [writers], their personal experience is also the experience of their people, and the experience of their people is also their personal experience. A part of this experience, small or large or the whole lot, will erupt in their writings, and will return to their people in the form of new realities, literary realities. That is why the truth of fiction is also the truth of history … Writers will bring it to life more clearly in their works, within which the killers and the killed will be immortal, instead of just actors in history. The holy robes and masks will be scattered.42

The reconciliation between a past once closed to interpretation and a memory desiring to interpret recaptures history as subjective meaning engendered to annul myth. In short, nothing is preserved for Pramoedya; nothing is remembered and given meaning, without being altered.

Pramoedya's Buru tetralogy speaks explicitly to the textual foundation of memory and narration and the contingencies of writing history. Its historical referents are open both to the narration's changing paradigms and to the reader's creative interpretation. The change in narrator from Minke, whose voice weaves the first three novels, to Pangemanann, who narrates the last, for example, most prominently offers varied and conflicting perspectives on the same set of incidents. It contrasts the narrative of the colonized to the narrative of the colonialist, as each character explores the ideological and dominative underpinnings of colonialism. House of Glass prompts us to focus on textual economies of morality and power, as we are presented with the colonizer's and colonialist's side of the story for the first time. Here we see the sociological and textual dimensions of colonial representations of “history” and the efficacy of those representations and assertions in both justifying colonialism as an enterprise and displacing the colonizers' collective guilt for their policies in the East Indies. This shift in narrative stance not only provides a counterpoint to the native version of history, but also throws into explicit focus the politics of narrating history. The tetralogy can thus be seen as doubly contestatory: as historical novels—fictionalized literature, but a literature with a conflicted relationship to its own fictionality—the tetralogy subverts the myth of its own veracity/accuracy (for example, through the framing narration of Minke, which, ironically, is prefaced by the salutary caution: “Thirteen years later I read and studied these short notes over again, I merged them together with dreams, imaginings. Naturally they became different from the original. Different? Ah! But that doesn't matter!” [TEOM, p. 1; Am. ed., p. 15]); and it destabilizes a single-voiced discourse that asserts truths about the past (e.g. Dutch newspaper reports about the royal mass suicide or puputan [ending] carried out in response to the Dutch invaders in Klungkung, Bali in 1908; discrepancies between what was reported in the English and Dutch newspapers of the Aceh War, etc.). In addition to casting doubt on Minke's own recollection of events, the tetralogy challenges all narrative that pretends to assert truths rather than to propose meanings. While the demythologization of Dutch colonial superiority is deeply embedded in the tetralogy, Pramoedya offers no alternative myth. Instead, his focus shuttles back and forth between the writing and the reading of texts, demonstrating how both activities are bound up with our understanding of the past.

Fiction is superior to history here (and, implicitly, to myth), not because of the truth-value of its discourse, but because of its propositions about truth. The epistemological fabric of narration always implies the hand of the weaver, which in turn affirms the presence of a self through which meaning (here the historical meaning of intellectual dissidence) is mediated and engendered. It is in this sense that the novels of the Buru tetralogy afford history the most diverse and profound possibilities. As with Ricoeur, “the meaning of history resides in its aspect as a drama of the human effort to endow life with meaning.”43 Time is always corrosive, and memory can never recoup time itself, but can recover only the meaning of time for a remembering self. This is what Pramoedya proposes at every turn of the tetralogy and what places his narrative in opposition to the assertive truths of social realism and colonial (and by extension Orde Baru) historiography. For Pramoedya, the writing of history cannot be collapsed into the reductivist and debilitating paradigm of myth. Evoking the historical past for Pramoedya is conceived not as experiencing that past as it once might have been lived, but as filtering time through the consciousness of a remembering self at once in history and open to history. Thus time is not a chasm that is merely bridged to recover the historical. Rather, as Gadamer writes, it is “a ground which supports the arrival of the past and where the present takes its roots.”44 This interplay (or dialogue, as some would have it) between present and past defines the narrating selves of these novels and their discourses on history. In contrast to social realism and the (“official”) historiography of the state, therefore, the Buru tetralogy lays out history as a series of disruptions of time, of self, of narration, and, most important, of the referential illusion of truth and wholeness. To respect the wholeness of the past means to leave it open to inquiry, to refuse to neutralize the contingencies of history by transforming them into a safe zone of myth. Indeed, the Buru tetralogy works consistently to decenter the paradigm of myth and to reconstitute the center as a moveable construct that always questions the past and remains subject to the hermeneutics of dissent.


  1. Orde Baru or the New Order, as former President Suharto's regime was self-named, came about after the bloody military putsch of October 1, 1965, which saw the systematic assassinations of army generals associated with President Sukarno's Guided Democracy regime and mass executions of his sympathizers alleged to have communist affiliations, and which heralded the abrupt end of Sukarno's revolutionary nationalism. The New Order (as opposed to the Old Order of Sukarno's rule) which was founded on the purported premise of rational modernity, development, and a return to the “rule of law,” was seen by Pramoedya as an oppressive regime that resurrected the colonial mode of rule. (Pramoedya made a trenchant remark about how developments in New Order Indonesia were becoming “increasingly irrational”: “When I was young, part of the revolution, it was unimaginable that the ‘freedom to be free’ could turn into the ‘freedom to be unfree’ of today. How can it be like this? And so what is the use of the revolution and of freedom, if conditions are worse than during the colonial period?” See “‘Weekend Focus’ Interview with Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Radio Netherlands, July 22, 1995, trans. Alex G. Bardsley,

  2. Pramoedya's unease with the New Order's rendition of history is quite apparent in his writings. Factors and actions in his own history led to his incarceration between 1965-1979, the banning of his published work, and the confiscation and destruction of his unpublished writings, personal archives and research materials by the New Order government. Those actions included: his association in 1958 with Lekra, the Institute of People's Culture, which championed the radical nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution; his involvement with Lentera (Lantern), the weekly supplement of the left-wing tabloid, Bintang Timur (Eastern Star) as editor from 1962-65; and his open idolization of Sukarno (he describes himself, even to this day, as a “pengagum dan pengikut Soekarno” [admirer and follower of Soekarno]); see Interview with Pramoedya, “Saya tidak Pernah Jadi Budak” (“I was Never a Servant”); Tempo 4, March 30-April 5, 1999. Much of this disquietude is reflected in the Buru tetralogy, where the portrayal of turn-of-the-century Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule becomes an allegory of Orba (the abbreviation for Orde Baru) under Suharto. In fact, it can be said that Pramoedya is really challenging two centers of authority in the tetralogy: Dutch colonialism and Orde Baru. The parallels between the two are many. Under the New Order, as under the Dutch, the fulcrum of society was the state and its administrators. Both regimes held that the populace was unsophisticated and innocent and could be easily corrupted by partisan politics. As a result, the people were politically demobilized to form a “floating mass,” connected to and controlled by officialdom. The state-endorsed ideology of Pancasila—much like colonialism's ruse of bringing order, stability, and “civilization” to the East Indies—came to serve as an instrument for the Gleichschaltung of social organization and thought, and was used by the regime to impose state prerogatives and hierarchies on the nation and to confirm its own legitimacy. The New Order's continuation of long-hated colonial ordinances limiting the expression of critical opinion, and its insistence that all ideological discourses (including those on history, politics, culture and language) be under the state's command and dominion, reveal how those who held power in Indonesia felt pressed to assert a measure of legitimacy. The demise of Suharto's New Order in May 1998, after months of student-led mass demonstrations, widespread civil unrest, rioting, and public pressure, and the subsequent handover of power to Suharto's protégé, B. J. Habibie, did little to divest history of the shroud Orba had used to mask and disguise it, particularly in relation to the official account of the event of the G30S-PKI (the purported September 30, 1965 PKI communist conspiracy that the military under General Suharto claimed it subverted). In fact, Pramoedya regards Habibie's short-lived interim government and, by extension, the self-styled reformist government of President Abdurrahman Wahid elected in June 1999, as being no different from Suharto's New Order regime, flippantly coining the term “Orbaba” (Orde Baru yang baru or the new New Order) to describe them. See Interview with Pramoedya, “Saya tidak Pernah Jadi Budak.”

  3. I wish to distinguish, here and elsewhere in this essay, between history (the occurrence of events in time) and historiography (the inscribing of events into a narrative form, the writing of history).

  4. The complex arguments linking historiography and fiction have been made elsewhere and are too lengthy to reproduce here. For the present study, I have drawn particularly on the works of Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); and Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984-88); while the theoretical base of Gadamer's hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. Garrett Barden and John Cumming [New York: Seabury, 1975]) and Barthes's writings on myth (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers [New York: Hill, 1972]; and Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Hill, 1986]) have served as secondary, but no less pertinent, points of departure. I refer the reader to these writers, as well as to Dominick LaCapra, History, Politics, and the Novel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); David Coward, History and the Contemporary Novel (Carbondale: South Illinois University Press, 1989); Robert D'Amico, Historicism and Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 1989); Suzanne Gearhart, The Open Boundary of History and Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Gary Morson, ed., Literature and History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986) for significant insights into the commingling of history and fiction and the way in which our knowledge of the past is shaped.

  5. See Pramoedya Ananta Toer, “Arti Penting Sejarah” (“The Importance of History”), Speech at the Launch of the Cultural Work Media, July 14, 1999, National Library, Indonesia.

  6. See, for example, Nugroho Notosusanto's accounts of the abortive Communist coup of September 30, 1965 in 40 Hari Kegagalan “G-30-S,” Monograph Series No. 1 (Jakarta: History Centre, ABRI, 1966), as well as his thoughtful essay on the problems of analyzing contemporary Indonesian history, in Nugroho Notosusanto, Masalah Penelitian Sejarah Kotemporer (Jakarta: Yayasan Idayu, 1978). See also Sartono Kartodirdjo's fine primer on new Indonesian history from the time of Dutch colonialism leading up to the emergence of the Orde Baru, in Sartono Kartodirdjo, Pengantar Sejarah Indonesia Baru: Sejarah Pergerakan Nasional dari Kolonialisme sampai Nationalisme, vol. 2 (Jakarta: PT Gramedia, 1990); this book is also helpful in showing how history can be framed in discourse to serve as a crucial narrative determinant. Additionally, see Goenawan Mohamad's Sidelines: Writings from “Tempo,” Indonesia's Banned Magazine, trans. Jennifer Lindsay (Victoria: Hyland House, 1994); and B. B. Herring, et al., New-Order-Indonesia: Five Essays (Townsville, Queensland: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1988); and Ruth McVey's “Building Behemoth: Indonesian Constructions of the Nation-State,” in Making Indonesia: Essays on Modern Indonesia in Honor of George McT. Kahin, ed. Daniel S. Lev and Ruth McVey (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1996), pp. 11-25. All these sources offer important insights into Orde Baru historiography and its relation to myth and ideology.

  7. Address of State by former President Suharto before the House of People's Representatives on the occasion of the Thirty-first Independence Day of Indonesia, delivered in Jakarta on August 16, 1976. Source: Department of Information, Republic of Indonesia.

  8. Stefan Eklöf, “Looking to the Future: Existential Meaning in Contemporary Indonesian Perceptions of History and the Nation,” Nordic Newsletter of Asian Studies 4 (2002).

  9. Tim Jaringan Kerja Budaya, Menentang Peradaban: Pelarangan Buku di Indonesia (Jakarta: Jaringan Kerja Budaya dan Elsam, 1999), p. 34.

  10. Notosusanto, Masalah Penelitian Sejarah Kontemporer, p. 40; my translation.

  11. See Barbara Leigh, “Making the Indonesian State: The Role of School Texts,” Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs (RIMA) 25, 1 (1991): 29, in which she quotes a report that President Suharto had instructed Nugroho Notosusanto, a former Minister of Education and Culture, to “revise school history lessons to emphasize instability in the rule of the country's founder, first President … Sukarno in the 1950s.” Cited by Virginia Hooker and Howard Dick in their “Introduction” to Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia (Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 3. While it is true that as early as 1965 essays (such as Mohammad Ali's “Historiographical Problems” in Soedjatmoko et al., eds., Introduction to Indonesian Historiography, [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965], pp. 1-23) had appeared advocating a more objective approach to the writing of history, and history textbooks, like Sanusi Pane's Sedjarah Indonesia (1945), already existed to urge historians to rid the academy of “ideological differences” that contaminate the pursuit of truth, the overriding concern with historical hegemony remained, and official New Order historiography continued to prop up the myths on which the regime had been constructed. On historical mythologization and the suitably reinvented Javanese traditions which the New Order embodied, propagated, and relied on for its legitimacy, see Pramoedya's “Maaf, di atas Nama Pengalaman” (“My Apologies in the Name of Experience”), trans. Alex G. Bardsley, One such myth that the Javanese elites in the New Order engendered, as Bardsley points out in his “Afterword” to Pramoedya's aforementioned essay, is the notion that they are inheritors of a “high,” essentialized, and originary courtly Javanese cultural tradition with divine mandate (wahyu) to rule: “[The New Order] rulers … represent their regime as ‘indigenous’ and culturally pure, as legitimate as if they were parthenogenetically descended from the ‘successful kings’ of yore. The New Order secures past history by an indigenist exclusion of the causes of change … [its] second legitimating function is to secure the present against the ghosts of the past.”

  12. See Barthes's Mythologies for a discussion of this concept.

  13. It is interesting to note what Minke says about heroes: “… people need heroes to caress their souls. And if there aren't any, they'll scrape up anything.” (COAN, p. 535; American edition, p. 321)

  14. Address of State by former President Suharto before the House of People's Representatives on the occasion of the Thirtieth Independence Day of Indonesia, delivered in Jakarta on August 16, 1975. Source: Department of Information, Republic of Indonesia.

  15. I use the terms “social-realistic” and “social realism” here not to denote the works of writers who have traditionally been linked with the leftist LEKRA movement, but in the broader, more flexible Lukacsian sense, meaning they are concerned especially with the relation of the resulting literary work to what their authors conceive to be the “objective” social reality of the time. Such works usually (though not exclusively) reflect the class conflicts, contradictions, crippling economic and intellectual conditions, and alienation of the individual human being living in that era. The social-realist writers whom I have categorized in this sense, by “bringing to life the greatest possible richness of the objective conditions of life,” and by creating “exemplary” characters who manifest both the internal stresses and the progressive tendencies of their era, in fact—and often “in opposition to [their] own conscious ideology”—make their fictional world a “reflection of life in its total motion, as process and totality.” In other words, such authors make their fictional world a reflection of life which accords with socialist views of the contradictions of bourgeois society, and socialist predictions of the course of future development. See Georg Lukacs, “Art and Objective Truth,” in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Arthur D. Kahn (London: Merlin, 1970). It should be added that the Marxist emphasis on the economic bases of society, and on the importance of class structure and class conflict, have strongly influenced the work of these writers, who themselves may or may not have been committed to Marxist doctrines. For a discussion of social realism as a generational norm in Indonesia during the 1950s and 1960s, see Keith Foulcher, “Post-Modernism or the Question of History: Some Trends in Indonesia Fiction since 1965,” in Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia, Virginia Hooker and Howard Dick, eds., Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 28-29. In this respect, “social realism” here should also be distinguished from the more politically partisan “socialist realism” concept advocated by Lekra artists who believed that “the artist had a task and a responsibility which was service to society and more specifically to the rakyat [masses] of which he forms a part … The artist should side with the ordinary people, with the majority group in the nation, without abandoning their function as sasterawan (literary men).” See A. Teeuw, Modern Indonesian Literature, vol. 1 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), pp. 134-39, for his discussion of the Marxist versus Angkatan 45 literary polemics. According to this conception, the artist should aspire to create seni berisi (meaningful art) or l'art engagée. The slogan l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) was scorned as a typical product of a capitalist bourgeois society. (The term “seni berisi” is Bujung Salleh's, from his “Ke Arah Seni Berisi. Sekitar Soal ‘Tendens’” (“Towards Meaningful Literature. The Problem of ‘Tendency’ in Art”), Indonesia 4,6/7 (1953): 337-44. [N.B. This reference is not to the present journal, but to one of the same name, published c. 1953-54 by Badan Musjawarat Kebudajaan Nasional. Eds.]

  16. Mock epic here is subtended by the concept of allegory as used by Stephen Slemon in his article, “Post-Colonial Allegory and the Transformation of History,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23, 1 (1988): 157-68.

  17. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 3, pp. 188-9.

  18. Surabaja appeared together with a collection of his short stories and a play in Dari Ave Maria Ke Djalan Lain Ke Roma (From Ave Maria to Other Roads to Rome) (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1948).

  19. Idrus, “Surabaja” in Dari Ave Maria Ke Djalan Lain Ke Roma, 1948, Reprint (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 2000), p. 120. My translation.

  20. Mochtar Lubis, Djalan Tak Ada Udjung (A Road with No End), trans. A. H. Johns. Originally published in 1952; English translation first published in 1968 by Hutchison. Reprint, Singapore: Graham Brash, 2001, p. 17.

  21. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 155.

  22. Ibid., p. 153.

  23. Utuy T. Sontani, Tambera (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1949, second edition, 1952), p. 210. My translation.

  24. See for example Teeuw, Modern Indonesian Literature, vol. 1, p. 192: “As a historical romance the book is weak, at least if one expects to find in it some familiarity with the epoch in which the story is set. On this point the writer clearly falls short as far as both facts and background are concerned.”

  25. Chris GoGwilt describes the setting of the Buru tetralogy as “the historical scene for a reading of the present” and writes that the historical past it depicts is “deeply shaped by an absent, unrepresented history: the bloody events of 1965-6, when the revolutionary nationalism of Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto's military-backed regime. Officially, Pramoedya's voice has been silenced in ‘New Order’ Indonesia, from 1965 to the present. In the Buru tetralogy … those events and their aftermath form a point of reference for situating Pramoedya in present-day Indonesia, and for evaluating his work's struggle to preserve historical record against the official amnesia of the ‘New Order.’” Chris GoGwilt, “Pramoedya's Fiction and History: An Interview with Pramoedya Ananta Toer, January 16, 1995, Jakarta, Indonesia,” in Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun: Essays to Honour Pramoedya Ananta Toer's 70th Year, ed. Bob Herring (Stein: Yayasan Kabar Seberang, 1995), p. 2.

  26. “Ya, karena, menurut saya, sejarah itu penting. Sejarah itu kan rumah tempat orang melanglangi dunia. Jadi, kalau dia tak tahu dari mana ia berangkat, ia tak mengerti tujuan.” Pramoedya, “Yang Tidak Setuju, Ya Minggir Saja” (“Those Who Don't Agree, Well, Step Aside”), Interview in Tempo, no. 9, May 4-10, 1999.

  27. Wilhelm Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History, trans. and ed. H. P. Rickman (New York: Harper, 1961). White, Ricoeur, and Gadamer often draw on Dilthey's writing to flesh out the fundamental issues that both philosophers and historians face in dealing with the past.

  28. All references to the Buru tetralogy are to the Penguin Australian editions (translated by Max Lane): Bumi manusia (This Earth of Mankind) and Anak semua bangsa (Child of All Nations) published together under the English title, The Awakenings (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1981); Jejak langkah (Footsteps) (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1990); and Rumah kaca (House of Glass) (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1992). Quotes from the tetralogy in this essay will be marked by their abbreviated English titles as TEOM,COAN,FS, and HOG respectively. References to the American editions (This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps [all New York: Penguin. 1990], and House of Glass [New York: Penguin, 1992]) have been added by the editors.

  29. William Faulkner, Sartoris (New York: Grosset, 1929), p. 7.

  30. Max Lane in an introduction to his translation of This Earth of Mankind, describes this “culture of silence” in Dutch East Indies: “The [Dutch East Indies] government presided over a colony, the exploitation of whose resources made one of the smallest countries of Europe, Holland, one of its richest. This exploitation needed a special condition for its continuation: the maintenance of an attitude of acceptance on the part of the colonised and the governed. The colonisers' determination was that the native people, especially the toiling classes, of the Netherlands Indies should remain for ever submerged in a ‘culture’ of silence. This made exploitation easier and gave some Dutch their reason to exhibit the traditional colonial feelings of cultural arrogance and superiority.” Max Lane, “Introduction” in Awakenings (Victoria: Penguin, 1980), p. vii.

  31. Pramoedya, “Realisme Sosialis dan Sastra Indonesia—Sebuah Tinjauan Sosial” (“Social Realism and Indonesian Literature—A Social Analysis”), Seminar Paper delivered at the University of Indonesia in early January 1963. The phrase is quoted on pp. 15 and 18 of the 1980 revised text of the seminar paper, circulated in typescript and photocopied form. See Keith Foulcher, Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts: The Indonesian “Institute of People's Culture” 1950-1965 (Victoria: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1986), pp. 120-23, for a discussion of Pramoedya's commitment to historical analysis.

  32. Lennard Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 213.

  33. I am referring here to Minke in the first three novels whose life and growth as a pioneer of nationalism, and of Indonesian nationalist awakening itself, can be said to be anthropomorphised. See GoGwilt, “Pramoedya's Fiction and History,” p. 7, in which he argues that “[i]n some respects the formal structure of the first three novels, narrated by Minke, fits the genre of what Partha Chatterjee calls ‘nationalism's autobiography.’” The term “nationalism's autobiography,” attributed to Chatterjee, is from Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 6.

  34. Joel Weinsheimer, Gadamer's Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 134.

  35. Pramoedya in the interview with GoGwilt, “Pramoedya's Fiction and History,” pp. 10-11.

  36. Pramoedya's answer to the question: “How would you characterize the relation between history and novel writing?” reminds GoGwilt of the imagery of the Lusi river described in Pramoedya's “Things Vanished,” the first short story in his anthology Stories from Blora, an imagery which to GoGwilt demonstrates “a powerful interplay of memory and forgetting.” Ibid., pp. 5, 10.

  37. Frederic Barth, “Boundaries and Connections,” in Signifying Identities: Anthropological Perspectives on Boundaries and Contested Values, ed. Anthony Cohen (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 21.

  38. Abdul R. JanMohamed, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 64.

  39. Abdul JanMohamed, “Negating the Negation as a Form of Affirmation in Minority Discourse: The Construction of Richard Wright as Subject,” Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 247

  40. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 913.

  41. Max Lane, “Introduction,” in House of Glass, p. viii.

  42. Pramoedya, “Maaf, di atas Nama Pengalaman” (“My Apologies in the Name of Experience”), trans. Alex G. Bardsley,

  43. White, The Content of the Form, p. 181.

  44. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Problem of Historical Consciousness,” in Interpretive Social Science, ed. Paul Rabinow and William Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 152.

Chris GoGwilt (essay date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: GoGwilt, Chris. “The Voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Passages, Interviews, and Reflections from The Mute's Soliloquy and Pramoedya's North American Tour.” Cultural Critique 55 (fall 2003): 217-46.

[In the following essay, GoGwilt examines the parallels between the subject matter in The Mute's Soliloquy and Pramoedya's 1999 North American tour, marking the author's first visit outside of Indonesia in almost forty years. GoGwilt also includes an interview with Pramoedya, in which the author discusses his travels to the United States.]

Following the events of 1965, I lost everything or, to be more accurate, all the illusions I had ever owned. I was a newborn child, outfitted with the only instrument a newly born babe finds necessary for life: a voice. Thus like a child my only means of communication was my voice: my screams, cries, whimpers, and yelps.

What would happen to me if my voice, my sole means of communication, were to be taken from me? Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer,The Mute's Soliloquy

Pramoedya Ananta Toer has long been recognized as Indonesia's most significant literary voice. During the first two decades of Indonesian independence from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, Pramoedya became established as the country's leading prose writer, the celebrated voice of revolutionary nationalism in literature and culture. Things changed drastically following his arrest during the events of 1965, in which the persecution, arrest, and massacre of countless communists and communist “sympathizers” marked the fall of Sukarno's power and the rise of the Soeharto regime. As a political prisoner, exiled to the remote Buru Island prison colony, his books banned, Pramoedya continued to write—composing the Buru quartet of historical novels on which his international reputation is largely based. Since his release from Buru in 1979 until the crumbling of Soeharto's regime in the late 1990s, Pramoedya remained a writer officially silenced at home, the internationally recognized voice of dissidence in “New Order” Indonesia.

In April 1999 Pramoedya left Indonesia, for the first time since the early 1960s, to visit the United States. The catalyst for what became a tour of North America and Europe was the invitation to attend an international conference in New York hosted by Fordham University and organized by myself (then director of Fordham's Literary Studies Program) and Will Schwalbe (executive editor at Hyperion Books and Pramoedya's literary representative), along with John McGlynn (cofounder and director of the Lontar Foundation, and, as Willem Samuels, translator of Pramoedya's The Fugitive and The Mute's Soliloquy). The purpose of the conference was to engage public and scholarly debate on the significance of the writer's work both for Indonesia and for world literature. Titled “The Voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia and in World Literature,” the conference was planned to coincide with the publication of The Mute's Soliloquy, the English-language translation and edition of Pramoedya's memoir. Chosen to signal the motif of voice in the memoir and to evoke the ongoing struggle against censorship in Indonesia, the conference title acquired another significance when Pramoedya accepted the invitation to participate and—against almost all expectations—when passport and visa were secured for him to leave Indonesia for the first time in forty years.

In what follows, I reflect on the significance of this metaphor of voice—both in Pramoedya's own text and in its English translation into a North American context. That metaphor has a rather different resonance in the context of the authoritarian institutions of New Order Indonesia than it does in the context of the liberal democratic institutions of North America. Throughout Pramoedya's North American tour, the distance between these two contexts seemed particularly marked in Pramoedya's responses to interview questions (including those in this article), in which he would simultaneously be addressing both a North American and an Indonesian audience and readership. There are at least three different contexts through which Pramoedya's voice from Buru gets refracted: the silenced space of imprisonment in Buru exile; the censored public sphere of New Order Indonesia; and the international circulation of information and ideas through the free press and the world publishing market. The resulting disjuncture of voice necessarily affects any reading of Pramoedya's work. An English-language reader might consider, for example, the fact that in 1999 Pramoedya's Buru quartet had been more widely available to an English readership outside Indonesia, and for many more years, than it had to an Indonesian readership within Indonesia. Discussing the occasion of Pramoedya's visit to America, I would like to offer some critical reflections on the significance of this disjuncture of voice and, in particular, on reading Pramoedya's Indonesian voice in the English translation of The Mute's Soliloquy.1

Pramoedya's reflection on the threatened loss of his own voice in the epigraph comes from the first section of The Mute's Soliloquy. Here, in a letter to one of his children—which opens, “It's unlikely that you'll ever receive this letter. It's unlikely that I'll ever be able to send it”—Pramoedya contemplates the significance of his voyage into exile on Buru. The question he poses—“Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?”—has the defiant force of a rhetorical question answered in the very act of asking. It sustains, nonetheless, the unsettling aftereffect of a question still unanswered. In its immediate rhetorical effect, it challenges the very forces of oppression that threaten to deprive him of a voice. Yet in its cumulative political, literary, and philosophical registers, it articulates an unanswered complex of questions about the fundamental human right to free speech. If his “right to speak to himself” seems defiantly affirmed by the very survival of this passage in a letter smuggled out of Buru, that defiance is itself premised on the deprivation of voice on which the passage reflects: “Following the events of 1965, I lost everything.” As Pramoedya pointed out with sober pessimism in his comments at the end of the Fordham conference, the losses of 1965 in Indonesia have yet to be reckoned with. Among the after-echoes of Pramoedya's question, there remains the thought: since Pramoedya was deprived of the right to communicate with his family—since he was deprived, for many years, of the right to write at all—was he not, after all, deprived of the “right to speak to himself”? Even when published (first in the Dutch edition of 1989, then in the Indonesian edition of 1995), the notes that survived from Buru were banned in Indonesia.2 And so the question—“Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?”—retains the unanswered force of its first formulation.

The title of the English edition of Pramoedya's prison notes, The Mute's Soliloquy, concisely names the paradox of loss and survival of voice on which the combined political and literary power of Pramoedya's notes from Buru depend. These notes testify against Indonesia's attempt to silence one of its most powerful literary voices. What emerges from the rescued fragments—letters to his children, essays, reflections, interviews with officials and journalists Pramoedya recorded himself, and a long list of the missing and the dead—is a voice that survives in the recording of its own loss. Although the English translation constitutes only a fraction of the surviving notes (and the sections themselves are often abridged versions of the original), The Mute's Soliloquy provides the English-language reader a rare and important glimpse of that more extensive “soliloquy” of Pramoedya's Buru years from which the full scope of his literary work is still emerging. Including introductory comments to each section added by Pramoedya in 1998, the English edition supplements the long labor of rescue work on which the survival of Pramoedya's literary and political voice has always depended.3 Such rescue work has yielded not only the Buru quartet of novels published (and banned) between 1979 and 1988—This Earth of Mankind,Child of All Nations,Footsteps, and House of Glass—but also those other works from Buru that continue to emerge, including the long historical novels Arus Balik (first published in 1995) and Arok Dedes (not published until after the North American tour, in 2000), and the drama Mangir (also published in 2000).

All the work of Buru constitutes an extended attempt to come to terms with what the writer lost in 1965. The Buru quartet, to cite the example most accessible to the English-language reader, reconstructs from memory the research and documentation that was almost entirely lost when Pramoedya's manuscripts, papers, and books were destroyed or scattered following his arrest. The notes that make up Pramoedya's memoir (many of them composed, like the Buru quartet, initially without pen and paper) are especially valuable because they record the personal, literary, and historical coordinates of what was lost in the most traumatic moment of contemporary Indonesian history. Both for an Indonesian and a non-Indonesian reader, they provide a compelling point of reference for “the events of 1965” (peristiwa 1965). In political terms, they compel attention to the unresolved national and international issues surrounding the crimes of the New Order regime, and the support given that regime by liberal democracies such as the United States. In literary terms, they call attention to the significance of Pramoedya's work as a whole as it was shaped up to, and as it was shattered following 1965.

Pramoedya's “mute soliloquy” registers, unmistakably, a bitter national testimony: “We're supposed to leave tomorrow”—of his impending departure for Buru with eight hundred other prisoners, in the same letter to his daughter that opens the memoir—“on August 17, Independence Day—a birthday present for the nation!” (Mute, 8). As the most prominent of the so-called Generation of '45, the generation of writers that came of age with the ideals of Indonesia merdeka (free or liberated Indonesia), Pramoedya's reflections on the changing meaning of freedom after 1965 constitute a scathing assessment of his own generation (a “failed” generation, he described it, at the Fordham conference) and an unsettling challenge for later generations (for whom the wounds of 1965 were buried deep, and left unaddressed, by the official amnesia of New Order Indonesia). In opening this painful and uneasy dialogue across the divides of different generations of Indonesian experience, Pramoedya's voice is compelled, also, to speak to the world at large, across the generational divides of the twentieth century, challenging our understanding of the fate of freedom in the passage from a colonial to a postcolonial experience.

All these divides are measured in the voice of the father attempting to write to his daughter: “you are the child of a free nation” (anak bangsa merdeka), “I … the child of a colonized people” (anak bangsa jajahan) (Mute, 10; Nyanyi [I], 4). This projected dialogue marks as a generational, temporal divide what is then contemplated in the geographical movement into exile: the exiled father, “child of a colonized people,” exiled from contact with that “free nation,” must forever go back over in his memories the failed passage from colonial dependence to freedom and independence. This is, indeed, the recurring subject of all Pramoedya's Buru work: the events of 1965 mark the historical failure of Indonesian anticolonial nationalism.4 Reflecting on that failure, Pramoedya's project—above all, with the Buru quartet—became the work of “writing to the roots” of Indonesian nationalism.5 This is clearly the project of the Buru quartet of historical novels, but it also informs all the work of Pramoedya's Buru exile. There—in that ongoing Buru exile of “mute soliloquy”—we are bound to situate Pramoedya's literary and political voice, past and present, from before and after 1965, and as it compels a hearing both within Indonesia and abroad. The historical moment of those inaugural ruminations on Pramoedya's voyage into Buru exile is, of course, very different from that of his journey to North America some thirty years later, in April 1999. But to what extent does Pramoedya's dissident voice, as broadcast in North America, remain bound by the political conditions shaping the narrative voice of The Mute's Soliloquy?

The timing of the visit to North America accentuated the double register of Pramoedya's voice, which—in interview after interview—combined an older revolutionary rhetoric of youthful liberation (the rhetoric of Indonesia merdeka) with the aspirations of a new generation's struggle for freedom. Occurring at a moment of political crisis within Indonesia, Pramoedya's visit to the United States was inevitably political. With elections in Indonesia scheduled for June 1999, with the formal end to occupation in East Timor still in negotiation, with the escalating fomentation of religious conflict throughout Indonesia, Soeharto's New Order was imploding with no clear sense of what would take its place. At the airport in Jakarta, a huge banner wishing him farewell was unfolded by the left-wing Partai Rakyat Demokrasi.6 In interviews and news articles published just before his departure, Pramoedya's planned trip was clearly seen as a testing of the government's long-standing restrictions on his freedom of movement and freedom of speech. Once in the United States—now free to travel, and now free to speak out and have his views reported in the press in Indonesia as well as abroad—Pramoedya was outspoken in his criticism of the Indonesian government, in his indictment of the military (above all, the military involvement in East Timor), in his call for Soeharto to be put on trial, and in his continuing support for the student reform movement.7

The immediacy with which Pramoedya's dissident voice translates into American English might, however, give pause. In the mainstream North American press, the political significance of Pramoedya's visit was formulated as the success story of his struggle for freedom. “A ‘Mute’ Talks Back” (Wall Street Journal), “In Indonesia, A Voice That Will Not Be Silenced” (International Herald Tribune), and “Mute No More” (Salon): so read the titles of a sampling of news articles and interviews. Implied in all these variations on the metaphor of voice (including the Fordham conference title) is the survival of Pramoedya's dissident voice, combined with the story of his freedom to travel and speak abroad in 1999. Since a success story is often only the cue for Pramoedya to unravel untold other stories of struggle to come (this is the basic structure of the Buru novels), one might well ask what a North American hearing of Pramoedya's dissident voice has missed.8 What gets lost in the translation of Pramoedya's silenced voice into the dissident freedom to speak in the United States?

Paradoxically, the English title of The Mute's Soliloquy gives an immediacy to Pramoedya's voice and a coherence to the memoir not there in the Indonesian. The Indonesian title—Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu—might literally be translated “The Quiet (or Silent, or Lonely) Song of Someone Who Is Mute.” One thing that gets lost in this translation is the disjuncture of sense, a problem of mediacy quite characteristic of Pramoedya's style. As the Indonesian poet, essayist, and journalist Goenawan Mohamad explained (introducing Pramoedya at the Asia Society in New York), the “affective tonality” of the combined first two words of the title are drawn from one of Indonesia's foremost poets, Amir Hamzah.9 The English reader may not be in a position to understand how Pramoedya's title is, in Goenawan Mohamad's words, “pregnant with paradoxes” in its allusive engagement and dialogue with the history of Indonesian literature. Amir Hamzah's collection of poems, Nyanyi Sunyi (Songs of Solitude, 1937), provided a bridge between the old Malay poetic conventions of the past and the modern style of the poetry written in the new Indonesian language.10 In this sense, the conceit of a solitary voice singing to itself in soliloquy—what gives both power and immediacy to the English title's conception of the memoir as a whole—elides the book's dialogic relation to Indonesian literary tradition.

As Goenawan Mohamad goes on to point out, the evocation of a lyrical voice is all the more striking since, by contrast to the religious poet Amir Hamzah, Pramoedya, the humanist and realist, is “the prose writer par excellence.” In Goenawan's contrast between realist prose and lyrical poetry,11 it is possible to hear echoes of the bitter polemic of the 1960s between the socialist realism of Lekra (the cultural organization of the then-dominant Communist party) and the apolitical aesthetic claims of Manikebu (a group of writers and artists whose “cultural manifesto”—after which the group was baptized—sought to separate culture from politics). The contours of this debate—recalling similar debates elsewhere about the role of literature in politics during the Cold War—came to shape perceptions of Pramoedya's literary and political voice, since he was an outspoken opponent of Manikebu and a member of Lekra. Following 1965 these debates ended with the political silencing of Lekra. Whether or not Pramoedya's title evokes such debates, Goenawan's comments constituted a moving gesture of recognition across political and generational divides: Goenawan Mohamad, one of the signatories of Manikebu, and perhaps the most prominent poet of the Generation of '66, sharing the stage to honor Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the “prose writer par excellence” of the Generation of '45.12

Yet to read Pramoedya's work in relation either to some continuity of lyrical voice or to some dialectical evolution within Indonesian literature would also misconstrue the literary coordinates of Pramoedya's own Nyanyi sunyi, much of whose power, poignancy, and continued relevance draws from the fact that it is composed in exile from Indonesian literature. In this sense the English title aptly names the compromised position of a reading experience bound, from a non-Indonesian perspective, to read a book deprived of its Indonesian readership. We are put in the position of listening in on the “soliloquy” of a writer cut off from family, from his readership, and thus, too, from his own language. Given the centrality of the modernizing nationalist language of bahasa Indonesia for everything Pramoedya does as a writer, to be cut off from language in this way is a threat to the very modality of his voice. Reading Pramoedya in English translation exaggerates the effect of this linguistic exile. The compromised position of an English reader, however, constitutes a revealing outside perspective from which to consider the bitter ironies of Pramoedya's emergence as a world writer, the paradox of the writer's journey into exile as a punitive rite of passage from the nationalist arena of Indonesian literature to the lonely stage of world literature.

Pramoedya's visit to the United States in 1999 was the celebratory overseas visit of an internationally recognized literary voice. Yet The Mute's Soliloquy tells of the passage into international recognition in a far less celebratory mood. The whole of the first section dwells on the voyage to Buru (thirty years before the voyage to North America), and sets that voyage in ever more bitterly ironic contrast to other anniversaries, celebrated or not: his daughter's wedding, his nation's birth, the first arrival of European colonizers to Indonesia. This constellation of anniversary remembrances (“Natant Ruminations” is the section's English title) underscores the book's disjuncture of narrative coordinates. Although Pramoedya is constantly struggling to record the conditions of his prison existence, and, as in this section, coordinate the present with memories of his past life, it is often difficult to pinpoint when or where the narrative voice is located. In a material sense, this is a condition of all the written work that was smuggled out of Buru, which represents only a fragment of what Pramoedya wrote, much of which was lost or destroyed.

Pramoedya's reflections in this section on the coordinates of the past, present, and future make it an appropriate introduction to the memoir as a whole. The original title of the section suggests a set of free-floating meditations unmoored from the coordinates of time and place. Permenungan dan Pengapungan is a characteristically alliterative title, meaning something like “Contemplations and Floatings.” The second word suggests the floating of a ship at sea, as captured by the Dutch translation Overpeinzingen op zee (Reflections at Sea) (Lied van een stomme 1989, 13). In his extended discussion of the Indonesian edition of the memoir, Rudolf Mrázek points out that these titles recall the journey into exile of “another Indonesian intellectual, and later statesman, Sutan Sjahrir,” who was “shipped to his exile along the same route” (1996, 51).13 Sjahrir's letters from exile were first published in Dutch as Indonesische Overpeinzingen and later in Indonesian as Renungan Indonesia. The parallel echoes Pramoedya's explicit evocation of nationalist heroes of the past later in this opening section:

How ironic it is that in 1948 when I was in Bukitduri prison I wished that I would be exiled to the Moluccas, along with the nationalist leaders who had been sent there instead of being confined in jail. And now, years later, my dream is about to come true—that is, if the ship does not sink before we arrive.

(Mute, 15)

Pramoedya thus revisits and repeats, with a bitter and ironic difference, the passages of earlier Indonesian nationalists.14 At the same time, he recalls the origins of his own literary career in the experience of imprisonment under the Dutch in Bukitduri prison. Both sets of experiences are revisited according to a changed sense of the coordinates of freedom and world history. It is from this reformulation of his nation's and his own past that the voice—or rather the disjuncture of voices—of The Mute's Soliloquy, and all the work of Buru, emerges.

It is difficult to tell how much connection there may be between the ironic thought that his exile is a birthday present for the nation and the effort (revealed at the end of the section) to find some fitting “wedding present” for the daughter whose husband's name he cannot even remember. The difficulty lies in judging for whom that connection might be made meaningful: for his daughter, for his fellow prisoners on Buru, for himself alone? Between these three alternatives, one can find at least three different voicings of the keyword “freedom”: that of the father (“child of a colonized people”) instructing the daughter (“child of a free nation”) on the values of freedom; that of a contemporary addressing those of his own generation, reflecting on the loss of their hard-won “freedom”; and that of a famous writer contemplating his own loss of voice. There is another voice, too: the voice of official Indonesian mass media, which, though muted in the English translation, is there in “the loudspeaker” that “continues to belch saccharine kroncong songs, official announcements, sermons, and advice from nameless authorities who wish for us good luck in the new life that we are headed for” (Mute, 18).15

The disjuncture between all these possible voices comes to shape the whole section's reflection on exile. Recollecting the moment of his own departure into exile, Pramoedya turns to a philosophical register of questioning to consider a person's boundedness by the coordinates of “three-dimensional time”: “If a person cannot free himself from three-dimensional time—from either the past, the present, or the future—how must this be viewed? As God's gift or His curse?” (Mute, 7). As philosophical reflection, the passage is characteristic of a great deal of Pramoedya's prose style (whether in the short stories of his early writing, in the Buru quartet of novels, or, indeed, in his conversational voice); but it is also presented as a fundamental aspect of that problem of medium captured in the memoir's title and (however differently) in its English translation. When, after all, does this reflecting take place? The passage occurs in the middle of those reflections that recount (in the present tense) the experience of the journey to Buru in 1969. We know this must have been written down at a later date, since Pramoedya was deprived of all forms of writing implements until 1973. The Mute's Soliloquy is punctuated throughout with accounts of the constant struggle to maintain access to pen and paper, as well as the dangers Pramoedya faced in writing and keeping what was written—thus the story of how the Buru quartet came to be written emerges first as the record of a writing that is confiscated and lost. It is from this disjuncture of political contexts—retrospectively demanding attention to the different spheres of Buru prison exile, New Order Indonesia, and international public opinion—that much of the power of Pramoedya's voice emerges.

The notes continually return to the problematic coordinates of their own “past, present, and future,” bringing together into the one reading experience (or into any one passage of text) a multiple series of “ruminations.” When Pramoedya reflects on the “gift” or “curse” of being bound to such temporal coordinates, there seems an unavoidable ambiguity of reference: the question “How must this be viewed?” might refer to the specific condition of his own exile or to the human condition of being caught within “three-dimensional time.”16 In either event, the sentiment suitably articulates a problem of organization that informs the whole set of notes. Each section is a fragment itself, made up of passages (some of which are lost) written down, transcribed, and put together later. Thus the relation of one fragment to another poses a number of almost intractable questions about “three-dimensional time” and the narrative present of the prison notes. When, in this first section, we move from the comment, addressed to his daughter, that “Then I, too, went away—into exile” to the philosophical reflection “How must this be viewed?” how does the reader coordinate the temporal relation between the two passages? The narrative relation is, perhaps, an improvised retrospective narrative present and, more likely, a retrospective reconstruction of something already retrospective. This is in large part a result of the very loss on which the notes reflect. The intimacy of Pramoedya's letters to his children is overladen with another kind of poignancy than the one evoked by the knowledge that these letters could not be sent (let alone written) once we learn that the prisoners on Buru would often read their letters to one another. The stories and recollections told within each section come already told and retold, in a layering of experience that gives shape to the whole. And that whole is itself shaped around the loss of voice that precipitates recollection of events prior to Buru exile.

The fragmentary form of The Mute's Soliloquy is intimately related to the formal structure of the Buru quartet of novels. As Indonesian and Javanese scholar Nancy Florida discussed at the Fordham conference, the opening to This Earth of Mankind organizes the quartet around the shifting coordinates of a number of possible first-person narrative perspectives: the oddly named first-person narrator Minke, who withholds his identity; the historical Tirto Adhi Suryo, on whom that fictional narrator is (increasingly) based; the awakening of Indonesian national consciousness; Pramoedya himself; or the police commissioner Pangemanann, who narrates the final volume, House of Glass. Although such shifts in narrative perspective easily—perhaps all too easily—fit a (post)modern aesthetic of novel form, this indeterminacy of relation has something important in common with the problematic narrative present of the autobiographical “I” of the prison notes. As most readings of the quartet note, the striking shift from Minke's to Pangemanann's narrative voice fundamentally unsettles the narrative pattern of development, coming-of-age, or Bildung, with which Minke's story (particularly in This Earth of Mankind) projects a relation between autobiography, historical development, and the awakening of a national consciousness.17 Informing the fictional power of the quartet from the very outset, this narrative disjuncture is premised on the same problem of coordination that shapes the voice of The Mute's Soliloquy.

There is, of course, an important difference between the fictional form of the Buru quartet and the “personal notes” of The Mute's Soliloquy, which Pramoedya describes in the foreword as “a stream of water flowing unchecked, with no thought given to their final shape or form” (ix). What connects them, however, is just this contingent “note” form. As Henk Meier, another Indonesian scholar and a Dutch translator of Pramoedya's work, argued at the Fordham conference, discussing the early autobiographical stories (“Gado-Gado” above all), Pramoedya's work might all be characterized as, formally, nothing but notes (catatan-catatan).18 The Buru novels, like the “personal notes” of The Mute's Soliloquy, are also “notes”—composed on Buru, spoken orally to his fellow prisoners, written down and smuggled in parts out of Buru and later edited into their final form. Their narrative form is based, indeed, on the fiction of a set of “notes” written by the narrator, Minke, in his own prison exile. Those notes early on establish the disjuncture between the enthusiastic voice of the youthful Minke enamored by European education and modernity (“I, a Javanese, liked to make notes—because of my European training”), and the voice of a more knowledgeable, more suspicious narrator (“One day the notes would be of use to me, as they are now” [This Earth, 17]). In the final volume, the bundles of notes are appropriated by the police commissioner Pangemanann, signaling in what sense the quartet stages the colonial contest as a struggle over archival memory. By then the historical basis of Pramoedya's novels has become clear enough for any reader to recognize that this is no mere metaphorical struggle over the manipulation, distortion, and destruction of historical documents.

To attend to the historical implications of this contingency of narrative form, we might consider Florida's argument that Pramoedya follows, in his own manner, a tradition of Javanese prophetic historical chroniclers. The claim stands in odd contrast to Pramoedya's outspoken rejection of Javanese mysticism and, more generally, the “Javanism” of high Javanese cultural forms—against which Pramoedya uses bahasa Indonesia (as discussed at length by Benedict Anderson).19 Florida's argument, however, is that Pramoedya is following here a radically different form of Javanese tradition from the one Minke and Pramoedya rail against as “Javanism”—a tradition of using historical chronicle to imagine a revolutionary future, as Florida extensively discusses in her extraordinary study, Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: History as Prophecy in Colonial Java (1995). This argument suggests an approach to Pramoedya's work that would likely go against the usual grain of an English reader, trained to screen out a text's temporal anachronisms, accretions, and delays, ascribing them to accidental effects of editing and translation. Perhaps, though, an English reader has yet to learn how to make such contingencies a material part of the reading process.

As we have already seen with the title of The Mute's Soliloquy, the immediacy of Pramoedya's voice in English is necessarily an effect of mediation through translation, elision, supplementation, and interpretation. One striking difficulty in translating Pramoedya's Indonesian into English is the loss of English words and phrases from the original Indonesian. In the final section of The Mute's Soliloquy, there are a number of passages left out of the English translation, including one short exchange from among Pramoedya's interviews with journalists who visited Buru to report on the first release of prisoners. Asked whether he might have lost touch with his own people after so long in exile, Pramoedya expresses puzzlement at the reporter's use of the word “cunin”:

When you are freed, Bung, will you be able to cunin with others?
What do you mean by cunin? What language is that?
O, tune-in. I'll be able to, yes, why shouldn't I?(20)

An amusing variation on the problem of voice, communication, and exile in The Mute's Soliloquy, the passage poses a sort of exemplary riddle about the oral, written, and translingual medium of Pramoedya's use of bahasa Indonesia. Here is a potential moment of conjuncture between the three discrepant contexts of Pramoedya's Buru exile (Buru itself, New Order Indonesia from which he has been exiled, and the international media and languages of communication beyond Indonesia). Whatever the rhetorical force of the question Pramoedya records himself as saying in response, the amusement of the exchange stands in contrast to the overall context of this final section, “The First Release.” Knowing his name is among the first set of prisoners to be freed, Pramoedya has yet to learn that he will remain in Buru exile for another two years.

Another kind of English-language effect from this same final section, but one that is translated—if not fully translatable—in the English edition, is Pramoedya's description of reading his own work in English translation. Having earlier received a copy of Harry Aveling's Heap of Ashes, an English translation of some of his own stories, Pramoedya finds himself “attempt[ing] to read the stories … as the creations of someone else—a person of a different culture, nation, and language—but found myself unable and could not stop the tears from welling in my eyes” (Mute, 341). Faced with the uncanny reflection of his own words in English translation, Pramoedya revisits the work of his youth reframed within a changed set of personal, national, and transnational coordinates. The passage suggests that the space of English translation, and the coordinates of its various translation effects, constitutes the exemplary condition of exile, isolation, and cultural loss that makes for world literary recognition in the twentieth century.21 Pramoedya measures, with irony and an almost unfathomable combination of bitterness and sentimentality, the winning of international recognition as a consequence of the loss of his own literary voice.

It is in this final section, all the more isolated in his Buru exile following the “first release” of prisoners, that the memoir improvises the English title-metaphor of “the mute's soliloquy” to describe that condition of loss Pramoedya feels when, as if looking in a mirror, he reads his own past life in the English translation of his early short story “The Silent Center of Life's Day.” For an English reader, it ought to come as a surprise that this loss of voice, and the governing conceit of the “mute's soliloquy,” should emerge from Pramoedya's encounter with his own words in English translation. In what seems a displaced response to the question posed in the first section of the memoir—“Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?”—we read, “I have lost my voice. Were I able to sing, would anyone hear this mute's soliloquy?” (Mute, 342).22

The estrangement of such English-language effects are written into the form of the Buru notes themselves. In Pramoedya's opening reflections on being deported to Buru, the first extended motif of singing is prompted by the English words of a song:

During the Revolution when I was being held by the Dutch in Bukitduri Prison, I memorized a Negro spiritual, the first line of which went “There's a happy land somewhere …”—a symbolic promise for every person's future.

These English words (set in italics in my citation to accentuate the English-effect that necessarily gets muted in the English translation) become the text by which Pramoedya explicates the “past,” “present,” and “future” of “three-dimensional time”:

With hope as his guide, sweat as the symbol of his labor, the present as his starting point, and the past as his provisions, a person goes forward, toward a happy land somewhere. But because one can never be sure of reaching that place, the second line of the song goes “And it's just a prayer away.

(Mute, 7)

The spiritual, political, and cultural significance of these English words (which recur throughout the opening section) thus set the coordinates for Pramoedya's reflections on “three-dimensional time” and on his own passage into Buru exile.23

They also set the coordinates of Pramoedya's “notes” according to a set of disjunctive identifications of exile and diaspora, as emerges in a succession of analogies to other histories of traumatic displacement. Describing the process of dispossession he and his fellow prisoners undergo, stripped of their rights as Indonesian citizens and deported across the seas, Pramoedya compares their collective plight to the Chinese forcibly taken by Captain Bontekoe in the early seventeenth century on his voyages in the East Indies; to the kidnapping of Chinese to Hawaii, as described by James Michener's Hawaii; and to “the four million Africans loaded onto British and American ships for transport across the Atlantic” (Mute, 9). If the words of the English “Negro spiritual” stand in linguistic and cultural counterpoint to the “saccharine kroncong songs” of the boat's loudspeaker24 and the allusion to Amir Hamzah in the title phrase Nyanyi sunyi, we might read these traumatic histories of dispossession as the complementary counterpoint to Indonesian nationalism. To the extent that Pramoedya's “English” voice invites such a contrapuntal crossing of cultural matrices, it reveals the contingency of linguistic reference and cultural identification that remains at the heart of Pramoedya's work in general and its political project of “writing to the roots” of Indonesian nationalism.

An English reading of Pramoedya cannot, of course, wish away the problems of translation on which any such complex set of cultural identifications depends. I should like to end by calling attention to an alternative translation of the passage from The Mute's Soliloquy with which I began: “Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?” That question, in the Indonesian and Dutch editions, has a rather different accentuation when followed by a sentence omitted in the English translation. Here is my own, unseaworthy translation (with an accordingly altered translation of the opening question):

Then, if that means of communication is confiscated, och, who can confiscate the right to commune in dialogue with oneself? And that which is confiscated will be changed into another kind of energy that will etch eternity into life.

(In italics, the sentence omitted from The Mute's Soliloquy)25

The passages cut from the English translation pose more questions than could likely be answered even by judicious translation, footnote, and commentary.26 I attempt a translation here only to emphasize the problematic consistency of that English voice that emerges so immediately and powerfully in Willem Samuel's translation.27 That translation offers an indispensable insight into the “mute soliloquy” of Pramoedya's Buru years, bringing coherence to the loss of voice against which Pramoedya's work testifies. Because the English translation is, indeed, too perfect in making the metaphor of “voice” coherent, an English reader should also attend to the gaps and inconsistencies that continue to threaten the modality of Pramoedya's voice.


What follows are the set of questions I gave to Pramoedya on the day of his arrival in the United States (April 6, 1999) and Pramoedya's typewritten answers to those questions. Dated April 10, 1999, Washington, D.C., the responses were sent by fax from Benedict Anderson's house in Ithaca on April 17, 1999.28

[GoGwilt]: What does it mean for you, personally, to be able to leave Indonesia on such a trip at the present time?

[Pramoedya]: I consider this opportunity to leave Indonesia and travel abroad, and to come here to the United States, a personal victory against decades of oppression and against the arrogance of the formal authorities in Indonesia. And all this is a direct consequence of the reform movement of the Young Generation of Indonesian Students as well as the understanding from various groups and institutions in the United States: Fordham University, Hyperion, Ford Foundation, etc. Naturally for all this I express many thanks.

Is there any special significance for you in the fact that the publication of your memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy, has provided the occasion for the U.S. tour?

The publication of The Mute's Soliloquy is one of a number of opportunities to visit the United States.

In the past you have said that each book banned is another star, another badge of honor, on your breast.29 What does it mean to you now that your books are becoming increasingly available within Indonesia?

It is true that now many of my books are able to circulate throughout Indonesia, but this is by no means a sign of magnanimity on the part of the Indonesian authorities. It is, on the contrary, a sign of decades-long struggles that have not been without sacrifices. The official ban on my work has not yet been withdrawn, and this is in line with the failure to release several prominent P.R.D. figures of the Young Generation who were abducted and thrown in prison.

What, in your view, was significant about the republication of Hoakiau di Indonesia[The Overseas Chinese of Indonesia] in 1998?

The publication of Hoakiau, now already in its third edition, is intended as a reminder and warning to society that what has happened in the past may happen again now and in the future—each time, whether horizontally or vertically, and most importantly when occurring together at the same time, as happened in Batavia and the surrounding area in 1740, in Solo in 1912, in Kudus in 1916, in Soekabumi in 1963, in Jakarta in 1998-99.30

The considerable amount of historical research you have conducted includes editing and reissuing works of “pre-Indonesian” literature.31 When did you begin this work, and why?

I feel I haven't yet fully enough studied history. What I've done is nothing more than to try to understand present-day Indonesia. There were a number of events about which I was most concerned and, because I didn't understand them, I tried to turn to history for answers. In fact, these efforts date back to the time of the Old Order (OrLa) and are connected to the cultural preoccupations of that time with national identity and nation-building (“identitas nasion dan nation-building”). Perhaps this sounds bombastic, but it's true. My interest in studying history began to stir after I taught at the University of Res Publika, of Baperki, and with the assistance of students in the school of literature.32

In The Mute's Soliloquy, you mention a number of works produced on Buru that have not yet been published: Arok and Dedes,Mangir, as well as Mata Pusaran (The Whirlpool).33 What significance do you attach to these unpublished works?

Arok and Dedes is in fact a political mirror from which one can draw parallels between the ascent of Ken Arok in the thirteenth century and Soeharto in the twentieth century, who ascended to supreme power through killing and sentencing to death those he had himself ordered to carry out the killing. Mangir is a drama. It stages the story of the establishment of the kingdom of Mataram, how it shamelessly forced the village republics into submission by means of intrigues, and how it became autonomous with the fall of the Majapahit. Mata Pusaran is about the fall of the kingdom of Majapahit. Only the first part of the manuscript was saved. The rest had not yet been smuggled out at the time of my release from Buru, and it was confiscated.

While I was organizing the conference at Fordham University, I invited people to send questions and comments. James Siegel, who was unable to come to the conference, sent the following questions. First, “How do you account for the fact that Indonesian writers do not generally reach an audience of people already interested in Indonesia? More generally, why is it that Indonesia has until recently been so little known in the world?”

Yes, it could not be otherwise, that Indonesia was so little known in the rest of the world. Indonesia is now known in the world through its very bad and shameful products, because the farther the people leave the Old Order (OrLa) the less the people care about nation-building and national identity. What remains behind is the muck of KKN (corruption, collusion, and nepotism), the elite who are in power. The concept of what was called Indonesian (wawasan keindonesiaan) has lost its appeal.

Second, from James Siegel: “I remember thirty years ago Ben Anderson telling me that he could hear Javanese under your Indonesian. Could you comment on this observation? Is there something attractive but dangerous about the Javanese language?”

What Ben Anderson said thirty years ago—that he “can hear Javanese in Pram's bahasa Indonesia”—can easily be understood, because Javanese was the language of my mother. The wealth of Javanese with its many detailed nuances I still cannot transform in full into bahasa Indonesia. Language is an instrument; it depends entirely on the user. Although it is just an instrument, Javanese was just the right instrument to carry out oppression. To be more precise, using Javanese corners people into knowing precisely where they stand in the social hierarchy.34

What are your first impressions on visiting the United States? Has the visit changed your views of American history, culture, and society in any way?

First impressions of my visit to the United States:

1. Since landing at Newark, I have observed that every rule is directed to facilitate the people to make proper arrangements from passport control and immigration to baggage claim.

2. Traffic is orderly and the streets are clean.35 I think this situation is nothing other than the result of technological and step-by-step social development, unlike what is happening suddenly and without balance in underdeveloped countries.

3. To observe, on my journey all the way from New York to Washington, how peacefully all the various populations of different nations, races, and ethnic groups live together, moved me so much. I wept, recalling how backward Indonesia has become. And yet on August 17, 1945, then also in 1950, someone by the name of Soekarno succeeded in uniting the nations of Nusantara. My highly emotional state was not entirely groundless when I recall how, for half a century, I have considered America to be the instigator of sadism through the production of stories, films, and cartoons.36 Yet it turns out life goes on here in peace and safety.

4. Political expressions can be displayed freely and without any trouble. On my last day in Washington, D.C., in front of the White House was mounted an antinuclear statement and a picture of the White House with the heading: Madhouse. I certainly thought this was going too far. In Indonesia something like that would give the authorities the opportunity to unleash the security forces into the streets and also in commercial and public places.


With only a week until Pramoedya was due to arrive at Newark airport, a message appeared amid the mass of e-mail messages to and from all the various organizers of Pramoedya's North American tour: “Pram would like to make sure that he has available for his use a manual typewriter with no fancy buttons attached.” By the end of the week, the plan had to be revised: “Ignore my previous request for supplying Pram with a manual typewriter during his stay in your city. NOBODY has such a thing anymore.” When Pramoedya arrived at Newark airport on April 6, 1999, together with his wife, Maemunah Thamrin, and his editor, Joesoef Isak, he was carrying his own portable, manual typewriter. Given the typewritten form of Pramoedya's answers, it is perhaps worth noting this discrepancy between the electronic means of communication used for organizing the overseas tour and Pramoedya's favored writing medium, the typewriter.

The typewriter is a fitting emblem of Pramoedya's own stature as a writer because it recalls the writer's modern, complex, but also often fragile and endangered, relation to the material means of communication. Pramoedya has always had to struggle to overcome the material obstacles to writing (long before Buru, in the late 1940s, his first novel, The Fugitive, was smuggled out of Bukitduri prison). Pramoedya himself often turns to the typewriter as an emblem of the writer's struggles in a number of his earlier autobiographical stories such as “The Silent Center of Life's Day.” As an essential instrument of the writer's craft—one instrument, to be sure, among others, or rather one arrangement of various instruments: keys, hammers, letter-blocks, roller, and so on—it is the instrument that seems to figure (sometimes by analogy to musical instrument of the gamelan) the ideal sound of the ideal Pram sentence, the writer's voice.37 This may be why, some years before the North American tour, the image of a silent typewriter reappeared in different accounts of Pramoedya's writer's block. At the very end of his extended overseas tour, discussing his meeting with Günter Grass in an interview for the German Frankfurter Rundschau, Pramoedya spoke of reading Grass's poem “Meine alte Olivetti” (“My Old Olivetti”): “That is a kind of passion I share with him, I'm attached to this same old-fashioned writing instrument.”

The aura of the typewriter is also something Pramoedya reflects on in a number of passages from The Mute's Soliloquy—most memorably, perhaps, in an idealized image of “happy home life” abroad, on his visit to Holland: “I had a happy home life. I could listen to a fine selection of European music. With my adorable little Baby Olivetti I could work as if I didn't know the meaning of fatigue. And I had the children to play with, too” (Mute, 207). The idealized image conceals a far from happy situation, surfacing in a letter that describes the breakup of his first marriage and his coming to terms with an “inferiority complex” with respect to Dutch literature and culture (195). Although both are personal matters, in each case the privacy of the ruminations, conditioned by the very terms of deprivation on Buru, situates the wider coordinates of a writing life. Tracing the rise in his international reputation as a writer, Pramoedya recalls his own suspicion of that international reputation (“The publication of my works abroad was not, as I saw it, a barometer for the quality of my work but rather an indicator of international curiosity toward the new country of Indonesia”) and discusses the value of his writing in terms of his dependence on the “tool of his trade”: “I had purchased my portable six months earlier for the equivalent of my fee for three short articles. Now not even thirty articles would fetch me the same machine. Time and again, late at night, your mother would remind me to go to bed, but my typewriter was a siren whose call I couldn't ignore.” The typewriter binds the writer to an economy of personal, national, and international relations that predicates his personal sense of “inferiority complex” on a set of colonial and postcolonial relations of world literary recognition.

The typewriter embodies that disjuncture of media through which Pramoedya characteristically explores the coordinates of his own voice: whether reflecting its loss, in relation to the multiple journeys and passages evoked on the sea voyage into exile on Buru; or whether reflecting, in Washington, D.C., on the geographical and historical coordinates of racism and sadism that define the knotted interrelation between those rather different efforts (Indonesian and American) to unify states into a nation. In neither of those cases, of course, is the typewriter explicitly mentioned. There is, rather, a more general imagery of means of communication, passages, journeys (jalanjalan): “traffic,” as it's put, simply, in the typewritten responses from Washington. What makes the typewriter exemplary is that it draws attention to the unifying contradictions in those various means of communication: the efficient, clear, and “orderly” paths (the modern form of print culture), which might also become blocked.

Foregrounding the writer's engagement with the instruments and media of his writing, the typewriter evokes, too, Pramoedya's sense of the anachronism of the writer's world recognition. In a letter congratulating Günter Grass on being awarded the Nobel Prize, Pramoedya describes his encounter with the typewriter, a description in which we find embedded a miniature inner account of Pramoedya's encounter with North America:

Where, now, does Mr. Grass write? He led me to a corner. There on a high-legged table stood a typewriter. What, a typewriter? When, in the Western world, one has done away with such a thing and replaced it with the computer? In the United States I even saw a typewriter factory that had closed down. On a board was posted the words: relocated to Latin America. So: a high-legged table without a chair. In fact Mr. Grass used no chair when typing. He stood. Because of his health, he said. But typewriters are no longer made. How does one get hold of typewriter ribbons? As it turned out, he had some years before stockpiled his typewriter ribbons.38

Pramoedya here coordinates his own relation to the world's acknowledgment of literary “greatness” by the dated, outmoded image of the typewriter, an image itself of the indispensable anachronism of world literature in the twentieth century.


  1. For a range of responses to the North American and European tour, in Indonesian and English, see Alex Bardsley's Web site devoted to Pramoedya Ananta Toer. For German, French, and Dutch responses, see Waruno Mahdi's Web site, “Pramoedya Ananta Toer Visits America and Europe, April-June 1999.”

  2. Now again, three years following the collapse of Soeharto's regime, Pramoedya's books, and those that publish and distribute them, are being threatened by a newly formed “Anti-Communist Alliance” of Soeharto supporters, Muslim followers, and members of the notorious pro-Jakarta Timorese militias. See Reuters report and article by Richard Lloyd Parry in The Independent of London, May 18, 2001. I thank Benjamin Zimmer for this, and other updated information.

  3. The details of this labor were described at the Fordham conference by Pramoedya's Indonesian editor, Joesoef Isak, who played a central role in editing and publishing the Buru quartet, and who edited and arranged the two-volume edition of the memoir published in Dutch in 1988 and in Indonesian in 1995. See Joesoef Isak, “The Shaping of The Mute's Soliloquy,” on Alex Bardsley's Web page.

  4. As he puts it elsewhere in the Buru notes (in an essay on wayang, not written in the form of a letter, and not translated in the English edition): “For sure we are already an old country caught in the vicious circle of our dance: from the open door of colonialism [dari pintu terbuka kolonial], to the open door of postcolonialism [ke pintu terbuka pasca-kolonial]: how many times must we be baptized in blood?” (Nyanyi [I], 37).

  5. See “My Apologies, in the Name of Experience” (which appeared in the original Indonesian in 1992), 4.

  6. The most persecuted of the opposition parties, still banned from the upcoming elections and with many of its leaders still languishing in jail (see Pramoedya's answer to the second interview question). Pramoedya had recently signed up as a member of the party—registering his dissent from any of the more mainstream parties vying for power.

  7. Characteristic of Pramoedya's stance is his response to the first of the questions posed in the interview, where he credits his freedom to travel and speak to the struggles of the students and gives absolutely no credit to the Indonesian authorities. Since the responses later in this interview suggest a certain reluctance to criticize the United States' government, it is worth pointing out that, wherever Pramoedya went in North America, he spoke to and with most of the main political groups working for the democracy and reform movements in Indonesia and opposing U.S. support for the Indonesian military (e.g., Amnesty International, the East Timor Action Network, the Indonesian Emergency Project-IFCO). During the course of his North American and European tour, moreover, Pramoedya turned his attention increasingly toward the task of addressing “international public opinion” to the human rights violations, past, present, and to come—we were then only just learning of the atrocities being carried out in East Timor as the military was setting in place paramilitary organizations in preparation for their formal departure. On his way home, in Holland, and discussing the need to put Soeharto on trial, Pramoedya argued: “The killings that started with Soeharto's Orde Baru [New Order] are being continued by the OrBaba (the new Orde Baru). And the tools being used to carry out these killings still originate from the North. They have been accomplices in the killings. Practically all the countries in the North are involved in weapon deliveries for the mass killings and human rights violations, and peaceful demonstrators being beaten up by security officers. The solution still seems far off” (“Pramoedya Warmly Welcomed Everywhere”).

  8. As a pioneer journalist in the inaugural period of anticolonial nationalism, Minke, the main protagonist of the Buru tetralogy and narrator of the first three volumes, seeks to give voice to the spectrum of political positions contending with Dutch colonial rule. If Pramoedya himself rescues from oblivion the history and work of Tirto Adi Suryo (on whom Minke is modeled), he does so not to celebrate that journalist's success, but to explore the historical and political failure of that historical character's struggle—not only in terms of the silencing of Tirto Adi Suryo, who was vilified, exiled, and died in obscurity and poverty, but also in terms of the difficulties facing Tirto Adi Suryo as a journalist attempting to give a voice to the dispossessed. Pramoedya's fictional grasp of this historical process acutely grasps one crucial dimension of this problem of voice I have not here been able to explore: the question of gender. For a partial discussion of this question, see my “Pramoedya's Fiction and History” (1996).

  9. Goenawan Mohamad, “A Kind of Silence.” The text of this address, given at the Asia Society on Thursday, April 22, 1999, can be found on Alex Bardsley's comprehensive Web site devoted to Pramoedya. For Amir Hamzah's significance for Indonesian literature, see Teeuw (1994, 1: 84-103).

  10. See Teeuw (1994), especially 1: 103.

  11. Two examples of this opposition between prose and poetry in Pramoedya's own work: (1) in the short story “The Silent Centre of Life's Day,” the writer-narrator, referring to the famous poet Chairil Anwar, writes, “Let that damn poet, Chairil, ‘refuse to share himself,’ I've divided myself three times” (A Heap of Ashes, 166); and (2) he comments on the importance of bahasa Indonesia, “it is a matter of doing away with flowery words” (see my “Pramoedya's Fiction and History” [1996, 157]).

  12. A year later, Goenawan and Pramoedya engaged in public debate over the still-unresolved question of reconciliation in post-New Order Indonesia. In an editorial for the newsweekly Tempo (2000), Goenawan called on Pramoedya to accept President Abdurrahman Wahid's apology for what Pramoedya suffered under the New Order regime. In response, Pramoedya rejected the premise of Goenawan's comparison between Indonesia and South Africa, arguing that apologies could constitute only the sham appearance of reconciliation (“Saya Bukan Nelson Mandela”). The exchange was the basis for Seth Mydans's New York Times article (2000). While this exchange suggests an ongoing difference of political position between the two writers, the very fact that the debate could take place at all signals the reentry of Pramoedya as literary-political voice into the mainstream of Indonesian public debate, as well as a new relation between Indonesian and international public opinion (an engagement actively promoted by Goenawan in his work as editor for Tempo). The recognition of this political transformation to come no doubt contributed to the moving scene of Goenawan's introductory remarks for Pramoedya at the Asia Society.

  13. Mrázek's essay, which originally appeared in 1996, has been slightly revised and now forms the epilogue to his compelling study of technology and nationalism in the Dutch East Indies, Engineers of Happy Land (2002).

  14. Sukarno, Hatta, and Sjahrir were all exiled to the Moluccas in the 1930s, but Pramoedya is also likely referring to earlier nationalists from the decade before, including the journalist and “pioneer” nationalist Tirto Adi Suryo, who is the historical figure on whom the main protagonist of the Buru tetralogy, Minke, is modeled. For a survey of this period of Indonesian history, see Ricklefs 1993. For a more detailed study of the early period of Indonesian nationalism, see Shiraishi 1990.

  15. Mrázek, for whom this voice is crucial for his extended reading of the memoir, translates one missing passage from The Mute's Soliloquy as follows: “And the squealing kroncong songs force themselves upon our thoughts. Kroncong still had a power before independence, it still contained a vitality—the vitality of a nation that was not yet free. As the Revolution erupted and as it passed, kroncong remained just a kind of narcissism, a bouquet of empty words, a culture of masturbation. Equal to the culture of great speeches, and of puppet shadow theater” (1996).

  16. The text of the Indonesian accentuates this ambiguity. In the paragraph immediately following the first sounding out of the word “exile” (and without the space introduced in the English translation), the sentence begins with the question “How must this be viewed?”—a phrase that the English translation places after the thought of three-dimensional time, thus: “If a person cannot free himself from three-dimensional time—from either the past, the present, or the future—how must this be viewed? As God's gift or His curse?” (Mute, 9).

  17. For important readings of the Buru novels, see, besides Max Lane's introduction to his English translation of This Earth of Mankind, Benedict Anderson's The Spectre of Comparisons (1998) and Pheng Cheah's Ph.D. dissertation, “Spectral Nationality” (1998). James Siegel's brilliant Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (1997), although more concerned with Pramoedya's nonfictional historical work, and by no means a reading of the Buru novels, can nonetheless be consulted for an understanding of the significance of the shift from Minke's to Pangemanann's narrative voice.

  18. Henk Maier's discussion also drew on Keith Foulcher's discussion of “Gado-Gado” in his essay “The Early Fiction of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1946-1949” (1993).

  19. See Benedict Anderson's “Sembah-Sumpah: The Politics of Language and Javanese Culture,” in Language and Power (1990), 194-237. See also Pramoedya's comments in response to James Siegel's question in the interview in this article.

  20. For the original Indonesian, see Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu [I], 180. See also Mrázek 1996, 87.

  21. Pramoedya's account of reading “The Still Center of Life's Day” in English translation is all the more bitter in light of the original story's own ironic reflection on the hegemony of English over world literary recognition. That story's reflection on the writer's struggle to come to terms with the value of his own literary work concludes with the writer's sending a manuscript off to America: “The editor would leave for America. He would hear nothing of an advance the next year. Perhaps he never would. The writer sipped his cold tea” (A Heap of Ashes, 177).

  22. The entire passage presents a number of problems of translation, including the fact that the English translation, rearranging the form of the published Dutch and Indonesian editions, leaves out Pramoedya's reflections on the nature of translation itself. Most significant, however, is the fact that the published Indonesian and English editions do not seem to have any such corresponding formulation as “mute's soliloquy.” There is no space here to explore even a fraction of these questions.

  23. The title of Mrázek's book, Engineers of Happy Land (2002), echoes this passage from Pramoedya's Buru notes.

  24. It might be worth pointing out that, in the Indonesian edition, the section's meditation on the meaning of “freedom” (page 18 of the English edition) is embedded within a longer passage on kroncong omitted in the English edition (but partially translated by Mrázek). This longer passage (which seems also to have entailed a rearrangement of sections for the English translation) includes a section that seems to take apart the linguistic coherence of its Indonesian, demanding a footnote on Jakarta street slang, and concluding with an explicit comment explaining to his daughter the use of an idiomatic Jakarta expression. It would no doubt take an expert in Indonesian, Javanese, and Jakarta slang to confirm whether or not this passage performs, as I suspect it does, a deconstruction of the voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The concluding formulation—“Qo'it! Kata anak Betawi” (Nyanyi [I], 11)—introduces a revealing third term (child of Betawi/Jakarta) to add to the contrast between a child of a free nation (anak bangsa merdeka) and a child of a colonized nation (anak bangsa jajahan) discussed earlier.

  25. The original Indonesian reads: “Dan bila modal komunikasi itu dirampas, ah-ya, siapa yang bisa rampas hak untuk berdialog dengan diri sendiri? Dan yang dirampas itu akan berubah jadi energi lain yang akan mengguris abadi dalam kehidupan” (Nyanyi sunyi [I], 6).

  26. The rationale for putting together a single-volume edition of the memoir-notes is explained by the translator and editor, Willem Samuels, in his concluding note on the translation (Mute, 372-75). He points out that The Mute's Soliloquy is not based on the two-volume Indonesian edition (Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu), but rather on the original, unedited typescript (the full translation of which is to be deposited with the Library of Congress).

  27. The English-language reader might also consult the various passages translated by Mrázek. He lays particular emphasis on the word “dialogue” (“one word otherwise rare and precious in his loneliness”) in the passage just translated. His translation of this entire passage (which unfortunately also leaves out the sentence I attempt to translate) reads: “And like a baby, I have no other means of communication but my voice: to scream, to moan, to sigh, to whine. And when even that means of communication is seized and taken away from me, ah-yes, who may seize and take away my right to have a dialogue with myself?” (Mrázek 1996, 81).

  28. I would like to thank Go Tie Siem for providing a translation of my questions to Pramoedya and for translating Pramoedya's responses in turn. Since I have modified that translation slightly, any errors in translation are my own.

  29. See my 1995 interview with Pramoedya, “Pramoedya's Fiction and History” (1996, 157).

  30. For more on the circumstances surrounding the original publication in 1960 of Hoakiau di Indonesia, see ibid., 163 n29. Pramoedya's arguments about the formative contributions of Chinese Indonesians to Indonesian history sought to counteract the rising anti-Chinese sentiments of the early 1960s. The sharp escalation of violence against Chinese Indonesians in Jakarta during the civil unrest of 1998 was, at least in part, the result of an orchestrated pro-Soeharto military campaign. See also Will Schwalbe's comments in Harold Augenbraum (2000).

  31. Much of this work was published in Pramoedya's Tempo doeloe: Antologi sastra pra-Indonesia (Anthology of Pre-Indonesian Literature) (Jakarta: Hasta Mitra, 1982).

  32. In later conversations, Pramoedya explained how, as a teacher, he would ask his students to go to the library to gather primary sources—above all, from Chinese newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  33. Arok Dedes and Mangir were both published in 2000.

  34. This exchange between James Siegel and Pramoedya might productively be read in the context of James Siegel's extensive discussion of Javanese in Solo in the New Order (1986), and his discussion of the lingua franca of bahasa Indonesia in Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (1997). See also Benedict Anderson's discussion of language in Pramoedya's work (especially in Language and Power [1990]).

  35. On the evening after Pramoedya had returned to New York City from Ithaca—only a day or two behind the typewritten responses faxed from Ben Anderson's house—I asked him, thanking him for the typewritten responses, what his second impressions of America were. His response: “the traffic is terrible.” He had been driving all day from upstate New York (spending much of the time caught in traffic in Chinatown), and had missed an important meeting with PEN representatives.

  36. In a follow-up conversation, Pramoedya explained that he had no desire to go to the cinema (“when you have been in prison for so long, your focus tends to be questions of justice”). He also spoke of a time when an American film crew came to Indonesia (in the late 1950s, early 1960s) to make a movie of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly that was, according to Pramoedya, never completed. Pramoedya took issue with the racist depiction of natives in the film.

  37. As when, in a set of reflections on the creative process from 1983, Pramoedya discusses how he learned “to build sentences unburdened by a single superfluous word … to produce a pure, clear text, in which each word rings true when tested—like a [fine] gamelan under the tuner's hammer” (“Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga gerilja 1950” [1983], 37).

  38. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, “Willkommensgruß an den Literaturnobelpreisträger 1999 Günter Grass” (2000).

For help with Indonesian translations for this article, I thank Go Tie Siem. I also owe belated thanks to a number of people who, in the past, have helped me hear the voice of Pramoedya's Indonesian, including Ben Anderson, Go Gien Tjwan, the late G. J. Resink, and the late Wim Wertheim, none of whom can be blamed for any mistakes I make here. Finally, I would like to thank all those involved in the events of Pramoedya's 1999 overseas tour.

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———. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. London: Verso, 1998.

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———. “Surat Terbuka Buat Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Tempo, April 9, 2000.

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