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 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.
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.
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.
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.”