Pramoedya Ananta Toer Toer, Pramoedya Ananta - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Crace (review date 28 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ian Buruma (review date 19 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Benedict R. Anderson (review date spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen P. Breslow (review date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John McBeth (review date 16 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Goenawan Mohamad (essay date 28 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carlo Coppola (review date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clifford Geertz (essay date 22 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margaret Scott (essay date 10 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carlo Coppola (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sebastian Tong (essay date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Ronny Noor (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Linda K. Yoder (review date August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Razif Bahari (essay date April 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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

Augenbraum, Harold. “Fear of the Word: A Conversation with Will Schwalbe on Publishing Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Manoa 12, no. 1 (2000): 183-92.

Cheah, Pheng. “Spectral Nationality: The Idea of Freedom in Modern Philosophy and the Experience of Freedom in Postcoloniality.” Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1998.

Florida, Nancy. Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: History as Prophecy in Colonial Java. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

Foulcher, Keith. “The Early Fiction of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1946-1949.” In Text/Politics in Island Southeast Asia: Essays in Interpretation, ed. D. M. Roskies, 191-220. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.

Goenawan Mohamad, “A Kind of Silence.” Address given at the Asia Society, April 22, 1999.

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

GoGwilt, Chris. “Pramoedya's Fiction and History.” Yale Journal of Criticism 9, no. 1 (1996): 147-64.

Mrázek, Rudolf. Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

———. “Only the Deaf Hear Well.” Indonesia 61 (April 1996): 51-92.

Mydans, Seth. “Indonesians Differ on Penalties for the Past.” New York Times, August 27, 2000.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Bumi manusia: sebuah roman. Jakarta: Hasta Mitra, 1981.

———. A Heap of Ashes. Ed. and trans. Harry Aveling. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975.

———. Lied van een stomme: Gevangene op Buru. Houten: Manus Amici, 1989.

———. Lied van een stomme: Brieven van Buru. Houten: Manus Amici, 1991.

———. The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir. Trans. Willem Samuels. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

———. “My Apologies in the Name of Experience.” Trans. Alex Bardsley. Indonesia 61: (April 1996): 1-14.

———. Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu [I]: Catatan-catatan dari P. Buru. Jakarta: Lentera, 1995.

———. Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu [II]: Catatan-catatan dari P. Buru. Jakarta: Lentera, 1997.

———. “Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga gerilja 1950.” Trans. Benedict Anderson. Indonesia 36 (October 1983): 25-48.

———. “Saya Bukan Nelson Mandela: Tanggapan buat Goenawan Mohamad.” Tempo, April 16, 2000.

———. This Earth of Mankind. Trans. Max Lane. New York: Penguin, 1996.

———. “Willkommensgruß an den Literaturnobelpreisträger 1999 Günter Grass” (Vorgetragen im der Nationalbibliothek am 30 November 1999). My English translation of the German translation from Indonesian by Elisabeth Seoprapto-Hastrich. At June 24, 2000.

“Pramoedya Warmly Welcomed Everywhere.” In “TAPOL, the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign.” Bulletin Online 153 (July 1999).

Ricklefs, M. C. A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1300. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Shiraishi, Takashi. An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912-1926. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Siegel, James. Fetish, Recognition, Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

———. Solo in the New Order: Language and Hierarchy in an Indonesian City. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Teeuw, A. Modern Indonesian Literature. 2 vols. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1994-96.

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


“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...

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