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The Great Indonesian Novel


Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest novelist, died earlier this year. He left behind over 30 books, including The Buru Quartet, a collection which rates among the great works in twentieth century world literature.

The tetralogy—This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass—opens in the 1890s and tells the story of how modern Indonesia came into being. Yet even readers with no interest in how Indonesia emerged as a nation should be captivated by the novels, especially the first two volumes.

Minke, an uncommonly mature teenager, is at the center of This Earth of Mankind. He is a Javanese aristocrat’s son who excels at the colonial Dutch school he attends in the port city of Surabaya. As the only “Native” student, he is not only exposed to the Western ideals of the colonial masters but also to how these ideals are trumped by the racism and injustices engraved in European colonial practices.

By dint of his intellect and application, Minke has a foot in the traditional Javanese world as well as in colonial culture, a seeming advantage that also often discomfits those in either world. As he embraces the principle that all men are created equal and entitled to a fair measure of dignity as individuals, he bumps up against his father’s traditionalist demands for respect and obedience; moreover, the barriers the Dutch maintain to keep the Natives in their places teach Minke the difference between what he learned in school and what the world is really like.

Minke’s introduction into the real world further evolves when he meets Annalies Mellema, a schoolmate’s beautiful half Dutch, half Javanese sister. Her mother is the common-law wife of a Dutch planter and understands Minke’s predicament because it is hers, too. Very strong and exceptionally savvy, this woman runs her Dutch companion’s business and raises their kids.

Annalies and Minke marry but their happiness and their union is short-lived, cut short—and possibly for good—by the cruelty and brutality of the laws that govern Dutch colonial relations. I write “possibly for good” because This Earth of Mankind has a cliffhanger ending that should have the reader scrambling to start the second book, Child of All Nations.

Pramoedya’s life is as interesting as these novels, and his stories are inextricably linked to his biography. He was part of the rebel movement that fought for independence when the Dutch tried to reassert control of the islands after the occupying Japan was defeated in World War II. As a prominent intellectual in Sukarno’s Indonesia, Pramoedya was imprisoned on the penal colony on Buru Island when General Suharto’s right-wing regime took power in 1965. He was to remain there for fourteen years.

In the early years of his imprisonment he was denied any writing materials, so the story that would become This Earth of Mankind took shape as he told it to his fellow prisoners. Only later was he allowed to actually write the stories.

Max Lane, an Australian diplomat posted in Jakarta, translated the novels into English from Bahasa Indonesian, a labor for which he was recalled to Australia when the Suharto government protested.

While the quartet is the story of the birth of modern Indonesia and Pramoedya’s very life tracks so closely with what the country was and had become, it would be unwise to look too closely at these stories for a message about present-day Indonesian politics. To force the point is reductionist and makes no more sense than if we tried to talk about contemporary America in an essay about (say) Moby Dick and its place in US culture/history. Pramoedya wrote many other words about his country after he published the quartet, a sure sign that he did not regard these stories as more than an introduction to understanding contemporary Indonesia.

Give This Earth of Mankind a try. I don’t think you’ll be able to stop there. Sometimes I wish I had stopped reading after Child of All Nations, the second volume of the quartet: Footsteps, the third volume, is not up to the quality of its predecessors, and House of Glass really disappoints as Pramoedya sacrifices storytelling—and his spare but emotionally powerful style—to elaborate on his dogmatic social theories.

For readers looking to expand their cultural horizons without the heavy lifting required of some world literature classics, the first half of The Buru Quartet is a great place to start.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 11:57 AM | Permalink

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