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‘Evil has no witnesses’ On Pramoedya Ananta Toer

‘It is those who have been most oppressed who can best understand the meaning of humanitarianism. Those who have had their rights usurped know best the meaning of self-respect.’

The Mute’s Soliloquy

Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (b.1925) has the distinction of being banned and gaoled by three governments: the Dutch colonial Government in the 1940s, Soekarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’ Govern­ment in 1960, and Soeharto’s ‘New Order’ Government from 1965–1979. A prolific writer, Pramoedya has published over thirty books and has been translated into at least twenty four languages. His work is political in that it is impelled by a Socratic questioning of any existing social order. As every adjective is to the reader an interpretation but to the writer simply accuracy, so all art is political – a writer’s politics are revealed whether the writer wishes it or not. Unlike the self-discoveries of many contemporary writers, Pramoedya looks at the ‘big picture’, the mechanisms by which society functions, and the ‘traditions’ that serve to maintain hierarchy. His novels and short stories are set in tumultuous nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indonesia: his early stories are of traditional and contemporary life; the acclaimed Buru Quartet is set at a time when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony and covers the years 1898–1920; and his most recent work is a collection of unsent letters to his children, written during his imprison­ment in the 1960s and 1970s. Pramoedya, like all writers, records and remakes history, and just as all art contains an implicit criticism of former art, so Pramoedya’s historical novels contain an implicit criticism of official versions of history. Those seeking to understand so-called ‘Asian values’ need not look far. Pramoedya’s short novel The Girl from the Coast is based on the writer’s maternal grandmother. A village girl, she is sent at the age of fourteen to be a ‘practice wife’ for a nobleman, as was the custom. After she gives birth to their daughter, the nobleman throws her out, but keeps the daughter. This story is updated in the Buru Quartet where both Nyai Ontosorah and later her niece are sold to Dutch managers.

Pramoedya’s early short stories are jagged, vivid and wide-ranging with an uncommonly perceptive grasp of family interaction and a panoramic cast of characters: prostitutes, beggars, thieves, soldiers, aspiring writers. ‘The Vanquished’ revolves around one family in the village of Blora where Pramoedya was born, and is set just after the Japanese occupation, during which over four million Javanese farmers died as forced labourers and ‘cannon fodder’. The eldest girl, now a Red, is told by her younger siblings that their father has been taken by other Reds, probably to be killed – ‘They were like nails stuck firmly into a board. Only their eyes moved. Desperately. And despite themselves mutual suspicion ran wild among them.’ The brother they thought had died fighting for the Republic returns to Blora having in fact joined the Dutch Army, and consequently the family house is set alight – presumably by the Reds – leaving the children homeless as well as orphaned.

Unimportant Blora was now quiet. Each day goods from overseas flooded into it. Every day the Dutch caught someone and made him a prisoner, an employee or a corpse – just as the Japanese, the Reds, the Siliwangi (a division of the Republican Army) and the Republic had done…While the government lived proudly in a castle in the sky somewhere above our small unimportant town, Sri and her family lived in a cardboard shack.

‘No Night Market’ takes us inside the head of a restless dissatisfied individual whose tone is similar to that of some Dostoievsky characters:

I was sad. Democracy is a beautiful system. You can be the President…You can have the same rights as everyone else…But if you haven’t got any money you can go to hell. In a democratic country you can buy whatever you like. Unless you haven’t got any money, in which case you can just look at whatever you want. That too is a sort of victory for democracy.

The Fugitive, Pramoedya’s first novel, is set around the time of Soekarno and Hatta’s audacious declaration of the Republic on 17 August 1945. Pramoedya’s images are immediately jolting:

One of the beggars was still quite young. Like the others, his ribs and chest bones protruded like a xylophone…When the beggar-guests were swept away from the shelter, they formed a choir, a roaring wilted choir, which was of no interest to anyone.

The Fugitive echoes the traditional Javanese wayang shadow plays that are based on stories from the Mahabarata with Hardo, the fugitive of the title, as the Arjuna figure. Having lived for months in a cave hiding from the Japanese, Hardo reappears as a barely recognisable and enigmatic figure. He argues with his father-in-law who then betrays him to the Japanese. Between these two there is an ‘inconclusive battle’ which Hardo more or less wins, at least morally. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Fugitive uses traditional culture to legitimise and highlight contemporary life and, as in other stories of Pramoedya’s, there is an ambiguous father-son relationship. ‘I don’t like patriarchs, no matter who they are.’1

Pramoedya’s own father was a schoolteacher, activist, composer and writer, involved in the Boedi Oetomo, a Javanese nationalist organisation. As a consequence, the house he grew up in was crowded with activity, discussion, Javanese literature and nationalist songs – some composed by his father, who also constructed the name Pramoedya from a phrase meaning ‘first on the battlefield’.2 Pramoedya admired his father’s public life but became increasingly critical of his private life. When Pramoedya’s intelligent and tirelessly encouraging mother died of TB at the age of thirty four, his father turned even more to gambling, and left him, aged seventeen, to take charge of his eight younger brothers and sisters. Pramoedya then moved to Jakarta to seek work. From 1947–1949 he was gaoled under the Dutch – who had returned to power after the Japanese occupation – for possession of anti-Dutch pamphlets, and wrote The Fugitive while in prison. In the early ‘Stories from Blora’ one of the characters defines Pramoedya’s own position: ‘We writers are…a resistance force, an unofficial opposition’.3 Literature is memory, and for Pramoedya in Indonesia the most trustworthy record of events.

In the 1950s and 60s Pramoedya lectured and edited, travelled to The Netherlands, India, Russia, China, and translated many Russian novelists including Tolstoy, Dostoievsky and Gorky. In 1960, under President Soekarno, Pramoedya’s history of the Chinese in Indonesia, Hoa kiau di Indonesia, was seen as too sympathetic, and was banned. Again Pramoedya was jailed for nine months. In 1965, when possibly one million Indonesians were killed, in retaliation for the so-called attempted Communist coup, Pramoedya, by then a well-established and respected writer, was arrested by the military who had in effect seized power under General Soeharto. He had been prominent in Lekra, the cultural organisation that was, like many organisations, connected to the influential Communist Party, the PKI, which at this time was the largest Communist party in a non-Communist country in the world. But he had not been a member of the PKI. He was imprisoned without trial. His house, library and papers were burnt. At the time of his arrest, he was editing some stories by President Soekarno, and working on a history of the early Nationalist awakening in Indonesia. He was eventually sent to remote Buru Island, along with fourteen thousand other ‘political’ prisoners, where he remained until 1979. Not allowed writing materials for years, he composed the Buru Quartet in his head, reciting pieces to the other prisoners each morning to ensure his historical research would not be lost. The first two volumes of the Quartet were published in Indonesia in 1980 and – to the Government’s embarrassment – quickly became best-sellers. In May 1981, the Soeharto Government banned all his work, including an anthology of Malay fiction, on the grounds that it subtly propagated Marxist-Leninism. He was put under house arrest, and has only been free to travel outside Jakarta since Soeharto’s overthrow in 1998. Far from silencing Pramoedya, his years in detention sharpened his quest for a just, democratic society and emphasised to him the importance of recording history. In the Dutch documentary The Great Post Road Pramo­edya says openly, ‘Soeharto is a murderer’; and in another interview he has summarised his position – ‘I am only in favour of justice and truth…If that is what you call a communist, OK, I am a communist’.4

The Buru Quartet was originally inspired by the life of Tirto Adi Suryo, publisher and editor of the first Native-owned daily paper and co-founder of the first modern political organisation, as Australian translator Max Lane writes in his excellent introduction to the third volume, Footsteps. Pramoedya had previously published a non-fiction account of Tirto Adi Suryo’s life as well as an anthology of his journalism and fiction. This Earth of Mankind, the Quartet’s first volume, begins in 1898 in the multi-racial seaport of Surabaya. Minke the eighteen-year-old narrator is honoured to be the only Native at an elite Dutch Boys’ School and is inspired by the French Revolution’s ideals of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. He is infatuated with European culture and disparages the caste system of his Javanese family – he must crawl on his knees to his father, a Bupati (Regent), and must use the correct form of address when speaking to him in High Javanese. When Minke prepares for his father’s inauguration as Bupati, an Italian dresses him in clothes designed by Europeans in the 1600s for the Native aristocracy. Dress, like language, specifies race and class and caste, but these traditions of formal attire had in fact been installed by the European rulers to further maintain hierarchy and class division among the colonised population. Minke’s Eurasian schoolfriend Robert Mellema introduces him to his family – his sister Annelies, and his mother Nyai (literally, concubine) Ontosorah who was sold as a young girl to Herman Mellema, Robert’s Dutch landowner father. Nyai Ontosorah, educated by the once-kindly Herman Mellema, now astutely runs his profitable business and is an imposing and informative figure to the ‘question factory’ Minke. He begins to write stories based on Nyai’s experiences, and his writings are published, unusually, in a Dutch newspaper. But as his writings begin also to record Dutch corruption, his work is censored by the editor to protect the paper’s owners, the Sugar Companies.

Minke marries Nyai’s daughter Annelies and before the wedding his mother reminds him of his inheritance:

You yourself are a descendant of the knights of Java, the founders and destroyers of kingdoms. You are a knight…and the five attributes of the Javanese knight are: house (trust), woman (life), horse (advancement)… The fourth, the bird, is a symbol of beauty, of distraction, of everything that has no connection with simple physical survival, of only the satisfaction of one’s soul. Without this people are only a lump of soulless stone. And the fifth, the keris (knife)…a symbol of vigilance…Without the keris, the others will vanish.

When Herman Mellema’s legitimate Dutch wife and son decide to claim the famously beautiful Annelies as their own, Minke learns of his and Nyai’s powerlessness under Dutch law. Nyai is not recognised legally as Annelies’ mother, nor is Annelies’ marriage to Minke recognised. ‘I know them, those Europeans, cold, hard like a wall. Their words are expensive…I understood at that moment, we would be defeated and that our only duty now was to fight back…like the Acehnese in their fight against the Dutch.’ The Mellema family wins, but the fact that a Native concubine and the educated Minke can dare to challenge the Dutch creates a sensational court case.

In the second volume, Child of All Nations, Annelies, already sickly, dies in The Netherlands. To distract the bereaved Minke, his more politicised friends take him to the country in the hope that he might record first-hand the daily exploitation of the villagers and plant­ation workers. His idealisation of European justice is further eroded and he begins to integrate European with Native knowledge:

The old people teach us through their legends that there is a 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…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…No one can return to his starting point. Maybe this mighty god is the one whom the Dutch call ‘the teeth of time’.

This volume ends with the visit of Herman Mellema’s Dutch son, who can legitimately claim the business Nyai has so successfully built up. Again Minke and Nyai face defeat against Dutch authority, ‘we fought back…even though only with our mouths.’

In the third volume, Footsteps, ‘Minke goes beyond simply wanting to understand the world to wanting to change it’, as Max Lane writes, invoking Marx.5 Minke leaves Surabaya and the overpowering Nyai to study medicine in Betawi (now Jakarta).

I could not find what I was looking for. The first-class compartment contained mostly Eurasians, with their dried-up skin and arrogant posing. Next to me sat an old Eurasian grandmother scratching her hair – probably forgotten to comb out the lice. Opposite sat a thin middle-aged man with a moustache as big as his arm.

Minke comes to see that his role as writer and journalist must be as a disseminator of knowledge. Inspired by the work of local Chinese activists and ‘the girl from Jepara’ (Kartini, 1879–1904, one of Indonesia’s national heroes who set up the first school for Native girls), Minke starts his own organisation, the Sarekat, and a news­paper, Medan, in which he can record uncensored the corruption he has witnessed and also explain legal rights to the Native popu­lation.6 The constant mention of the different languages spoken, often with­in one conversation, shows how unwieldy and secretive the Dutch East Indies had become – characters speak in Dutch, English, High and Low Javanese, Menadonese, Sundanese, as well as Arabic and Chinese, Educated and Common Malay. Minke, by now dis­illusioned with European culture, decides his newspaper must be written in Common Malay to reach the large unrepresented majority, but other organisations debate his choice: ‘They wanted the kind of Malay they had learnt at school. They wanted a language that knew where heaven and earth was, not a bazaar language that floated about without roots, disoriented.’

The turn of the century bursts with ideas – women’s emanci­pation, freedom of the press, rejection of the patriarchal feudal caste system. The Philippines rise up, the Japanese become a world power, Chinese and Russian revolutionary fervour ring in the air. Political, nationalist and ethnic organisations flourish: Arabic, Islamic, Javanese, Chinese. Soon Minke’s unprecedented position as an educated Native and as leader of the three hundred thousand strong Sarekat allows him to meet the Indies Governor-General.

All eyes were focused on the General, famed for his conquest of Aceh. I had been observing him closely. I wanted to get a feel for how a killer talked and behaved…His movements and the way he spoke were enough to make one feel confident in predicting that more wars would be breaking out everywhere. More Natives, armed with bows and arrows and spears…would die in their hundreds on the orders of this man. For the sake of the unity of the colony, for the security of big capital in the Indies…
‘And they are the source of strife,’ van Heutsz stated firmly.
‘Perhaps they think we are the source of strife, General.’
Van Heutsz laughed and nodded vigorously. He seemed to be enjoying the debate. Then: ‘That’s why we make, buy and use guns.’
  And whoever does not make them, buy them and use them… now I understood – they became targets and victims.

Minke marries Mei, a Chinese revolutionary activist. During this time ‘the girl from Jepara’ is forced into marriage – ‘She suffered no less than any other woman who lived under the yoke of a man’s rule’ – but her example spurs Minke forward. He struggles to free himself from the effects of patriarchy and his aristocratic inheritance – for example, when at first a peasant speaks to him without using formal deferential address, he feels he must suppress a sneer. Nevertheless he describes his wife as doll-like. Minke is surprised when his fellow students visit concubines – ‘If a woman prostitutes herself, she is considered evil and is given no chance to become decent again. But if a man goes to a prostitute no-one objects and he is still free; he can even boast of it in public.’ And elsewhere – ‘Mother said such women were basically prostitutes. And perhaps men such as these were also prostitutes.’7 Indonesia has a long history of women activists and warriors. Minke and his friends speak admiringly of the women fighters of Aceh and Bali. In the first volume of the Quartet when a more naïve Minke examines a painting by his disaffected French friend Jean Marais, he is astonished to learn that the murderous Dutch soldier depicted in the painting is Marais himself, but even more astonished to learn that the Acehnese fighter he is depicted as being about to kill is not only a woman but also later the mother of Marais’ much-loved daughter.

Minke sees himself as being like Romulus and Remus, suckling on knowledge gained from his Dutch education and from the Dutch radicals he befriends. As founder of the Sarekat organisation he travels the country visiting his branches:

On every tour there was always somebody…who proposed that I marry their prettiest daughter…so that I might leave my seed amongst their family…This wrong view about blood and ancestry has such strong roots in the literature of Java. The Mahabarata and Bharatayuddha provided nothing to grab hold of for those who wanted to enter the modern era…This people waited for the Gong, the Messiah, the Mahdi, the Just King. And he whom they awaited never came…We were aiming for a democratic society where nobody stood above another. There were no special people, who stood closer or were the special beloved of the gods or God.

As in the historical novels of Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy and Henry Handel Richardson, we learn much in passing – that the average Native life expectancy at this time was twenty five years, for example. Pramoedya’s Quartet also contains stories within stories, letters, and addresses within the narrator’s mind to various characters. 

In the final volume, House of Glass, we review Minke’s political awakening through the eyes of the figure sent to track him – now the narrator is Police Commissioner Pangemanann, employed by the Dutch to suppress Native revolt. We know Minke has met his nemesis when Pangemanann enters his office late in the third volume, Footsteps. Pangemanann ominously comes in the guise of a writer with a manuscript to offer.

[Pangemanann] suddenly turned the conversation: ‘It seems you are really determined.’
  ‘There is nothing to be afraid of, is there? What is it that we should be afraid of?’
  ‘He-he-he, no. I mean it seems that you are very determined and committed in carrying out your work. Committed people must be respected. That is why I respect you.’
  ‘And where do you see this determination in me?’
  ‘In your attitude.’
  ‘It appears that you seem to see some danger ahead of me. Or perhaps it is you yourself that are the danger to me?’ I joked.
  He let out a rather indecent laugh…
  ‘I like the way you talk. Bold. Sharp. No mincing words or suchlike.’
  ‘You are a true man of letters,’ I said, praising him, ‘taking so much notice of every word spoken and how it is spoken.’
  ‘Yes, it is a hobby of mine.’

Pangemanann, a guilt-ridden Catholic Native who has studied at the Sorbonne, is ordered – unlawfully – to ‘get rid’ of Minke. After several attempts, Minke is arrested and exiled to Ambon.

House of Glass begins in 1912. The narrator Pangemanann becomes enthralled by the ‘notes’ he must study – that is, the first three volumes of the Quartet. Pangemanann had begun his successful career as an honest policeman sincerely upholding the law, but his promotion ten years before was due to his suppression of a Native revolt: ‘the truth was that I was losing my backbone, my principles, like a crawling worm, just like the criminals I used to arrest.’

As in Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment, it is a stalking policeman and his prey who dominate this last volume: but Pramoedya shows instead how Pangemanann is stalked in turn by the justice of Minke’s cause. The suppression of organisations results from Pange­manann’s investigative reports, and though his orders conflict with his conscience, guilt has no effect on his official duties and exists in counter­point to his active life, a life he now half despises – ‘I left that cemetery of the past,’ he says, referring to the State Archives Office. Pange­manann imagines the characters he is ordered to study kept as if in a house of glass on his desk. His respect for Minke is mixed with jealousy, and he also harbours ambitions for his own thorough and traitor­ous research – ‘Yes, it is only proper that Pangemanann too be read by the world!’ He addresses Minke in imagination: 

You have to understand that during the three hundred years of Dutch rule in the Indies they built a pyramid of Native corpses, and that is their throne… You were too small in the scheme of things to challenge this power. You never saw the pyramid of your people’s corpses that has been their throne. If you had seen it, you would have run, run without ever turning back.

Yet, like any reader of these volumes, Pangemanann too becomes con­vinced of the historical inevitability of the nationalist movement that he is paid to suppress, and therefore of the ultimate futility of his own work: ‘Europe…now faced its own pupils who had more ambition than knowledge – the ambition to become a new nation… And these Natives were not armed with swords and spears, nor with patriotism, and not with religion either. Today their weapons were… speech and pen.’

When Minke returns from his five-year exile in Ambon, he is fundamentally unchanged – his asceticism and integrity are in jarring contrast to Pangemanann, whose last clutching-the-rosary-beads gestures drip with hypocrisy.

He [Minke] had lost only his freedom…I had lost everything: principles, wife and children, my honour…I would have to face him in all his greatness… he would be like a crab whose legs I have cut off… it would burst my insides because I would be meeting with all that is my opposite.

Minke believes in the democracy he has been taught at school, in which all human beings are treated equally – a democracy that exists nowhere in the world in 2001 – and Pramoedya’s relentless irresistible logic, as expressed through Minke, is one of the chief magnets of his writing. In one crucial scene, Pangemanann accompanies Minke to the police station to persuade him to sign away his freedom of speech:

‘You know what is in the statement?’
  ‘A promise not to become involved in politics or organising,’ Minke hissed. ‘Very beautiful. Just like in a palace comedy… So the idea is that only the Government can get involved in politics or organisations?’
  None of us expected such a sharp refusal or question as that. We were all dumb­struck.
  ‘Not allowed to get involved in politics or organisations,’ Minke whispered to himself. Suddenly his lips were pulled back into a smile, and his voice struck out clearly: ‘What do you gentlemen mean by politics? And by organisation? And what do you mean by “involved”?’
  We were all still dumbstruck.
  ‘Do you mean that I have to go and live by myself on top of a mountain? Everything is political! Everything needs organisation. Do you gentlemen think that the illiterate farmers who spend their lives hoeing the ground are not involved in politics?…Or do you mean by politics just those things which make the Government happy?… And who is it that can free themselves from involvement in organisation? As soon as you have more than two people together, you already have organisation… Or do you mean something else again by politics and organisation?’
  The three of us were still dumbstruck.
  ‘From the time of the Prophet until today’, he lowered his voice, ‘no human being has ever been able to separate himself from the power of his fellow human being… Do you want me to sign my own death sentence without there ever having been any trial, just as I was sentenced to exile without any trial? Or is this ridiculous letter another part of the Governor-General’s Extraordinary Powers? If so, let me see proof that such new regulations have been introduced. I want to see them.’
  He knew we had lost our tongues, and he put out the cigar in his ashtray and smiled victoriously.

Pangemanann, the ‘paid destroyer’, insists on accompanying Minke on a tour of his former haunts, obsequiously displaying his knowledge of Minke’s life and inserting comments like a travel-writer. Slowly Minke discovers that even his former home has been ‘given’ to Pangemanann who, when they arrive there, sadistically addresses him: 

‘You must be tired. You can use the guest room.’
I suddenly recalled the time I had visited here, but our positions as host and guest were reversed then. I quickly added: ‘We have met before here in this house, haven’t we? We are not new acquaintances, are we? It’s just that our positions are different now.’
Minke swallowed, then: ‘Thank you…With your permission, I shall be off.’
‘Where do you want to go so late in the afternoon?’
He gave a nod of respect… and left.
I knew then that I had turned into a sadist… I felt no regret about what I had done. I had even felt honoured to be able to torment him like this… [it] made me feel even more important and powerful, and I felt even more disgusted with what I had become.

What Pramoedya reveals in this final startling volume is how colonial power necessarily corrupts even its obedient subjects, and that no matter what Pangemanann’s inner thoughts are, it is his actions that historically define him. The Quartet finishes tragically for Minke, but as World War I ends the Dutch East Indies are in transition and the fight for the Repub­lic of Indonesia has commenced. ‘He had been destroyed but he had finished what he had begun. From that beginning he had multiplied himself into so many other people, spreading like fireflies throughout Java.’

Each volume of the Buru Quartet represents a new world. In This Earth of Mankind it is the world of learning, through both Minke’s schooling and his place in Nyai Ontosorah’s household. In Child of All Nations, after Annelies and later her brother die in The Netherlands, the seat of colonial power, Minke discovers the world in which most colonised Natives live. In Footsteps Minke carves out his role in the world of political action in Betawi. In House of Glass the bureaucratic world unfolds through the tortured Pangemanann, the instrument and pawn of Dutch colonialism. Each volume ends with a decisive clash between the Dutch colonial government and the Natives, and in each case Dutch colonialism wins. This Earth of Mankind concludes with the court case over custody of Annelies. Child of All Nations concludes with the visit of Herman Mellema’s legitimate Dutch son, who legally claims the business that Nyai has built. Footsteps ends with the enforced closure of Medan and Minke’s exile. House of Glass ends with Minke’s death and Pangemanann bequeathing Minke’s ‘notes’ – that is, the first three volumes – to Nyai Ontosorah. 

The New Order government of President Soeharto may well have felt itself to be looking in a mirror in Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, though this was not Pramoedya’s intention. No doubt when he was imprisoned, the urgency to record the historical period he had researched was immense. Nevertheless it is impossible not to draw parallels between the injustices of the early twentieth-century Dutch East Indies and the injustices of the late twentieth-century Republic of Indonesia. By publishing his Quartet as ‘written on Buru Island’, Pramoedya bluntly revealed to the Indonesian public that Buru was in fact used for political prisoners. The Government incidentally also ignored the rights of the indigenous Burunese population. As Pramoedya wrote in The Mute’s Soliloquy: ‘I became a soldier to fight for this country’s freedom but since independence I’ve experienced a good deal more repression than freedom… It’s a pity that the country I imagined became, in reality, a primitive and fascistic society ruled by militarism.’

Pramoedya’s Quartet, like all his work, is finely attuned to exposing exploitation, inequality and injustice wherever they occur, and it is inevitable that readers will draw parallels with their own societies – the similarities between racism and sexism being one obvious example. In the apparently democratic West, where the predominant viewpoint is white, masculinist, and capitalist, one cannot truly express shock at Indonesia’s colonial era – in Australia for example, the average Aboriginal life expectancy is still twenty years less than the non-indigenous majority’s.

When I met Pramoedya, whose work I had admired for fifteen years, in Jakarta in March 1998, two months before the overthrow of Soeharto’s thirty-two-year rule, he was as I had imagined: unassuming, nervous, fearless. He pushed the manuscript of his most recent work across to me. At the back of this heavy book of unsent letters from prison, he had resolutely listed all those political prisoners who had died during his time on Buru Island and their causes of death, in many cases ‘shot dead’. This was a week when student leaders were disappearing, presumably murdered, and there were mass demonstrations daily against the Government. Pramoedya was still under house arrest and all his works were still banned, and my Indonesian translator – a family friend – was increasingly nervous. Yet this manuscript was the most explicit indictment yet of Soeharto’s regime. Pramoedya is brave through logic: he knows that his history – so different to the Government version – is unquestionably factual. In The Mute’s Soliloquy, the manuscript he had shown me, he finds that when he is officially presented with paper and pen after four years’ imprisonment, he is unable to write.

Since 1950 writing had been, in all practical terms, my family’s sole source of income. It was the only work I felt capable of doing. But in the four years of imprisonment since 1965, the only thing I had been allowed to write was my signature on official documents. In that period the thinking process, which serves as a prelude to writing, had in me been paralysed… Suddenly, focusing my attention was not nearly so easy as I had thought it would be. Then it dawned on me that I, like most of the other prisoners, had also lost my self-confidence…Further reduction of our food supplies made ‘recuperation’ much more difficult… Just to remember the name of one of my (eight) children might require a week’s time.

Conditions on Buru were primitive, brutal and often sadistic – at one stage eleven prisoners were shot for ‘entertainment’ – and many prisoners starved or died from lack of medical treatment. It is astounding that any survived, and no one who reads The Mute’s Soliloquy could be surprised by recent revelations of implicitly sanctioned Indonesian atrocities. 

Pramoedya’s answers in the interrogations and interviews he underwent show his unassailable logic and intelligence, and reveal the blindness of his interrogators. ‘The treatment that has been shown to me has not been educational and will not contribute to the development of a better society…What is the use of studying the principles of freedom if one has no personal guarantee of freedom?’ The sessions are absurdist and self-satirising, as the prisoner eloquently uses the language of the new Indonesia his interrogators supposedly represent.

Prisoners who failed the screening process have all been noted down, transformed into notes… found in sentences uttered by tourists about Indonesia’s high level of culture, its remarkable civilisation, and the extreme friendliness and politeness of the Indonesian people. At some future time there might be someone capable of writing about them without his hand shaking uncontrollably or his notepaper becoming wet with tears. But that person will not be me. In the world of the dead there are so many souls whose presence I know nothing of. All I can do here is try to make note of the souls whose names I do know… A few of them managed to die on their own, without assistance from the authorities.

Yet even in this deprivation he was able to observe the prisoners’ usurpation of the indigenous Burunese and to sympathise with their dispossessed plight. He also observes how the Burunese women were hired out as prostitutes by their own impoverished husbands, the rights of these women being even less than those of actual prisoners. Pramoedya’s acute and scalding awareness of oppression and his reali­s­ation that all oppression is linked, whether it be by race or sex or class, is a constant theme in his work, but another theme is that of the individual as an embodiment of history – his tragedy, his im­prisonment, his history, are of course no more important and no more unjust than those of the other fourteen thousand political prisoners.

Journalist: What do you have to say about your ten years of detention?
Pramoedya: It has not been ten years; it’s going on thirteen. I view this period of thirteen years as one consequence of the nation-building process.
Journalist: And your own feelings? Your personal feelings?
Pramoedya: They’re not important. As an individual I am not important in this process.

Reference is made in this essay to the following works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Mute’s Soliloquy (Hyperion Books, 1999); The Girl from the Coast, trans. Harry Aveling (Select Books, 1991); ‘The Vanquished’ and ‘No Night Market’, in A Heap of Ashes, trans. Harry Aveling (University of Queensland Press, 1975); The Fugitive, trans. Harry Aveling (Heinemann Educational Books, 1975); the Buru Quartet: Awakenings (This Earth of Mankind and Child of all Nations) trans. Max Lane (Penguin, 1990); Footsteps, trans. Max Lane (Penguin, 1990); House of Glass, trans. Max Lane (UQP, 1992); ‘Stories from Blora’, From Surabaya to Armageddon, trans. Harry Aveling (Heinemann, 1976); Crossing The Border: Five Indonesian Short Stories by Danarto and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, intro. and trans. Harry Aveling, Working Papers 38 (Centre of South East Asian Studies, Monash University); ‘Encounter with the devils’, Index on Censorship, 25, 6, (1996); Tales From Djakarta, South East Asian Program Publications (Cornell University, 1999). 

   Other sources include Anthony H. Johns, Cultural Options and the Role of Tradition (ANU, 1979), Chapter 6, ‘Pramoedya Ananta Toer – The Writer as Outsider’; The Great Post Road (includes interview with Pramoedya Ananta Toer), Fortuna Films, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (broadcast on SBS in 1997 and 1999); Keith Foulcher, Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts (The Indonesian ‘Institute of People’s Culture’ 1950–1965), Centre of South East Asian Studies (Monash University, 1986); Tineke Hellwig, In the Shadow of Change: Women in Indonesian Literature, Centre for South East Asian Studies (University of California, 1994).

1 Footsteps, p.83

2 The Mute’s Soliloquy, p.107

3 In From Surabaya to Armageddon, p.71

4 The Age, 20 January 1994.

5 Footsteps, Introduction, p.x.

6 Pramoedya also wrote a biography of Kartini, published in 1960.

7 ‘News from Kebajoran’, in Tales from Djakarta, pp.33,36

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