BANNED IN JAKARTA: New York Times Review of THIS EARTH OF MANKIND
Banned in Jakarta
Date: January 19, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
Byline: By Barbara Crossette;
THIS EARTH OF MANKIND By Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Translated by Max Lane. 367 pp. New York: William Morrow & Company. $20.
THE culture of Indonesia remains remote to many of us in the West in part because the literature of this intensely civilized, ethnically kaleidoscopic island nation is rarely available in easily readable translation, especially in the United States. A colony of the Netherlands until 1949 and the victim of harsh Japanese occupation in World War II, modern Indonesia was born of struggles for liberation against the Japanese and the Dutch in the 1940′s. Those traumatic but inspiring days were the setting for “The Fugitive,” the first novel of Pramoedya Ananta Toer to be published in English in this country.
Now comes a book of far greater scope and depth from independent Indonesia’s greatest but still most controversial fiction writer, whose career spans more than 40 years. “This Earth of Mankind,” the first in a cycle of four novels, is the tale of a bittersweet coming of age in Java, Indonesia’s dominant island, almost a century ago. Through it, we are taken back to the days of nascent Indonesian nationalism. But the author is a humanist, not a propagandist, and so his novel is also a wonderful example of the best storytelling tradition of his country. It was, in fact, first told orally to inmates on Buru Island, where Pramoedya (as he is known in Indonesia, since Javanese do not often use family names) was imprisoned for his political views following an abortive coup in 1965 and the subsequent rise to power of the tenacious strong man Gen. Suharto.
The story was written down in the early 1970′s and published in Jakarta in 1980, where it was promptly banned by President Suharto’s censors, though there was nothing in it even remotely related to current events.
The first English translation, by Max Lane, then an Australian diplomat, resulted in Mr. Lane’s recall in 1981. His translation has been widely read in Asia and Europe and has now been revised for this American edition.
“This Earth of Mankind” centers on Minke, a young man of 18 with an engaging sensitivity to the many worlds around him. He is the only “Native” in a Dutch high school in the port city of Surabaya, and he can move confidently in the colonizers’ culture, whether they like it or not. He is also the son of a Javanese aristocrat, the friend of a French mercenary wounded fighting rebels in Sumatra and the lover of the exquisite Annelies Mellema, a girl half Dutch, half Javanese. Annelies’s mother, a concubine, emerges as the strongest character in the book as she endures Dutch and Javanese prejudices while struggling to run her dissolute Dutch companion’s business and raise their two children. Minke’s mother is another strong character, loving her son more fiercely when his father rejects him, but always urging him to be Javanese. When Minke becomes a writer for a Dutch-language journal, she pleads in a letter: “Why do you compose in a language that your mother cannot understand? Write the story of your love in the poetry of your ancestors so that your mother and the whole country may sing them.”
The web of relationships Mr. Toer has woven affords a lesson in the complex psychology of colonial life — of both the colonizers and the colonized. There are few one-dimensional “good” or “bad” characters here. Instead, people grope for an understanding of themselves and the complex society in which they live.
In his fluidly rendered translation, Mr. Lane has not burdened us with intrusive explanations, although he does provide a useful glossary. Rather than being educated about Minke’s world, we are immersed in it. WESTERN readers may, however, find it helpful to have a little background on the novelist himself, to explain why the Suharto regime has been hounding him for a quarter of a century. Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in Java in 1925, in time to come of age with his country. Always at odds with authority, Mr. Toer was imprisoned for the first time by the Dutch in the late 1940′s when the Netherlands made an abortive attempt to reassert itself in Indonesia. Freed on the eve of independence, he soon established himself as a writer and began to drift toward the political left, more rapidly after a trip to China in 1956. In those years, the Communist Party of Indonesia, like its counterpart in Malaya, was attracting support from the resident overseas Chinese, a prosperous community whose relationship with other Indonesians has been marked by tragedy. Mr. Toer wrote a sympathetic book on the Indonesian Chinese that was banned by the country’s founding president, Sukarno. The roots of Mr. Toer’s problems with Sukarno’s successor, President Suharto (and with a significant number of other Indonesians who are not admirers of the Government) stem from the author’s involvement in the 1950′s and 60′s in the uncompromisingly left-wing Institute of People’s Culture. Many Indonesian intellectuals saw this as a Stalinist-style organization determined to enforce a “correct” state of culture. To President Suharto, a tough anti-Communist, it was subversive. After 14 years in prison and under house arrest, Mr. Toer is now technically under “municipal confinement” in Jakarta, where he lives with his extended family. In the last few years, he has begun to meet foreigners and is now occasionally seen in public. But he has not published anything for a decade, and he does not want to risk traveling abroad, fearing that the Government would not allow him to return.
Mr. Toer, though Javanese, has always written in the national Malay language, Bahasa Indonesia. But it is in the universal language of fine storytelling that he speaks most persuasively. Thanks to translations like Mr. Lane’s, Mr. Toer’s eloquence and insight can now be shared by readers far from his homeland.