Washington Post review of Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) and its three sequels.

Jakarta Quartet

By Alan Ryan

Sunday, August 11 1996; Page X08
The Washington Post


By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Translated from the Indonesian

By Max Lane

William Morrow. 365 pp. $26

IF INDONESIAN novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer wins the Nobel Prize –
which he richly deserves — it will bring glory to him and further
shame to his country. Pramoedya was born in 1925 in Java. In 1965, he
was imprisoned, without trial, for political activities. He was
released in 1979 and placed under city arrest in Jakarta. He is still
under city arrest, all his books are banned in his own country, and
people, including an Indonesian publisher, have been imprisoned for
violating the ban. Nevertheless, his books circulate widely and
secretly in Indonesia in manuscript form.

This will be no surprise to anyone who has read his books. The
inexorable forward movement of history is the subject at the heart of
Pramoedya’s greatest work, The Buru Tetralogy.

House of Glass concludes the tetralogy in English, and its appearance
completes one of the most distinguished American publishing projects
of recent years. The opening volume, This Earth of Mankind, was first
published in English in Australia in 1982 and, in a revised
translation, appeared here in 1991. Child of All Nations followed in
the same year, and the third, Footsteps, appeared in 1995. Coinciding
with the hardcover publication of House of Glass, Penguin has brought
out handsome matching editions of the first three volumes in trade

You’ll want them all because you have to start at the beginning.

The story begins near the end of the 19th century, in what was then
the Dutch East Indies. At the center is a brilliant young Javanese
student named Minke. His intelligence, his education, his language
ability (he masters the Dutch of the colonial authorities), and his
questioning mind bring him in contact with all the various factions
and levels of society. When he falls in love with an Indo-European
girl, his need to identify his own loyalties comes to dominate his

Struggling to find his own voice, he takes up a career as a writer,
while his political views are shaped, on the one hand, by a cruelly
oppressive colonial regime and, on the other, by a native population
that has yet to realize it is a powerful political force. With the
start of the 20th century, Minke enters medical school, partly in an
effort to leave behind the contradictions and frustrations of his
political world. But history presses in on him from every side. He
becomes publisher of a dissident newspaper. And at the end of the
third volume, the newspaper is banned and he is arrested.

House of Glass begins at that point. Up until now, Minke has narrated
the tale, but this volume is narrated by Pangemanann, the police
commissioner who arrested him. Ironically, his situation is similar to
Minke’s. He is a native, educated at the Sorbonne, who has made his
life and his career within the structures of the colonial authorities.
And, in fact, shortly after Minke’s arrest, Pangemanann is promoted
from his local position to a national one in which his prime
responsibility is to become an expert on dissident leaders and groups.

His anguish is all the worse because he has, for years, admired Minke
and considered him his “teacher.” Minke’s successors and rivals flare
on the landscape, and Pangemanann must use his understanding of them
to help keep them down. His position is increasingly intolerable, and
he grows progressively more physically ill as his moral and
psychological struggle becomes more painful and hopeless. “I was
neither sun, nor moon, nor star,” he tells us. “I was just a man
alone, Pangemanann, who could find no way out.”

House of Glass is necessarily darker and denser than its predecessors,
less filled with color and characters and incidents, because its
action is internal. And yet its scope is broader than that of the
earlier novels, because its narrator’s mind ranges over history and
his own contemporary world, in which, slowly in some cases, violently
in others, oppressed peoples are beginning to sense their own

The Buru Tetralogy is one of the 20th century’s great artistic
creations, a work of the richest variety, color, size and import,
founded on a profound belief in mankind’s potential for greatness and
shaped by a huge compassion for mankind’s weakness. The tetralogy has
already been translated into 20 languages; translator Max Lane has
devoted nearly two decades to this English version. (A member of
Australia’s diplomatic corps, he was recalled from Indonesia when his
first translations of Pramoedya’s writing caused a political stir.

His work has been worth the time and effort. If there were a Nobel
Prize for translations, he would deserve it.

Alan Ryan writes frequently about international fiction. He won a
Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for his latest book, “The
Reader’s Companion to Mexico.”