Indonesia’s greatest novelist and revolutionary intellectual died in Jakarta on April 30, 2006. Below are three articles by Max Lane, published in the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD< GREEN LEFT WEEKLY and JAKARTA POST respectively.
Sydney Morning Herald, May 16, 2006
Man of letters and revolution
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Novelist, 1925-2006
IN THE days before Indonesia’s greatest novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, died, text messages and emails had warned that he was seriously ill. Many readers gathered at his hospital bed and later his home where they sang songs of struggle or prayed.
I met Pramoedya in 1980 after reading his wonderful novel, This Earth of Mankind, which I was to later translate. It was the first of many meetings with an earthy, stubborn man who deeply loved Indonesia and the revolution that created it, its history, and its people.
He wrote more than 40 works, including novels, short stories, plays, history, literary criticism and more than 400 newspaper essays. He translated Gorky, Tolstoy and Steinbeck, among others. All this work was motivated by a love for humanity. He never tired of quoting from the great Dutch novelist, Multatuli: “It is the duty of human beings to become human.”
Pramoedya was born in Blora, central Java, the eldest son of a headmaster and activist. Pramoedya, or Pram as he was more usually known, had just completed his education in Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, in 1942 when the Japanese invaded. Like many Indonesian nationalists who disliked the Dutch, he initially supported the occupation.
His attitude changed as Japanese brutality intensified, and he became increasingly nationalist. After the war, as the Dutch tried to reassert control over their former empire, Pramoedya took up arms in the resistance movement. He was detained for the first time in 1947, the year he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive.
Release came with the Dutch withdrawal in 1949 and he spent much of the 1950s travelling abroad, including Holland, the Soviet Union and China. His early works – novels, short stories and essays – were explorations of the many sides of humanity that are exposed in time of war and revolution. By the mid-1950s, when he began to understand that the ideals of the revolution – justice and prosperity – were not being realised, his stories turned to exposing the revolution’s betrayal by corruption and elitism.
In the late 1950s, he started to travel down a path that made him unique in Indonesian culture and politics, and which paved the way for the six great historical novels setting out the crucial chapters in Indonesia’s pre-history. He began a search for the origins of the blockages to the revolution in the archipelago’s history, going back 1000 years.
He also discovered the origins of Indonesia’s original radical energies in the confrontation between the ideals of humanism and Western hypocrisy and dictatorship – that is, colonialism – at the turn of the 20th century.
One story from a former student symbolises his respect for the people. Pramoedya lectured at a university in 1965 before he was arrested with about 100,000 other left-wing Indonesians in 1965 – perhaps more than half a million were murdered at the same time. The student’s assignment was to interview a source about a prominent political figure. Instead, he interviewed a colleague of the political figure. Reprimanded and told to do the assignment again, he had to admit that Pramoedya’s source turned out to be a much richer source of information – the political figure’s barber.
In the late 1950s, as corruption and elitist contempt for the plight of the people strengthened, Pramoedya joined the tens of millions of Indonesians who supported President Soekarno’s call for the nation to concentrate on finishing the revolution. Until his death, he remained a committed supporter of Soekarno, whom he considered able to unite Indonesia by ideas, not weapons.
Pramoedya plunged into the cultural struggle writing prolifically for the independent left-wing daily paper, Bintang Timor. He polemicised against what he saw as imported salon art, which ignored the struggle to complete the revolution, to bring ordinary people to power. But mostly, he wrote about history, about people whom he thought official history had forgotten or misunderstood.
He wrote about the 19th century feminist, Kartini, turn-of-the-century novelists, communist novelists and the first indigenous newspaper editor, Tirto Adhisuryo.
Pramoedya was jailed for a year in 1960 for writing a book defending the Chinese community against discrimination.
Pramoedya’s open partisanship with Soekarno and the left saw him imprisoned when Soeharto took power in October 1965. He spent the next 14 years in jails, never charged and never tried.
He was shipped with thousands of others to Buru island, a sparsely inhabited island in eastern Indonesia. The trip to Buru and other experiences there are evocatively told in the collection of essays, A Mute’s Soliloquy.
Books, pens and paper were banned for prisoners during the first several years on Buru. Men were killed for holding reading matter. The 14,000 prisoners had to build their own barracks and clear their own fields with their bare hands, and eat field mice – after deworming them.
Pramoedya had lost his immense library of archives, tapes and documents, and did not have even pen or paper. So he told and retold some of his stories, starting with that of Sanikem, the 14-year-old Javanese girl sold by her father to a Dutch businessman as a concubine. The girl overcomes this horror to stand above her Dutch kidnapper, a woman of great character, a successful business person and teacher of the ideals of the Enlightenment.
This story provided the framework for This Earth of Mankind, the first in a series of four novels inspired by the life and times of Tirto Adhisuryo, the man Pramoedya considered the pioneer of Indonesia’s national awakening. The other novels, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass, are rich and humane, gripping and revolutionary, telling the story of how Indonesia and Indonesians came into being.
These great stories have resonated around the world. Penguin Books in Australia, under Brian Johns, took the risk in the 1980s of being the first major commercial publisher of these works, which have been translated into more than 50 languages.
The novels were published in Indonesia in the 1980s, almost immediately after Pramoedya and thousands of other political prisoners were released. In a stunning act of defiance, Pramoedya and fellow ex-political prisoners, Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman, both journalists, established a publishing company, Hasta Mitra.
But Soeharto later banned the books, after each volume was published. They even banned anthologies of turn of the century short stories, because Pramoedya had edited them. Three student activists were given long prison sentences for selling the books from a folding table.
Even after Soeharto’s fall, Pramoedya’s books remain banned. Yet they are in all the bookshops and sold at every activist or public cultural event.
Neither Indonesia nor the world has yet fully appreciated his contribution. The four novels that began with This Earth of Mankind, now known as the Buru Quartet, represent a great literary achievement, while being just part of the series of six novels and one play that make up his fictional presentation of Indonesian history.
Pramoedya is survived by his second wife, Maemunah, with whom he had five children. He had three children from his first marriage, 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Max Lane is the translator of the Buru Quartet.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Indonesia’s greatest novelist
Scores of activists and young writers, as well as family members, were at the Karet Bivak cemetery in central Jakarta on April 30. Many were crying, tearful. The loss was felt greatly, a burden. But they rallied their spirits to also sing songs of struggle to farewell the man who they had just laid to rest: Pramoedya Ananta Toer. They sang the Internationale and they sang that most moving of all songs that grew up during the struggle against the 1966-98 Suharto military dictatorship: Darah joang (“Blood of the struggle”).
The acclaimed author and democracy campaigner had died that morning after suffering a week or more of declining health. He had been taken to the emergency ward of a major Jakarta hospital and was then moved to an intensive care unit. Finally he asked to go home, to stay in the family house in the Jakarta suburb of Utan Kayu.
On the third day at home, after pushing aside the tubes and equipment that got in his way, he asked for another of his beloved kretek cigarettes. He passed away at 9.15am that morning.
Indonesian custom requires that burial takes place as quickly as possible after death, Pramoedya was buried later in the afternoon. Those who had received news of his death via text messages and could get there, did so.
Already there are plans in Indonesia for activities to commemorate Pramoedya’s life and work. Here in Australia, the Inside Indonesia magazine is planning a special issue around Pramoedya.
Many Australians know Pramoedya primarily from his novel This Earth of Mankind, which I translated in 1980. Many people still send letters saying how much they enjoyed reading it or how their lives may have been changed by it. Others are familiar with its sequels — Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass. The first novel in the series is now in its 15th printing in the United States. The novels have been widely adopted into all kinds of courses in world literature in US universities.
In Indonesia itself, all of Pramoedya’s books are still formally banned, although the state seems to be turning a blind eye to the fact they can easily be found in the major bookshops.
Pramoedya was 81 years old when he died. He was a literary and political figure whose presence in Indonesian political and cultural life had lasted for more than 40 years. As a young man, he had taken up arms against the Dutch colonialists, had been captured and spent two years in prison. While in jail, he wrote some of his early well-known short stories which were set in the midst of the violent upheaval of an anti-imperialist revolution.
After the armed struggle ceased in 1949 and the Netherlands accepted Indonesia’s independence, Pramoedya became one of the country’s most prolific writers. He was stirred by the injuries that people suffered as a result of their involvement in the revolution, at others’ hands or at their own.
His orientation began to develop further as the country moved towards the end of its first decade of independence. His stories began to bring out the realities of failed social change, of injuries to humanity flowing from the stubbornness of corruption and injustice in spite of the country having won independence. Pramoedya’s stories in the collection Tales from Jakarta ring with a disappointed and cutting humanity.
From the late 1950s, he began a new journey, posing the question: Why had political independence not delivered the justice and prosperity for which so many had given their lives in the revolution? Pramoedya joined millions of others who were steadily rallying to the cry: The revolution is not finished!
He threw his political support behind President Sukarno, whose political legacy Pramoedya embraced for the rest of his life, and who was then leading the movement to rally people behind this cry. Tens of millions eventually joined under this banner, joining the Communist Party, the Nationalist Party or other, smaller, parties or one of the many mass organisations rallying to the call.
Pramoedya worked with the Peoples Cultural Network, which soon had thousands of members and also the Bintang Timur (Eastern Star) independent left newspaper.
He gave his support to this movement in more than one way. He buried himself in the work of hunting out the origins of Indonesia’s cultural problems, finding them in a characterless elite with no backbone, with an inward-lookingness and a too-quick abnegation before authority. But he also sought to uncover the source of dynamism of the new Indonesian culture, the source of the revolutionary energy exploding in the 1960s as every kind of art and literature began to burgeon. Where did that come from?
Among other things that influenced Pramoedya, Maxim Gorky’s essay The People Must Know Their History stirred him. From the late 1950s, Pramoedya became Indonesia’s first self-taught full-time historian. No source was alien to him — government documents, diaries, what a barber knew about his long-term customers (among whom was perhaps a political figure), the daily newspapers, detective novels. Pramoedya was even the first historian in Indonesia to use tape recordings of oral histories, borrowing a tape recorder — then a rare piece of equipment — from a friendly small business.
Pramoedya became a prolific essayist in Bintang Timur, writing hundreds of essays on history and politics. His unique contribution to helping finish the revolution was interrupted in October 1965 when he was arrested along with hundreds of thousands of others. The right-wing of the army, under the command of General Suharto, seized power, making use of a failed attempt by left-wing officers to seize control of the army.
The Suharto coup marked the interruption, for nearly 40 years, of the Indonesian national revolution. More than a million workers, peasants and other left-wing activists were killed. Tens of thousands were imprisoned for one or two years and another 20,000 — including Pramoedya — were imprisoned for 14 years without charge and without trial.
Fourteen thousand prisoners were sent to the barely inhabited and barren island of Buru in eastern Indonesia, where they were forced to build their own barracks, clear the savage land with their own bare hands and start their own agriculture.
Many died in the initial years. It was in these demoralising years that Pramoedya began to draw on the memory of his work to tell the story of a 14-year-old Javanese girl, Sanikem, sold by her money-grubbing father to a Dutch plantation owner as a concubine and how this young girl transformed herself into a women of strength and capacity, Nyai Ontosoroh — far superior to that of her coloniser — and how she educated the first generation of Indonesian revolutionaries. The story inspired the prisoners and helped restore their morale.
Later when he obtained a typewriter and was allowed to write, Pramoedya churned out eight novels, a play and scores of essays while on Buru Island. When he was released in 1979, he was not supposed to publish. Such activities were illegal for former political prisoners. But Pramoedya, and two other former prisoners — Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman — defied the dictator Suharto and began publishing Pramoedya’s prison novels, starting with This Earth of Mankind, based on the story of Sanikem and Nyai Ontosoroh. This was followed by the other great historical novels Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass. All are available in Penguin book editions.
Then came Pramoedya’s novels set in the prequel period to these four novels — Arok and Dedes, a story of rebellion set in the 13th century, and Arus Balik, an epic novel of maritime politics set in the 16th century.
These were his greatest works, explaining the origins of the Indonesian revolution, with more than half of them translated into more than 50 foreign languages. These later works were an expression of Pramoedya’s commitment to finish the revolution after his release from prison in 1979.
In the last 20 years of his life, Pramoedya repeated again and again in speeches and interviews the same call to Indonesia’s younger generation — the revolution is not finished. He joined the small radical Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) to emphasise this meant political commitment and joining a political organisation. He never tired of saying that reformasi (reform) was not enough. What was needed was “total revolution”.
In the soon-to-be-published long interview with Pramoedya, entitled Exile, he makes his stance clear: “Capitalism is the same everywhere. Its only purpose is to make as high a profit as it is allowed to. I believe in each country’s right to self-determination but, in reality, such rights are not being honoured. Everything is determined by big business, even the fate of nations. Can the present situation change without a revolution? It can’t. There has to be a revolution!”
From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.
Pramoedya and the rebirth of national culture
It was an amazing experience to translate the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, to have had to think deeply about what he wrote, to discuss with him the situation in Indonesia. I translated This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass in the 1980s. Recently I have just finished translating his The Chinese in Indonesia and Arok Dedes, both of which will be published this year. I am in the process of completing my own book, People Power, the Fall of Suharto and Indonesian History which is partly inspired by his analysis of Indonesian history.
Pramoedya’s contribution to Indonesian literature, historical analysis and political thinking has been great indeed. In this respect, I very much disagree with the perspective put forward by Andre Vitchek in his article With Pram died Indonesian culture in The Jakarta Post. Vitchek’s article underrates the struggle by many Indonesians to revive culture, science and democratic life in Indonesia and in so doing also negates the real impact of Pramoedya’s own writing and ideas.
Of course, it is true that the coming to power of the New Order in 1965 did end an era. It represented the suppression and the failure of the first great wave of the Indonesian revolution, a wave that lasted from the beginning of the 20th century until 1965. The movement to finish the national revolution failed. The New Order was a counter-revolutionary government, not simply because it suppressed those political forces calling for a social revolution — the Left, but also because it suppressed the national revolution itself. The cultural life that was painfully emerging out of the national revolution was suppressed.
It was represented in the ideas of Sukarno, which Pramoedya supported until the end of his life in all the literaryworks of the early national revolution and then those which came out of LEKRA and the LKN in the 1950s and 1960s. But most significantly, the New Order bureaucracy, military and conglomerates, alongside the business power of the West and Japan, took over the country. Culture became a commodity in their market place.
This is all true and it makes Pramoedya the last great voice of the first wave of the Indonesian national revolution, and its accompanying social revolution as well. But it would be wrong to not see the beginnings of the second wave of the revolution beginning to sprout a long time ago. Yes, its true this new wave is at its beginning. But we should have learned from reading This Earth of Mankind and its sequels that these great revolutionary processes also have their own grueling, and sometimes painfully slow, gestation periods.
The national awakening described by Pramoedya begins with Kartini in the 1890s. The rise and fall of Tirto Adhisuryo and Sarekat Islam plays out over another twenty years — the time period of the Buru Quartet books. The Youth Oath, which in Pramoedya’s eyes was the beginning of the idea of Indonesia was not until 1928. Independence was in 1945; the escalation of the struggle to “finish the revolution”, not until 1969.
The first wave of national revolution failed. This was a generational failure, so total was the suppression. New generations take up the struggle. There may be no new Pramoedyas yet, but there are plenty of new Minkes, not to mention Marcos and Haji Misbachs. Moreover, there also those whose writings and ideas have provided the bridge from one generation to the next. W.S. Rendra’s plays and poems, such as The Poet’s Pamphlets and The Struggle of the Naga Tribe are just one example of works that played that role.
All those that threw themselves into that first wave of national revolution, failed and saw the revolution blocked by oppression and the country stagnate, will be disappointed, frustrated, and even lonely. They are separated from the Indonesia they helped create, as a new process and new generation start again. Pramoedya also felt that deeply.
But the current and next generations do not start from scratch. Suharto may have destroyed much of the political and cultural heritage of 60 years of revolutionary struggle, but not everything. In fact, Pramoedya’s works themselves are part of what is not destroyed.
To proclaim that Indonesian culture has died with Pram is to negate Pram while praising him. The whole generation of activists through the 1980s and 1990s built upon Pramoedya. The student activists and leaders; Wiji Thukul; a revival in pride among all generations — all this is not dead.
But yes, today they swim against the current. This is not the first half of the century which was marked by the struggles against colonialism around the world and then the civil rights and anti-war movements in the West. The ideals of social justice and radicalism are swimming against the current almost everywhere.
If Pramoedya is not widely read in Indonesia, neither is Howard Fast in the U.S. He is virtually out-of-print, and is Steinbeck still a symbol of mainstream American culture? No, this is a problem we all face: Everywhere. Frankly, I think the effervescence among young people in Indonesia is more exciting than that in my own country, Australia.
So the need is not to proclaim the death of Indonesian culture, nor to issue general appeals for people in Indonesia to read Pram. The question now is how to push forward the processes that have re-started since the 1970s, accelerated again in the 1990s and now await the next stage forward.
In terms of people reading Pramoedya in Indonesia, this must be also treated concretely and not through abstract appeals. A wider reading of Pramoedya will flow as the next wave of the national revolution starts to build up. But there are some concrete things that could be raised. What needs to be done to get Pramoedya’s writings and other major works into the high schools and universities? What can be done to make libraries more resourced places? How can initiatives like the Bandung based Pramoedya Institute be supported and expanded?
Reading This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass teaches us how grueling, how complex and how richly liberating the process was of preparing the way for the Indonesian national revolution to get underway.
With the failure of that first wave, its crushing, we should learn from Pramoedya’s writing to expect no less a grueling, complex and richly liberating prelude to the next wave. One of Pramoedya’s greatest contributions has been to help that process get under way.
The writer is lecturer in Indonesian Studies, University of Sydney.