“Discovering Pramoedya” – new 2010 review of the Buru Quartet

Discovering Pramoedya


By Adam Gartrell, Indonesia Correspondent

(read also this other essay on THIS EARTH OF MANKIND)

JAKARTA, July 4 AAP – One of the greatest pleasures of living in
Indonesia has been discovering the work of the country’s finest
novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

I’ve just finished reading Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, a sweeping
four-book 1500-page semi-fictional epic about Indonesia’s first
tentative steps toward independence.

Set between the 1890s and 1920s in what was then the Dutch East
Indies, the books – This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations,
Footsteps and House of Glass – tell the story of Minke, a
well-educated Javanese native.

Minke begins the series a naive and self-centred teenager obsessed
with winning and keeping the beautiful Annelies Ontosoroh, the
daughter of a Dutch man and Javanese woman.

But Minke is changed by a string of tragedies and chance encounters.
He gradually comes to recognise and challenge the injustices and
indignities of Dutch colonial rule. He then dedicates his life to
awakening the nationalism and democratic spirit of his fellow natives.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. This isn’t dry historical fiction
packed full of political lecturing. There’s a little of that –
particularly in the slower third and fourth books – but there’s also
murder, intrigue, rape, incest and syphilitic prostitutes to keep the
plot ticking along.

But the series is, above all, about the personal stories of the vivid
and complex characters that populate it.

There’s Minke and the delicate Annelies; the indomitable Sanikem,
Annelies’ mother; the dastardly and unhinged Robert Suurhof, Minke’s
life-long enemy; the conflicted Pangemanann, the policeman who must
bring Minke down; and many, many more.

Pramoedya’s skill is in making us care for and identify with
characters with whom – on the surface at least – we have very little
in common.

Minke is of a different era, place and culture. And yet we relate to
him because his struggles are universal and his foibles reflect our

But perhaps even more fascinating than the story contained within the
books is the story of how they came to be.

Pramoedya was born in 1925. He worked in newspapers before taking up
arms against the Dutch in the 1940s. The Dutch jailed him in 1947.

After Indonesia achieved its independence in 1949 Pramoedya became a
prominent and prolific writer of fiction, history and literary
criticism. But he later fell out of President Sukarno’s favour and was
jailed again.

Things only got worse under Suharto’s New Order, which banished
Pramoedya without trial to a remote penitentiary for political
prisoners on Buru Island, in Indonesia’s east.

He lived there in harsh conditions for the next 14 years.

During this incarceration he was at first forbidden from writing. So
in the early 1970s he began orally relating the story of Minke to his
fellow prisoners.

Years later, Pramoedya was given permission to write Minke’s story
down. He did and the manuscripts soon found their way into

Predictably enough, the New Order banned the series on the (ludicrous)
grounds they promoted communism.

Australian diplomat Max Lane recognised the books’ brilliance and
devoted himself to translating them into English, ensuring others
could read them even if Indonesians could not. Also predictably
enough, this angered Indonesia and Lane was consequently recalled to

In English, the series won wide acclaim. Critics lauded it as one of
the 20th century’s finest artistic achievements. Pramoedya was
frequently described as South-East Asia’s leading candidate for the
Nobel Prize for Literature (though he never won).

Pramoedya was released from Buru in 1979 but was then forced to spend
13 years under city arrest. He was released in 1992 but only truly
became free when Suharto stepped down five years later.

Today, the Buru Quartet is freely available – though criminally
under-appreciated – in Indonesia, and worldwide in more than 30

Pramoedya died in 2006, aged 81. Australian Associated Press July 4, 2010

(read also this other essay on THIS EARTH OF MANKIND)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s