ARTICLE (re-post): WHY YOU SHOULD READ INDONESIA’S “THIS EARTH OF MANKIND” by Max Lane

“In January 2014 Joshua Oppenheimer’s film on Indonesia, The Act of Killing, was nominated for an academy award, reflecting its penetration into mainstream film watching. Many people will be introduced to Indonesia by this vivid study of the country’s ruling lumpen elite. Another, very different, introduction to Indonesia might be reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s historical novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind).

The English language edition of This Earth of Mankind was published by Penguin in 1983. The sequels to this novel, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass, were published over the following several years by Penguin in Australia and the United Kingdom. They were launched into the United States by William Morrow, Hyperion and Penguin in the 1990s. As their translator, I am very pleased to see that they are still in print 30 years later, having had many reprints. The four novels are likely to appear soon as eBooks, Penguin USA having bought the eBook rights. They appear already to be advertised as eBooks for Kindle on Amazon.com.

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Pramoedya’s work has, on the whole, met with critical acclaim in the West, in particular the United States. The publication of other translations followed, such as Silent Songs of a Mute,Fugitive, Girl from the Coast and collections of short stories. In 1992 the New York Times reviewer wrote:

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.[1]

In 1996, after House of Glass appeared, the Washington Post reviewer wrote:

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.[2]

Jamie James in his article “The Indonesiad” in The New Yorker wrote:

Pramoedya’s masterwork is the Buru Quartet, a cycle of novels set in the final, decadent years of Dutch colonialism in Java. The series follows the life of a revolutionary journalist named Minke. The first native Javanese boy to attend the elite Dutch colonial high school, Minke is full of idealistic notions about European progress. The process of his disillusionment and forging of his Indonesian identity – a new element in the periodic table of history – [forms] the novels’ core. The Buru Quartet is saturated with the gothic gloom and steamy atmosphere of the rain forest. With the publication this month, by William Morrow, of the quartet’s final volume, “House of Glass,” and the paperback reissue, by Penguin, of its predecessors, “This Earth of Mankind,” “Child of All Nations,” and “Footsteps,” American readers can now follow Pramoedya’s saga of Minke – one of the most ambitious undertakings in postwar world literature – from beginning to end.[3]

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The slave Spartacus and reading Dalton Trumbo

Reading Dalton Trumbo

(Spontaneous thoughts.)

It was Hollywood that got me. In particular the film Spartacus, produced and starring Kirk Douglas, directed by Stanley Kubrick and screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. The other main roles were played by Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov. The film was inspired by Howard Fast’s wonderful novel, also called Spartacus. The film was a Hollywood spectacular, with a “casts of thousands”, huge battle scenes between the rebel slave army and the Roman Legions. There was no CGI then, back in the 60s, just extras from the Spanish Army. I saw it first when I was quite young, so the spectacular romance and adventure would have been very appealing to a boy from the boring Western suburbs of Sydney.

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Dalton Trumbo

But the story was also inspiring. Millions of so-called ordinary people, oppressed under a violent and anti-human slave system, led by their most militant section – gladiators – rise up and refuse to be slaves and keep the most powerful army in the world at bay for years. And they do it right in the heart of the Roman Empire – in Italy.

It is a beautiful film, both visually and its words; its dialogue. In today’s world, ridden with cynicism, in general, and on the intellectual Left, with cynicism over-layered with layers of artificially created “nuance”, some may react to this beauty as corny. But there is nothing corny about an idealistic desire to be free so that human beings can savour the beautiful things around them without the embitterment of being treated as an animal or a thing: the stars, knowledge of nature and the world, a kiss and embrace. “A tool with a voice”: that was a slave.

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