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May 24, 2024

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer


Indonesian novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and critic, deeply influenced by the work of John Steinbeck. The Japanese occupation (1942-1944) and Indonesia’s struggle for independence  provided the basic material for Pramoedya’s writing. His best-known novel is the Buru Quartet (1980-88), banned by the Suharto regime. The story, originally written between 1965 and 1979, is set at the turn of the 19th century and depicts the emergence of anticolonial Indonesian nationalism. Pramoedya’s books have been translated into some 30 languages.

Pramoedya Anata Toer was born in the village of Blora, in East Java. His father was an activist and headmaster of the nationalist school, a figure of some social prominence, but who ruined the family by obsessive gambling. As a boy Pramoedya wanted to become an engineer. After completing elementary school course in 1939, he moved to Surabaya, graduating from the Radiovakschool (Radio Vocational School) at the end of 1941. Following this, he moved to Jakarta, where he continued his studies and was employed for a period by the Japanese news agency “Domei.” In 1945 he attended lectures at the Islamic University.

After the Dutch army arrived to establish colonial rule, Pramoedya joined the Indonesian armed forces in East Jakarta. Commissioned in the rank of second lieutenant, Pramoedya led in 1946 a unit of sixty people. He then moved back to Jakarta, where he edited the journal Sadar. As a novelist Pramoedya made his debut with Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh (1947). In an interview he once said that “From my personal experiece, the impact of colonialism was that in the past, we – even I – felt inferior to people from the West. I only lost my inferiority complex in 1953, eight years after independence, because I was then living in Holland and had a Dutch girlfried. . . . ” (Exile: Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira,  edited by Nagesh Rao, 2006, p. 43)

Considered ”anti-colonial”, Pramoedya was imprisoned between the years 1947 and 1949 by the Dutch in various places. “My life was regulated by a schedule determined by authorities propped up by rifles and bayonets, he recalled. “Forced labor outside the jail, four days a week . . . ” (‘Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga Gerilya 1950’ by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Benedict Anderson, in Indonesia, No. 36 (Oct., 1983) While in the prison, he read William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, incorporating a lot of its style into his writings. He also translated Steinbeck’s novella into Bahasa Indonesia. From these and other books Pramoedya drew strength to survive and write Perburuan (1950, The Fugitive), about a rebellion against the Japanese and its betrayal. The novel was smuggled from prison, and approved by Balai Pustaka, the government publishing house.

Perburuan was first praised, then banned, but tanks to its succeess, Pramoedya continued writing cathartic stories and novels that transcend even while they record tragic events. After gaining some financial security, Pramoedya was able to marry. In the early 1950s, Pramoedya became an editor in the Modern Indonesian Literature department of the Balai Pustaka. He also held the post of editor of the magazine Indonesia and of the children’s magazine Kunang-kunang.

Pramoedya’s short-story collections from this period include Subuh (1950) and Percikan Revolusi (1950), both of which are set during the revolution, Cerita dari Blora (1952), dealing with provincial Javanese society, war, and the struggle for independence, and Cerita dari (1957), about postrevolutionary catastrophes in Indonesia’s capital. The novel Keluarga Gerilya (1950) was directed against the Dutch and Allied forces. It depicted the destruction of a Javanese family during the national revolution.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Pramoedya’s short stories were translated individually into Dutch, Chinese, English, Russian, and French. A longer work, Bukan Pasar Malam ( It’s Not an All-Night Fair), translated by C.W. Watson, was published by Cornell University in 1973. All That Is Gone (2004) collected Pramoedya’s short stories written in his 20s. The title story is a childhood memory, in which the narrator tells of his nanny, who had no children of her own – the syphilis had eaten her womb – and becomes gradually aware of a rift betweeen his mother and father.  ‘Inem,’ written in the style of social realism, was a critique of the traditional institutions of child marriage. The narrator, Gus Muk, follows the life of his neighbor, Inem, an eight year old girl, who is going to be married. Her father keeps gamecocks but everybody knows that he is a criminal, whose main occupation had been robbing people in the teak forest. Inem’s mother makes a living by doing batik work. Markaban, Inem’s husband, is seventeen and the son of a well-to-do man. After a year Inem leaves her husband, she tells Gus Muk’s mother that Markaban often beat her, and returns to her parents house. “And thereafter, the nine-year-old divorce – since she was nothing but a burden to her family – could be beaten by anyone who wanted to: her mother, her brothers, her uncle, her neighbors, her aunts. Yet Inem never came to our house.”

In 1953, Pramoedya spent with his family a year in the Netherlands on a cultural exchange program and wrote there the novels Korupsi (1954) and Midah – Si Manis Bergigi Emas (1954). He was appointed in 1958 a member of Lekra’s Plenum, the Institute of People’s Culture, an organization championing the nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution. After moving politically to the left, Pramoedya largely abandoned fiction for critical essays and historical studies. In 1960, he was imprisoned for defending the country’s persecuted ethnic Chinese.

Between 1962 and 1965, Pramoedya served as the editor of Lentera (Lantern), the weekly section of the leftist daily Bintang Timur. He lectured on Indonesian language and literature at the independent University of Res Publika, taught at “Dr. Abdul Rivai” Academy for Journalism, and was a founder of the “Multatuli” Literature Academy. As a social critic, he was many times at odds with conservative historians and those whom he considered to be reactionaries. In defining his own identity, Pramoedya once labelled himself as communist Muslim.

During the events that led to mass arrests and the establishment of “New Order” Indonesia under General Suharto, Pramoedya was imprisoned in October 1965 without trial by the military regime. The Institute for People’s Culture was banned as a Communist front. At his arrest, Pramoedya was severely beaten. For the rest of his life, Pramoedya suffered from hearing difficulties. ”Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?” he once said. Pramoedya’s personal archives, unpublished works, and research materials were either destroyed or lost. After four years at Salemba prison in Jakarta, he was shipped to exile on the notorious snake-infected island of Buru in the Moluccas.

Silenced by the Suharto regime, the political prisoners were only occasionally permitted to write letters, but not given a permission to send them. When Pramoedya, “political prisoner no. 641”, received a letter from the President of the Republic Indonesia, he was shocked and moved. Suharto wrote that “an error for human being is natural” and “naturalness should also have a natural sequel.” In his reply Pramoedya said that “A great mind forgives errors and a strong had reaches out to the weak.” (Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colonial Vietnam, ed. by Vicente L. Rafael, 1999, pp. 231-232)

Due to international protests, Pramoedya was granted access to a typewriter in 1973, and he began working on a series of historical novels originally narrated to his fellow prisoners.  In the last years of his confinement, Pramoedya was able to produce four historical novels, which were published on his release – the Buru Quartet – Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations), Jejak Lamgkah (Footsteps) and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass). Pramoedya was freed in the end of 1979, but he was still persona non grata. Confined to Jakarta, Pramoedya had to report to his parole officer every month, part of the terms of his city arrest. In 1992, on the occasion of Human Rights Day, he announced that he would stop reporting to the East Jakarta military post. Since the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, Pramoedya was a free man, but his books were still officially banned.

In the Buru Quartet the protagonist is Minke, a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat and writer, who is familiar with Western and Javanese culture. Manke falls in love with the beautiful Indo-European Annelies. After losing her Minke becomes increasingly involved in mass movements of resistance to the colonial rule. “This parting was a turning point in my life. My youth was over, a youth beautifully full of hopes and dreams. It would never return.”

Minke’s model was Tirto Adi Suryo (1880-1918), a journalist and activist. The first two volumes, depicting the dawn of Indonesia’s struggle against colonial exploitation, gained a huge popularity, but they were banned by the military authorities. This Earth of Mankind, which started the story, was originally recited orally by the author to his fellow prisoners. The last two volumes, banned on the charge that they covertly spread Communism, Marxism and Leninism, were smuggled out of the country.

In Gadis Pantai (1982, The Girl from the Coast), set on the colonial period, the protaginist is a young woman, whose character was based on the life of Pramoedya’s grandmother. The heroine comes from humble origins and she doesn’t have a name. At the age of 14 she is married to a nobleman, but she realizes that her place in the new family will be inferior and she is not allowed to keep her child. “The problem with The Girl From the Coast may be that the language, characterization and plotting are too well defined, as if the author’s desire to communicate and the urgency of his message have overwhelmed his art.” (Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times, August 11, 2002)

Pramoedya’s later works include Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995-97), an autobiography, and Arus Balik (1995), a historical novel of 16th-century Indonesia. He also translated into Indonesia works from such authors as John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoi, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Maxim Gorki. He won the ‘Freedom to Write’ Award in 1988 from PEN’s American Center. UNESCO’s Executive Council awaerded Pramoedya the Madanjeet Singh Prize in 1966 for his services to the cause of non-violence and tolerance. Since 1981, he was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1999 he toured the United States, Canada and Europe. Pramoedya died in Jakarta on April 20, 2006. He was married two times; first to Arfah Iljas and then to Maemunah Thamrin.

In his work, Pramoedya synthesized a wide variety of literary traditions, from the pioneers of the literature of Indonesian revolution (Chairil Anwar) to the Javanese storytelling, and from historical chronicles to various European and American writers. Pramoedya wrote in Bahasa Indonesia, a language developed form the old lingua franca Malaya and adopted by the nationalist movement in 1928. During his career, he was imprisoned both by the colonial Dutch regime and the following nationalist governments. His fiction has been translated into some twenty-four languages.1

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