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Remembering the legacy of Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Shashi Jayakumar
Shashi Jayakumar

Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Singapore | Sun, April 30, 2017 | 01:34 pm
Remembering the legacy of Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Google Doodle celebrates the 92nd birthday of Indonesia's renowned writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer on Feb. 6. (google.co.id/File)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer – who died on this day, April 30, eleven years ago – did not recede into benevolent old age nor fade gently away.

In his last years, and indeed, since his final release from prison in 1979, Pramoedya – or Pram, as he was fondly known to friends – held court in his home near Jakarta, venting his spleen on successive administrations, the state of his country and what he saw as the slow sliding away of his beloved country, Indonesia, from the aspirations of its founders.

Pram had earned this right. For his writing and social commentary, he suffered imprisonment, first by the Dutch and then by successive Indonesian governments beginning in 1960. But the event that proved the turning point was the alleged coup attempt against President Sukarno in October 1965. Many came under suspicion – including communists and their sympathizers.

Whether Pram was a communist never became clear; he nonetheless became a victim of the bloodiest purge in Indonesian history. The blows he took from soldiers meant to be escorting him away from an angry mob left him with impaired hearing, a condition that deteriorated as the years went by. But the more grievous loss was that of his manuscripts – the product of years of labor vanished and burnt in one night.

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It could have ended there; one of the many left-leaning intellectuals “disappeared” in the chaotic aftermath of the 1965 troubles that followed the ouster of Sukarno in that year. But it did not. It provided indirectly for the genesis what is unarguably the summa of his life’s work, The Buru Quartet. Even if so much else perished at the hands of the mob, this masterwork secures Pram’s place in the literary firmament.

Initially not even allowed a pencil, Pram dictated this while interned in Buru, a penal colony located in the East of the archipelago. He did so with prisoners listening spellbound in the midst of incredible hardship that beggars belief. In a prodigious feat of memory, he was subsequently able to write down what he had earlier told his fellow men. He had no choice, as the authorities had burned most of his notes before his 1979 release.

It has often been said that the four volumes chart the tumultuous course of a colonial nation on the cusp of massive social and political change. But in reality these volumes do much more than even that. Pram introduces with effortless ease a veritable kaleidoscope of people who touch us, and move us. Javanese natives, Europeans and Indos (Eurasians) move about with their hopes and dreams in the seething milieu of Indonesia in the early years of the twentieth century. They all have their stories they share with us. These range from the seemingly most insignificant Javanese peasant to the chief protagonist, the journalist and political activist Raden Mas Minke, engaged in a succession of national movements that earned him the enmity of the Dutch authorities. Along the way, we track the shaping of Minke’s awareness and sense the awakening of much else – his life and loves and his ultimate fate at the hands of the Dutch (and his own people). This is the awakening also of his country and the birth of national consciousness. It is the chronicle of Indonesia.

The Buru Quartet is also deeply affecting, yet Pram does not sentimentalize the fate of his creations. No one who has read Raden Mas Minke’s shattering, final denouement of the final volume of the tetralogy, House of Glass, can fail to be profoundly moved. Yet amidst despair, one also finds within this cosmos great humanity, love and compassion.

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The complete English version of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s 'The Buru Quartet.'(JP/Devina Heriyanto)

Pram outlasted the fate of exile, which he devised for Raden Mas Minke, but only just. Thanks to his own memoir, A Mute’s Soliloquy, we have a harrowing account of the privations and forced labor he endured for 14 long years in Indonesia’s Gulag. At the end of that book one finds a list of 300 prisoners who never left the island and will forever buried remain there (the list is incomplete – the threats of guards forced a premature end to its compilation). Their names, ages and origins are listed, as is how they died – “shot dead ...suicide [there are many of these] ...drowned ...murdered ...brain trauma following torture ...gored by a bull.” Much later, Pram was to write of these individuals:

At some future time there might be someone capable of writing about them without his hand shaking uncontrollably or his note paper becoming wet with tears. But that person will not be me. In the world of the dead there are so many souls whose presence I know nothing of. All I can do here is to try to make note of the souls whose names I do know.

There is no better mark of Pram’s humanity. For his part, there is no self-pity in Pram’s own memoir of Buru – just a description, in sparse prose, of what he suffered. The narrative style is, as it is in all his work, clear as a glass pane and speaks directly to the reader without pretense. Unsurprisingly, successive regimes – and even other governments – feared the power of his pen. The Australian Embassy official who translated The Buru Quartet was recalled from his post.

While the last two decades after his release should have been triumphant ones, they were marked by the profound despair and vitriol one also sees in his journalism and shorter pieces. The nation seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next, struggling under the weight of a moribund economy, militant Islam and administrative inefficiency.

Even more sadly, the nation and especially the youth of modern Indonesia seem to have left Pram behind: Several would have read his short stories, but few are acquainted with his larger body of work. Here, perhaps, Pram was not blameless. Neither personally nor in his writings did he ever play the role of a social critic, the cendekiawan (public intellectual), which Indonesia can boast of in profusion. In the increasing frailty of his last years, he railed against the succession of governments and the ills of society.

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Other writers, such as Mochtar Lubis or Goenawan Mohamad, could be trenchant critics of the system and society while remaining engaged and relevant. Pram was a colossus, but increasingly seen as a relic of an era that no longer held the meaning it formerly did. The Dutch, Japanese, Sukarno, Soeharto – Pram outlasted them all. And he was immensely proud of this, but this seemed to make it difficult to find concrete ways forward. The burden of memory was too great.

Many of his admirers have felt pangs of disappointment year after year when the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced without Pram being recognized. He easily deserved the accolade. Pram must surely rank at the forefront of what is sometimes misleadingly called “world literature,” but which in reality encompasses a massive oeuvre of genuine literary achievement that exists outside of the received Western Canon. It can only be hoped that his uncollected writings in Indonesian – his journalism and occasional musings – will find a conscientious editor and will one day be published in the English language.

In the meantime, there is still one thing you can do. Read him. The need to read him and understand his message of humanity, tolerance and awakening has never been so urgent as it is in the world we live in today.

For Pram was not telling mankind how low it can sink. He was also reminding us of what we can be.

Read him and understand him, even if you disagree with his politics as I did. There would be no better testament to his memory and to the conscience of a country. (kes)

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Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. This article is written in a private capacity.

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