Arguably Indonesia's best-known writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, also known as Pramoedya or Pram (1925–2006), was the author of novels that chronicled much of that Southeast Asian country's turbulent history. His writing had special force because he lived that history, doing much of his best work while imprisoned as a result of his dissident activities.
First it was Indonesia's Dutch colonizers who put Pramoedya in prison, then the independent country's first two rulers. For a 10-year period beginning in 1969 he was held in a notorious prison camp on the island of Buru, writing four novels while he was imprisoned, or narrating them orally when he had no access to writing materials. He later documented his experiences in a memoir, Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu (The Mute's Soliloquy, 1995, translated 1999). Pramoedya has often been compared with Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other dissident writers around the world.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Prah-MOU-dia ah-NAHN-ta Tour) was born in Blora, in central Java, on February 6, 1925, when Indonesia was still a colony of the Netherlands. He was one of nine children. Pramoedya's father was an educator and a member of a pro-independence group called Budi Otomo. In The Mute's Soliloquy , Pramoedya described his father as "a Javanese who had a near-mystical feeling about words" and explained that the name Pramoedya was constructed from the syllables of a revolutionary slogan, "Yang Pertama di Medan," or "First on the Battlefield." The phrase was not in Pramoedya's native language of Javanese but in Indonesian, the language used to unify the numerous ethnic and linguistic groups of the huge Indonesian archipelago. Pramoedya wrote his books in the Indonesian language. His father was a charismatic independence campaigner, "a lion at the rostrum," Pramoedya wrote, but he also suffered from a gambling addiction. In order to attend a broadcasting vocational school in the
Pramoedya graduated from the school in 1941, just as World War II broke out. Japanese naval forces quickly defeated the combined "ABCD" (American, British, Chinese, Dutch) forces in Southeast Asian waters and occupied Indonesia. Pramoedya, like many other Indonesians, initially welcomed the Japanese as liberators from Dutch colonial occupation, and he worked during the war for Japan's Domei news agency. Later in the war, however, many Indonesians were conscripted by the Japanese into forced labor brigades. In the power vacuum that followed Japan's surrender in 1945, Indonesia, led by the country's first president, Sukarno (many Javanese Indonesians use only one name), declared independence. The Netherlands launched a four-year war to recover its colony, and Pramoedya fought for a time in a guerrilla group.
He later moved to Jakarta, Indonesia's largest city, and edited a pro-independence journal. For these activities he was imprisoned by Dutch authorities between the summer of 1947 and the end of 1949, when the Dutch, under international pressure, ceased hostilities. While he was in prison, guards gave Pramoedya a copy of John Steinbeck's epic novel Of Mice and Men , which Pramoedya used as a way to learn the English language. He also began to combat the despair of prison life by writing, a practice he would likewise follow during later stretches in prison, and he completed his first novel, Perburuan (The Fugitive, translated into English in 1990). Published in 1950, it was set during the last days of Japan's occupation of Indonesia in World War II. The book earned Pramoedya widespread recognition and confirmed his gift for weaving historical events into compelling narratives of characters with complex personal motivations.
Pramoedya was fond of saying that he became a writer because he had no other marketable skill, and his reception of the young country's Balai Putaska literary prize helped stabilize his financial situation. He married for the first time, eventually fathering eight children during two marriages. Pramoedya wrote several novels, including Keluarga Gerilya (The Gerilya Family), set during the war of Indonesian independence. He also penned short stories that were collected into several books; one of these, Cerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora, 1952), featured settings from his home region. The novel Korupsi (Corruption, 1954), written after Pramoedya spent a year in the Netherlands on a cultural exchange program, was aimed at corruption in Indonesian society. Pramoedya also traveled to China in 1956, and over the course of the 1950s he gradually moved leftward politically. Many of his writings of the late 1950s were nonfiction essays on themes of social criticism.
Pramoedya began to speak out about the conditions facing ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, a prosperous but often persecuted minority in the country. This earned him the enmity of Sukarno, whom Pramoedya generally admired, and in 1960 he spent another nine months in prison. Between 1962 and 1965 he edited the cultural section of the leftist-oriented Bintang Timur (Eastern Star) newspaper. In 1965, however, chaos broke out in Indonesia. A group of army officers was assassinated under murky circumstances, and Indonesia's Communist Party was blamed.
An Indonesian general, Suharto, seized power from Sukarno and ruled Indonesia as strongman of the country's "New Order" government until 1998. The country's military launched a brutal program of repression against members of Communist organizations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Pramoedya, whose works had already begun to appear in foreign language editions, was not killed, but he was arrested in October of 1965 and again imprisoned. A beating he received from soldiers left him partially deaf for the rest of his life, and his entire library was destroyed. "For the first few months," he wrote in The Mute's Soliloquy , "torture was the prisoners' constant diet." In 1969 he was sent to a prison camp on the island of Buru, where new horrors awaited him.
Working rice fields on a penal farm, Pramoedya and his fellow prisoners suffered from extreme malnutrition. Pramoedya began to eat rats and lizards, and worse. "In 1949 I wrote a story about a refugee who tried to keep her children alive by feeding them stray animals, cats included," he wrote in The Mute's Soliloquy . "Now I found myself doing the same thing. Eating snakes was common. Some of the men ate wood worms, too, disposing of the head first and then eating the fatty lower part of the body, sometimes raw. Dogs, too, found their way into our stomachs…. The humiliation, the beatings, the forced labor: these things made the situation more worrisome."
Grim as the situation was, Pramoedya managed to recount some episodes with a dry detachment. The government sent Islamic clerics to the island to minister to the prisoners. "I have no doubt that this year, just as in previous years, at the beginning of the fasting month my mates and I will be treated to a lecture by a religious official specially brought in from the free world, on the importance of fasting and controlling one's hunger and desires. Imagine the humor of that!" To hold himself together mentally, Pramoedya turned once again to writing. At first he was not allowed to have pencils and paper, and he formed his stories by telling them aloud to the other inmates. Later, prison regulations were relaxed slightly, and Pramoedya's fellow prisoners worked to provide him with writing implements.
In 1979 Pramoedya was released from prison, partly as a result of intercession by the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and placed under house arrest in Jakarta. Although his writings were mostly banned, he was allowed to write, and he turned his prison stories into a linked series of four novels, known as the Buru Quartet. The four books were Bumi Manusia (translated as The Earth of Mankind , 1991), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations , 1993), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps , 1993), and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass) . These books, especially the first one, were hailed internationally as masterpieces and were translated into some 20 languages. Set in Indonesia in the early twentieth century, they traced the mechanisms of colonial repression through the interlocking tales of an Indonesian and a Dutch family. The central character, an Indonesian named Minke who narrates several of the books, was based on an actual figure, a journalist named Tito Adi Surya who was influential in early Indonesian nationalism.
Despite the acclaim Pramoedya was receiving, his books, including the Buru Quartet, remained banned in Indonesia through the 1990s. Asked by Michigan Today why the Quartet books were banned even though they dealt with Dutch colonial power in Indonesia, Pramoedya replied, "Well, apparently Suharto identified with the target!" Indeed, Pramoedya became an international symbol of creative freedom, and he was given the prestigious Freedom-to-Write Award by the international PEN writers' organization in 1988. With the rise of Internet technology, scanned copies of Pramoedya's books began to find their way into Indonesia and to circulate clandestinely. Although the ban on his works was never formally listed, copies of the Buru Quartet were available in some Jakarta bookstores by the early 2000s.
The Suharto dictatorship was faced with rising dissent in Indonesia in the 1990s, especially after the country faced hardships resulting from the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Pramoedya penned a series of newspaper essays supporting the efforts of dissidents. His works of the 1990s, in addition to the memoir The Mute's Soliloquy , included the historical novel Arus Balik (Turn of the Tide , 1995). It was the publication of The Fugitive in 1990 that drew attention to Pramoedya in the United States. He also translated a variety of Russian and American novels into Indonesian, and many of his earlier short stories were translated and issued in collections in the West. Pramoedya signed a multi-book publishing deal with the large Morrow publishing house, which promoted his works in the United States.
After Suharto's fall in 1998, Pramoedya was officially liberated and allowed to travel freely. He visited the United States in 1999 and received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Michigan. Although Indonesian politics were liberalized in the early 2000s, leading to the inception of free presidential elections, Pramoedya viewed such developments skeptically, pointing to the continuing influence of the country's military. He was likewise skeptical of the infusion of Western capital into the developing country, telling Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive that "now is the absolute victory of the multinationals. Now, in reality, the whole of the Third World hopes for the aid of capital…. There is an alternative. That's what Sukarno taught. Do not invite capitalism, but if you want to develop, it's OK to borrow money. I'm against capitalism but not capital."
Pramoedya continued to write and to develop innovative ways of incorporating Indonesian history into his work. His 2001 book Perawan Remaja dalam Cengkraman Militer (Young Virgins in the Grip of the Military) dealt with the sex slavery imposed during the Japanese occupation of Java; although documentary in nature, it was written in the form of a novel. Discussions about filming the Buru Quartet story stalled, Pramoedya told Michigan Today , after "an American filmmaker told my editor in this country the movie would have to be based on Minke's fair-skinned first wife Annelise rather than Minke. Otherwise, he said, there would be too many little brown people running around for an American audience!" Pramoedya was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but never won. He suffered from health problems, brought on partly by a lifetime of smoking Indonesian clove cigarettes, and he died in Jakarta on April 30, 2006.
Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir , trans. Willem Samuels, Hyperion, 1999.
Catholic New Times , June 20, 1999.
Financial Times , May 1, 2006.
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