By Clifford Geertz

by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
translated by Max Lane
(William Morrow, 474 pp., $23)


House of Glass
by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
translated by Max Lane
(William Morrow, 352 pp., $25)



The displacement of political engagement toward literature in authoritarian countries--those with undeveloped, stultified or forcibly shrunken civil societies--is a commonplace. There is nothing like banning parties, eviscerating representative institutions, muzzling the press, incarcerating dissenters, appointing soldiers to ministries of justice and education, and ideologizing popular culture for turning the imaginative writer into a power. Solzhenitsyn and Havel, Ngugi and Solinka, even the fugitive Rushdie, the reticent Mahfuz, or the exported Fugard, make generals, presidents, ayatollahs and party chiefs nervous in a way that their colleagues in less constrained settings seldom attain. There is usually a price for this, and it is often, as the fate of Ken Saro-Wiwa recently reminded us, a heavy one. But that, too, seems to contribute to the public force of the writer.


When this happens, when a novelist or a playwright or a poet takes on political significance as a player in the game-- as someone whom the authorities have somehow to deal with, to bring into line, to isolate, to appease, or to silence--critical judgment is forced in uncomfortable directions. Such writers become emblematic, signs as such. Their lives are rivals to their work, which may come, as a result, to seem almost an ancillary matter, the occasion of their significance rather than the substance of it. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's most famous writer and the country's perpetual candidate for the Nobel Prize (his 1983 curriculum vitae already lists him as a "nominee," whatever that means, and there is something of an international lobby promoting his cause), is surely a case in point. His career has been as political as it has been literary, a matter as much of insurgencies and prisons as of novels, translations, essays in criticism and short stories.


Not that there hasn't been a prodigious flow of those. His first major works, two novels and a collection of short stories, were written while he was locked up by the Dutch between 1947 and 1949, during Indonesia's war for independence. During the Sukarno period, a time of rising ideological passion that ended with the failed coup, the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party and the popular massacres of 1965, he produced no less than eight novels, three collections of short stories, three historical-cum-literary studies (Socialist Realism and Indonesian Literature, The Intellectual Community in the Third World, The Chinese in Indonesia) and fifteen translations (Steinbeck, Tolstoi, Sholokhov, Gorki, Pascal). After Suharto came to power, he was again imprisoned, this time for fourteen years, and passed the time assembling--the verb is exact--the enormous four-volume historical novel sometimes called The Buru Quartet, after the penal colony in which it was composed, on which his fame will surely rest. For fifty years, Pramoedya (the appropriate form of reference for him), who is now 71, has been committed to his trade.


The theme of all his work--aside from the translations and the critical work, which seem to have been mostly ideological gestures--has been the same: the moral dislocations brought into being by the rise, the triumph and (to his mind) the betrayal of Indonesian nationalism. Since his participation, in his early 20s, in the radical and romantic literary movement, the so-called "Generation of '45," that revolted against the combination of literary conventionalism and spiritual earnestness that had grown up in the closing days of colonial rule, Pramoedya has been the chronicler of what he once referred to as the "victim[s] of patriotism and inadequate leadership." His stories are stories of the rages and the desolations of an aborted revolution.


Pramoedya's life has followed the same course, as though he were composing his oeuvre and his career as a single effort, to the point where his works seem intensely autobiographical, even when, as in the tetralogy, they are set in a period other than his own, about predicaments other than his own, with characters at some distance from his own. Born in eastern Java in 1925, the son of a schoolteacher who left a comfortable position in a Dutch "native" school to become an ill-paid headmaster in a nationalist "free" school and a mother from a strongly Islamic family, he left home in his teens during the occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, working for a time for Domei, their press agency, in Jakarta. When the revolution broke out in August, 1945, he joined a youthful guerrilla group which harassed the British re-occupation forces around the capital.


Rather than accept incorporation into the rationalized army of the Sukarno-Hatta Republic--the formation of which set professional Dutch and Japanese soldiers against populist irregulars intent on keeping the cause pure and the struggle unremitting--Pramoedya wandered about revolutionary Java, a scene of intimate treacheries and private retributions, for some months. By the time the Dutch launched the first of their two military campaigns to retake the country, he had gone reluctantly to work for the new government's radio station, "The Voice of Free Indonesia," and he was arrested, tortured, imprisoned and, apparently a hard case, released only at the very end of Dutch rule in late 1949.


During the Sukarno regime, Pramoedya drifted steadily leftward as the regime itself did, sharing first in its popularity and then in its fate. Whether or not he was ever formally a member of the Indonesian Communist Party, he became increasingly identified with it in the public mind, and apparently in his own mind, as its power grew. He journeyed to Beijing and returned an enthusiast. He became the cultural editor of an influential left-wing newspaper, an editorial adviser to the Czech cultural journal Orient, and editor for Indonesian literature for The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Most fatefully, he emerged in 1958 as the leading figure in lekra, or the Institute of People's Culture, the Party apparatus which, in the early 1960s, came to dominate literary and artistic life in Indonesia.


There is much debate about what Pramoedya did or did not do in this period. He has been accused of, and has denied, an involvement in book burning; but it is a matter of record that, amid the increasing hysteria of the Party's massive, near-miss surge toward power (lekra alone claimed a half million members), he called for "smashing," "crushing," "devouring" and "eliminating" non-communist writers, inveighed against the translation of Doctor Zhivago into Indonesian, and generally engaged in what one Indonesian news magazine recently called "terror mental." When, in 1963, twenty-three of Indonesia's leading writers and painters, most of them former compatriots of his in the battle of "the Generation of '45" against late colonial gentility, published a manifesto--a rather anodyne document, actually ("we do not regard any one sector of culture as superior to any other. All [should] work together . . . to the best of their ability")--Pramoedya led a fierce assault against them. This resulted in the suppression of their work, their journals, and, in 1964, the official prohibition by Sukarno of their movement altogether. "Uniformity," as A. Teuuw, the Dutch historian of modern Indonesian literature, mordantly remarks, "had been achieved."


Pramoedya was riding high. He was, for the moment, Indonesia's Zhdanov. But only for the moment: the reversal of fortune, when it came, was swift and total. After the failure of the coup and the accession of Suharto in October 1965, he was dragged from his house amid a hail of stones and the cries of an angry mob. His library and his papers were burned; he was passed through a number of prison camps and again tortured; and finally, along with perhaps 10,000 other "special cases," and still untried in a public court, he was transported to Buru, a small island in the Moluccas. It was not until the end of 1979 that he was released, and then into city arrest in Jakarta.


The first decade or so in this south sea gulag was extraordinarily brutal; many prisoners perished from beatings and starvation. Yet the last two or three years, though grim enough, saw something of a relaxation. Freed suddenly from manual labor, provided with writing materials, and permitted a small study in his barracks, Pramoedya turned from reciting his tale piecemeal to other prisoners to writing, at what seems to have been a feverish pace (the whole is dated "spoken 1973, written 1975"), the 1,500-page tetralogy, of which Footsteps--a better rendering would have been Footprints-- is the third volume and House of Glass the fourth. The first two, This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, appeared in English in 1982 and 1993.


Western critics have been generally at a loss to convey the peculiarly didactic and reiterative quality of Pramoedya's writing in general, and of the tetralogy in particular--its relentless succession of desperately earnest conversations between typified characters in schematized scenes. So they have reached, in worried confusion, for all sorts of Western analogues: Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Dickens, Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and (the only one with very much to be said for it) a television miniseries. It is, in fact, a narrative, or a series of narratives, that consists almost entirely of talking heads explaining and re-explaining themselves to one another over a thirty-year period of political upheaval, almost all of which takes place offstage as summarily reported event--all of which fits oral patterns of literature and the memory devices that sustain them a good deal better than it does the plots and subplots of the realistic novel. The told tale, later transcribed, moves in a different way than a tale that has been constructed from the start as a written text. For the reader used to crises and conclusions, to peripeties of character, and to the seaward flow of cause and consequence, it may seem hardly to move at all.


What Pramoedya has produced in The Buru Quartet is not, or anyway not primarily, a saga, though it traces the career of a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat, oppositional journalist, and pioneer nationalist (a figure based on an actual personage, never that well-known and now largely forgotten) from the end of the nineteenth century through the First World War. It is not a psychological portrait, though the protagonist's self-questionings and self-justifications are as endless as they are arch and formulaic. Nor is it even a moral tale, though the good guys and the bad guys are very clearly marked. It is a sociological tableau: a drawn, re-drawn and re-drawn-again depiction of a multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-racial, multi-cultural society that, challenged to change its nature, merely rearranges its parts.


Pramoedya's hero is called Minke, which, as he says, may or may not mean "monkey," and therefore may or may not suggest the Ramayana, Hanuman, and the simian army that recaptures Sita from the demon king and restores the realm to Rama. The name is given him by a racist schoolmaster, but its Javanese resonances, upon which the novel continuously plays, are rather more complex. Minke is Indonesian nationalism personified. What happens to him happened to it, and to Pramoedya.


The first volume, This Earth of Mankind, is set in turn-of-the-century Surabaya, Indonesia's Hamburg or Marseilles, a polyglot, disorderly passage port where the exiled, the radical and the imaginatively violent tend to wash up. The book immediately plunges Minke--he is in his teens, "the age of a corn plant," and has come there from his village to study in a Dutch school and make himself modern--into an extraordinary swirl of human types. There is his "Indo," that is, Eurasian, schoolmate ("He was taller than me. In his body ran some Native blood. Who knows how many drops or clots"), a violent thug who will become his pursuer throughout his life. ("He thought he knew my weakness. I had no European blood in my body.") There is the immensely wealthy "Pure Blood" Dutch businessman, into whose household, "a castle of puzzles," the thug introduces Minke. There is the businessman's elegant and accomplished Javanese concubine ("Should I offer my hand as to a European woman, or should I treat her as Native woman and ignore her?") who, despised alike by Dutch and indigenes, becomes his protectoress and confidante. (She will return in the final volume after his death, looking for him like a lost son.) There is the beautiful "Mixed Blood" daughter of these two, "white skinned, refined, European face, hair and eyes of a Native," whom he marries and who soon declines and dies in Holland, where he has been forbidden by the colonial government to follow her. There is her brother ("He looked European, except he had brown skin") who is later suspected of murdering the father.


And so it goes. Through the subsequent three volumes, the types pile up, talking their way through allegorized history. A Chinese brothel keeper; a peg-leg French doctor; various sorts of Dutchmen variously placed; and various sorts of Javanese, including his father, a native district chief in the colonial bureaucracy, full of propriety and caution; his steadfast mother, with whom he seems to be always exchanging apologies; his village-educated nationalist cronies, brave, unspoiled and dog-loyal. We get a literary Haji, a Eurasian, a former sailor and recent convert to Islam, who publishes anonymously a novel exposing life on a sugar plantation and departs for Jeddah. We get a Chinese agitator for the Kuomintang who is killed by the secret societies, a wealthy Arab cloth trader with Turkish-educated sons, and, at one giddy point, the Governor General of the East Indies, a hardened soldier who holds palace soirees on preparing natives for the modern age. And, last but not least, we get the petty bourgeois colonial policeman, a Catholic Christian "Native" from the northern Celebes who studied in France and dreams helplessly of returning there. He brings about Minke's arrest and transportation, and it is in his voice, a ventriloquized version of Minke's own, that the last volume is told.


After the expiration of his delicate Eurasian beauty, Minke marries a ferocious Chinese nationalist, born in Shanghai and raised in a Catholic convent. ("[The] cultural barriers between us . . . had been magically made to vanish. . . . [We] had come out of the same factory called the modern age.") When she too soon wastes away and dies, he marries an exotic, dark-skinned Princess from the extreme Melanesian east of Indonesia. ("She was tall and slender and her skin was an attractive ebony color. . . . Perhaps she had Portuguese blood.") Along the way he manages as well to get himself seduced by the pretty French wife of his repulsive Eurasian lawyer. ("Whose child was now growing in Mir's womb? . . . Who would it look like? Me, Mir, or Hendrik? Would it be Native, Eurasian, or White?") "The Indies," he says, the Indies Pramoedya has placed him in, "is just an untamed jungle and I am just one of its million monkeys."


Minke's attempt--a quixotic, confused, or, since history finally is on his side, merely premature attempt--to tame the jungle and replace its million monkeys with a modern, self-propelling, organized national community is the subject of Footsteps, the axial novel in the series and the one that is most transparently based on Pramoedya's own struggles. Set in Batavia, the colonial capital ("Not as busy as Surabaya. And so clean") during the first two decades of the century, when the nationalist movement emerged for the first time as a visible public force, the book traces, though again largely through set-piece conversations, his meteoric career as a journalist, agitator, organizer, conspirator and ideologue. Beginning in exultant promise ("Into the universe of Betawi I go--into the universe of the twentieth century. . . . I am here . . . to do great things . . . to free [humanity] from the unnecessary ties of custom, blood--even from the land . . ."), it concludes, barely a dozen years later, in treachery, defeat and exile. "All that I have built has been destroyed . . . [I have been] pierced from the front and stabbed ... from behind....I will be leaving Java....Things will go hard for me now. I have always been hard with the world."


In the end, with the crushing of radical nationalism after the First World War, and their leaders--Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir--sent off to their own Devil's Islands, the monkeys remain an undisciplined, chattering throng, powerless and divided. His newspaper long closed by the authorities, his nationalist organization passed into careerist, collaborationist hands, his wife disappeared as though she had never existed, Minke is released from prison and returned to Java. Unbowed, he refuses to sign a document promising abstention from politics--"[Do] you want me to sign my own death sentence without there having been any trial, just as I was sentenced to exile without any trial?" Apparently poisoned by yet another brutal Eurasian, he soon dies, "leaving behind in this world only the imprints of his footsteps."


Minke's story may be over, but Pramoedya continues to leave footprints. He has been under city arrest in Jakarta, forbidden to travel or to make public appearances. His books are banned in Indonesia. Students have been jailed for attempting to distribute them, though they usually circulate for a while before disappearing, and in neighboring Malaysia they are required reading in the schools. His international audience is immense: his publishers claim a million people in twenty languages. Pramoedya savages the Suharto government at every opportunity. "It is I who should give them amnesty," he told reporters from The Economist when they came round recently to see if he was mellowing. He has just edited the memoirs--they were also immediately banned--of a Chinese minister in Sukarno's last cabinet, who refers to "The Smiling General" as "blunt" and "cruel."


But all that, by now, is standard on the Jakarta scene: Hanuman at work. It was the decision by a committee in Manila last summer to give him the Ramon Magsaysay Prize that thrust Pramoedya back into his old role of cultural lightning rod--that made him, his career and his work the focus once again of a deep and divisive public debate. Ramon Magsaysay, the reformist president of the Philippines in the mid-1950s, put down the communist-led Huk rebellion, warred on corruption, and sought to improve the condition of the Philippine poor. He remains in many circles in Southeast Asia an exemplary, almost sainted figure, especially in the light of what followed him. After his death a foundation was set up, in large part with American money, to award a prize in his name to Asian journalists, writers and artists who represented the ideals--democracy, freedom and peaceful progress--for which he is held to have stood. And the notion of the people in Manila that Pramoedya, the ex-commissar, was such a figure, broke upon the Indonesian intellectual community like a return of the repressed.


Twenty-six of the country's most prominent artists and writers, erstwhile opponents of Sukarno and objects of Pramoedya's lekra assaults, immediately protested. About as many, most of them also ex-targets of his, and all of them critics of Suharto, protested the protest. A former winner of the prize--a passionate anti-Sukarno and anti-Communist journalist who won it nearly forty years ago, when times were different--returned it to Manila. A leading poet, who remembered mass meetings at which he and his friends had been cast into outer darkness as counter-revolutionaries, suggested that Pramoedya might deserve the Lenin Prize, the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, or even the Literary Prize of the Jakarta Arts Council that the poet himself had won, but not a prize named for Magsaysay, and that the Foundation had thrown mud upon its own principles.


A former anti-Sukarno youth leader, now a sociologist, agreed that Pramoedya's sins should not be forgotten, but insisted that he deserved the prize as Indonesia's finest writer; and in recognizing that fact, and accepting it, those who had fought the culture of denunciation that Pramoedya once represented could demonstrate that it had been truly overcome. Another such youth leader and later editor of the country's leading news magazine, now himself in the courts struggling to overturn a ban put on his magazine by the Suharto government, said that "Pramoedya has already been imprisoned for thirteen years in a prison colony without trial, and has been unable to speak in public for thirty years. Isn't that too much? Isn't that enough?"


Apparently it was neither: Pramoedya was forbidden to go to Manila to collect his prize. His wife picked it up for him. Meanwhile the writer sits in Jakarta, writing (most recently, one hears, a thoroughly intransigent, in-your-face diary of his Buru years) and trying to outwait history and Suharto. The general is three years older than the writer, and he seems to be gearing up to run for another five-year term in 1998. The country has changed enormously since both began their careers a half century ago, but the structure of feeling changes, apparently, more slowly than the production system or the transport network. A voice of and from the past, Pramoedya still seems capable of disturbing the present, however separated he has become from its workings. "The writer continues to develop," he once wrote, "but not his writing."


(Copyright 1996, The New Republic)



Java jive, in: The New Republic, vol. 212  (April 22, 1996), pp. 31-34


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