Ten Best San Francisco (-Set) Novels (in chronological order of first publication)

Many outstanding movies, starting with von Stroheim’s “Greed,” based on McTeague by Frank Norris, and including John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Alfred Hitchcock’ “Vertigo,” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been set in San Francisco. Here I’m spotlighting the best novels set in San Francisco.

Both of the first two books on my list of best San Francisco-set novels were the basis of great movies. McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s butchered (from ten hours to two and a half) 1924 masterpiece, Greed. The title character is an unlicensed Polk Street dentist whose patient/fiancée Trina wins a lottery ($5K) which does not bring the couple happiness.


“The stuff dreams are made of,” The Maltese Falcon in the 1930 novel of that name Dashiell Hammett is a statuette. It was adapted into a good movie with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez in 1931, titles “Satan Met a Lady” (actually that is the title of the 1936 version of the pre-Code movie re-release of which was barred; in 1931 it was titled “The Maltese Falcon”). The 1941 John Huston adaptation with Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart (not to mention Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Eishu Cook Jr.) is credited as being the first noir movie. It is an instance in which the movie is better than the book. It, too, could have been titled “greed,” the paramount motivation of most of the characters, though detective Sam Spade has some commitment to loyalty.


A lot of other noir movies were set in San Francisco, but as a location for fiction, there’s not much of note through the WWII and postwar times. crime/pulp novelist Charles Willeford III (best known for the 1955 Pick-Up) set Wild Wives (1956) in San Francisco.

Tales of the City was a serial (first in the Pacific Sun, then in the San Francisco Chronicle) by Armistead Maupin bound into an episode novel Tales of the City in 1978, with seven sequels, most recently, Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). The series centers on transsexual Anna Madrigal and the house o Barbary Lane where she mothers tenants, including a girl whose biological father she was, the perky gay Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the more careerist news reporter Mary Ann, and the womanizing Brian. Lord knows, there are plenty of local and topical references in the series.


Vikram Seth. Who is best known as the author of the massive A Suitable Boy (1993) had earlier written a novel in verse about San Francisco yuppies, Golden Gate (1986). Gore Vidal called it “The Great California Novel” and it is the basis for an opera that has been workshopped. (A musical “Tales of the City” recently ran at ACT in San Francisco, and three operas based on McTeague have been written.)


The rest of the books on my list reach backward in time. My favorite (and shockingly out of print) is Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory (1990), which is primarily set in 1914-16 (i.e., before US entry into the European war). The narrator recalling the love of his life might be considered a gay precursor of Max Tivoli (see below). He is also named Max: Max Kosegarten. The love, before going to college and an accident separated them was Duncan Taqdir, son of a Persian sculptor and an English archeologist (an “exotic”). Max’s mother was also having an affair with Duncan’s father. Stadler evokes not only requited first love but also the post-Earthquake San Francisco, back when the Sunset District was unpopulated sand dunes. Stadler also wrote a moving story of an expat from San Francisco to Paris family, the San Francisco born only child of Michael and Sarah Stein (who discovered Picasso before Michael’s sister Gertrude…) Allan Stein (1999) that is in print and deserves to be better known (it takes place in Seattle and Paris, btw).


China Boy (1991) by Gus Lee is an autobiographical novel that begins with Kai Ting is the youngest child of parents who fled Mao, being beaten up by a Panhandle vicinity bully Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting builds up his puny body (A Chinese American Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk)). The Tiger’s Tail (1996) is not exactly a sequel. Jackson Kan, its protagonist, like Lee went to West Point. The novel s set south of the Korean DMZ in the bitterly cold winter of 1973, with flashbacks to killing a young girl in Vietnam. Bill Lee’s 1999 memoir Chinese Playground is not a novel, but deserves to be better known an account of growing up on the mean streets of San Francisco Chinatown.


Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) chronicles three Chinatown daughters of a sweatshop seamstress and a merchant seaman (laundryman) from the 1960s through the 90s. The suicide of the middle one is the pivot of the novel, and the other two leave The City, the oldest one for the ‘burbs, the youngest for NY. It is less melodramatic than Tan’s novels, but I would not say it is unmelodramatic!


Amy Tan’s novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) has a large cast of characters, San Francisco daughters of China-born mothers. The numbers are reduced to a mother-daughter pair (Lu Ling and Ruth) in her best novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, published in 2001.Well, the “auntie” who raised Lu Ling is also a major character (who knows where the ancient bones of “Peking Man” are), and the China parts are more interesting than the San Francisco ones. It, too, has served as the basis for an opera (by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Tan, premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).


Its reverse-aging gimmick kept me from reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli when it appeared in 2004, despite having much admired Greer’s novel The Path of Minor Planets (set on a small island in the South Pacific to which American astronomers have repaired in 1965 to watch Comet Swift). When I picked it up, I was entranced and moved, as well as intrigued by the historical detail of Max between 1871 and 1941.


I did not wait long after the publication of Greer’s next novel, The Story of a Marriage (2008) set in the Sunset District ca 1953 with frisson or racial differences and homosexuality during the McCarthy era (yes even at the western edge of the continent).


For old-time San Francisco color and a San Francisco author who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, the series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries by Oakley Hall (born in San Diego, a graduate of Berkeley) should also be mentioned. The first and best is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998). (BTW, Amy Tan was a student of Hall’s, as was Michael Chabon [Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boy, Moonglows.)

I also want to mention four collections of stories set in San Francisco

The People of the Abyss (aka “south of the Slot”—of the Market Street streetcar line) (1903) by Oakland proletarian writer, later turned Sonoma County gentleman farmer, Jack London

The Man With the Heart in the Highlands (1939[1986]) by Fresno-native William Saroyan

City Limits (2000) by James Toland (stories set in the Mission District)

Burden of Ashes (2002) by Singapore native Justin Chin, whose frustrations at life as a gay Asian American are also central to the performance pieces colleted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (2005)

And a novel set in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried Alive in the Necropolis by Doug Dorst (2008). As “Colma: The Musical” which was not based on the novel notes, the population of Colma is 1200 who are alive and more than two million who are dead).

I am puzzled by when Going to See the Elephant by Virginia native Rodes Fishburne takes place, though it certainly moves around town on MUNI.

Though playing a significant part in romanticizing San Francisco as a city of refuge for nonconformists (not just “beats”) I also have to mention On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957, written some years earlier) , though it is primarily set on the road, not in the cities of the east or west coast.

Some other contenders for consideration (to read), novels that are set in San Francisco”

Caroline’s Daughter (1991) by Alice Adams, a native of Virginia who lived for many years in San Francisco

Maleficus (1999), a newsroom thriller by a former San Francisco Chronicle editor and writer James Toland

the post-punk lesbian Valencia (2000) by Michelle Tea (the Valencia Street corridor used to have lesbian bars and coffee shops; Tea, who was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for many years she hosted monthly queer readings at the San Francisco Public Library)

SoMa (2007) and The Sower (2009) by Kemble Scott

Little Brother (2008) by Torontonian Cory Doctorow

The High Ground: A Novel of Terror in San Francisco (2011) by Mark Cotter

Blood Sucking Fiends (1995), A Dirty Job (2006), You Suck (2007), Bite Me (2010) by Toledo-native Christopher Moore, who has returned to San Francisco after some years on Maui,

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan and its ebook-only prequel, Ajax Penumbra, 1969 (2013) are a little too fantasy fiction for me, but grounded in history, including ships sunk in San Francisco harbor after crews rushed up to Gold Country

(Latinos and blacks are underrepresented across this list, those of Asian descent other than Chinese unrepresented. ACT premiered an interesting play by Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” in 2007, but novels?)




Martin Eden by Jack London

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick

1967 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham

The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston


The most effective weapon of the weak may be parody, but like satire, some will take it literally

Born in Cairo of Lebanese and Syrian Greek Orthodox parents Albert Cossery (1913–2008) spent ten years in the Egyptian merchant marines before starting to write caustic satirical novels in French. He was discovered by Henry Miller and Albert Camus (not a common pairing!). His 1993 novel La violence et la dérision (Violence and derision) translated into English by Anna Moschovakis and published as The Jokers in the estimable New York Review Books series.


Though the setting is not named, it is a port city, presumably in Africa, like Alexandria. Autocrats lacking in any sense of irony or any other sense of humor rule the country. The regime crushes dissent.

As a student, Karim had been an opponent of the autocracy, but has settled down to making kits and avoids any political remarks. If pressed, as when he is hauled into the police who want to eject him from his rooftop apartment the overlooks a thoroughfare, Karim praises the regime and all its functionaries to a degree that makes even the pompous officials uncomfortable.

With his friend Heykal, Karim begins a campaign of parodying the local governor with posters of such extravagant praise that they make him a laughing stock. From that success, they go on to launch a campaign to raise a public statue of the buffoon. Mockery, ridicule, satire are among the weapons of the weak, specialties of Czechs in particular, but available to Arabs, too.

Alas, one of Karim’s former comrades in opposition to the regime, the deadly serious Taher is outraged that serious revolutionaries such as himself are being blamed for the subversive campaign of excessive adulation of the nonentity governor, so even as the central government is blaming the governor for puffing himself up, Taher is bent on conventional (violent) means to combat the government.

Ultimately, the joke is on the jokers and it is unlikely that anything will improve for the governed.

Along with the campaign of out-bombasting the bombastic autocrats, there is a poignant story of the mother of a teacher who has lost her mind, and some tenderness from a friend of her son. And kite-flying. And even hints of redemptive love for a 4-F character.


The novel is a brisk 145 pages.

John Buchan’s introduction provides an overview of Cossery’s life and works.


©2010,2017, Stephen O. Murray


Often charming, often frustrated tale of an impresario in rural Bali and the larger world: Dancing Out of Bali

John Coast was born in Kent, England in 1916. As Britain entered World War II, he left a comfortable post in the City to serve in the Coldstream Guards and then as an officer in the Norfolks. He was one of the few survivors of the Norfolks regiment that tried to defend Singapore against the Japanese invasion and then survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war slave-laborer on the Siam-Burma (Thailand-Myanmar) railroad, experiences of which he related in Railroad of Death (1946) and in the 1969 BBC documentary “Return to the River Kwai.” Coast stage-managed musical productions for fellow prisoners, including some Indonesian ones.

After the war, Coast joined the press department of the Foreign Office in Bangkok and then became press attaché to President Sukarno during the Indonesian struggle for independence, adventures he described in Recruit to Revolution (1952).


In 1950 Coast withdrew from politics and moved to Bali to write and to encourage the gamelan orchestra of Pliatin led by drummer Anak Augung. They developed some ten-year-old legong dancers and others into a dance troupe that pleased that half-Burmese (half-Javanese) President Sukarno. After endless intrigues with enemies of the president and/or of anything involving a white impresario in Denpasar (the capital of Bali) and Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) Coast and his Javanese wife Supianti (called “Luce” throughout the book), he took the orchestra and dancers to a sold-out Broadway run after a sold-out but generally unpleasant (for him and for the Balinese) two-week run in London and then across the US to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and finally back through Phoenix to Miami in 1950. His book Dancers of Bali (1953), was published in England as Dancing Out of Bali (1954), and this title is the one used for the 2004 American edition that includes a foreword by David Attenborough (who worked with Coast on several documentaries) and photos that I don’t think accompanied the original publications (especially since the last one was taken in 2004!).

In some ways Coast’s book is a de facto sequel to Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali (first published in 1946), though Coast readily acknowledges a wife actively involved in the project of bringing Balinese dance/music to western attention (Jane Belo whose money made their life on Bali before WWII possible). The Coasts were able to secure the services of McPhee’s (Belo’s) cook and to feature McPhee’s protégé Sampih (who was nine years old when McPhee’s silent movie of Sampih dancing with a gemelan led by Anak Augung that can be seen an youtube was made). Coast and Anak Augung persuaded Sampih’s teacher, the legendary Mario (I Ketute Maria) to train a promising young (12-year-old) female dancer Ni Gusti Raka, who became in effect the prima ballerina.

training ni gusti raka.jpg

The traditional Balinese dances were single-sex (all male or all female, though sometimes having both male and female roles). Coast commissioned a new dance for Sampih and Raka, which became “The Bumblebee,” which is still performed (a clip titled “Lovers Dancing Like This” can be viewed on youtube with the fanwork done by the male dancer). With government sponsorship (and eventual seizure of control for a Northern European tour in the dead of winter), Coast was given the sonorous title “Technical Expert on Cultural Relations and Information for Countries Abroad” and no salary or cut of the (eventual) profits.


Given that he was making arrangements (living arrangements) for 44 villagers who had never been off Bali before going to Jakarta to perform for the president before a four-day flight to London and some of whom were pre-teens, Coast was necessarily paternalistic (in loco parentis), and was literally a patron of the Balinese musicians and dancers. His narrative does not seem patronizing, though he sounds bemused about finding London prostitutes for some of the adult males in the group and taking them to a New York burlesque show. And the envy for the group that was going abroad was literally lethal (Sampih was murdered after his return). Coast had some friends in high places from his time in the Indonesian government, but also many, many would-be saboteurs of the endeavor, especially in Denpasar (officials feeling passed over by sponsorship form Jakarta and condescending to the rural villagers while proffering Denpasar troupes that performed what Coast considered very watered-down tourist art).

Coast’s memoir of the great Balinese western adventure is bittersweet. The palace intrigues (in an ostensibly socialist and very nationalist palace—in a predominantly Muslim nation in which Hindu Balinese were regarded with good reason as “feudal” and different) dovetail with the portrayals of the new order before the New Order of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the premier Indonesian writer who was also disappointed by how little improvement of life (living standards and dignity) Independence brought Indonesia. (Pramoedya and Coast were both active in the independence movement after the attempted reimposition of Dutch colonialism.)

I don’t know if he presumed that readers would have read his two previous memoirs (his POW one was a best-seller in the UK), but it seems to me to lack introduction particularly of his consort (there were major official obstacles to marrying, though they were married before the trip to London) who is just there. Bits of his own background in the government build up. That the first word of the book is “we,” a pronoun with no antecedent is, I think, revealing of being tossed into the story of his life on Bali, though I’ll gladly stipulate that with some digressions the book pretty much proceeds chronologically from Kuta Bay (his first home on Bali) to Miami (where he saw off the troupe for its government-sponsored European tour without him and his wife).

Although I don’t think that Coast was as good a writer as McPhee, and clearly not as informed an ethnomusicologist, I think that Dancing Out of Bali is informative about Balinese worldview, what George Foster called the peasant “view of the limited good,” Balinese dance, and the perceptions of Anglophone cities by rural Balinese ca. 1950. BTW, they found Bob Hope hilariously funny and were especially charmed by Olivia de Haviland in their Hollywood visits.

There are a lot of illuminating photos. The glossary could be more helpful. It seems to me to include words not in the text and not to include some Balinese words that are in the text. The “short bibliography” was inadequate even for work in English about Bali published before 1953: including Vickie Baum’s romantic novel A Tale from Bali, but not the 1942 publication by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Balinese Character. Along with additional photos and captions, I think the bibliography could have/should have been augmented to include books by Jane Belo, Hildred Geertz, Adrian Vickers, Fredrik Barth, and Unni Wikan.

©2017, Stephen O.Murray

Pramoedya’s own retrospect

“We hardly know anything about the world, and the world knows nothing about Indonesia.”


Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) is the only Indonesian writer (if not the only writer about Indonesia) with an international reputation. (Since I first wrote this review, one Indonesian novel has broken through to international attention: Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan.) Though mostly writing about the past (his own, his family’s, and further back), he was a social realist in the tradition of Maxim Gorky and John Steinbeck (both of whom he read in English). Manuscripts of eight of his books and his archives and notes for others were burned in 1965 when he was also taken away (“rescued” rather than arrested; he never was tried) for 17 years imprisonment that was followed by house arrest and a publishing ban in Indonesia that extended until 1998, after Suharto fell.

Pram (as he calls himself) fought for independence when the Dutch attempted to return to power after WWII. He was imprisoned by the Dutch, then by the Sukarno regime (also without charges or a trial, clearly for criticizing the persecution of Chinese Indonesians), and then by the “New Order” autocracy of Suharto (as a leftist, though, he insisted, he was never a member of the communist party).

He wrote The Fugitive as a prisoner of the Dutch, the Buru Quartet (published abroad 1980-88) and the pieces gathered in 1995 as A Mute’s Soliloquy on the prison island of Buru (though not allowed to take any papers, even a letter from Suharto when he left the island, copies were in the safekeeping of a church on the island).

Having read it after reading half a dozen Pram novels, there was not much new to me in the booklength interview titled Exile (for internal exile that continued even after release from the Buru prison camp to house arrest in Jakarta). After a 2000 stroke, Pram was unable to write and, his own analogy, like a gong, only sounded when struck by an interlocutor.

I found Exile not only repeating views of Pram’s with which I was familiar, especially from A Mute’s Soliloquy, but internally repetitious. He repeatedly criticizes the servility (“unthinking obedience”) of “Javanism” as proto-Fascist (while praising the resistance of the Aceh), never considers how Javanist Sukarno’s rule was. (Sukarno was IMO a very arrogant caudillo to borrow a Spanish term for a leader unbound by law and demanding personal loyalty.) Pram does acknowledge that there was some corruption in the years (through 1965) of Sukarno’s regime, though that pales in comparison to the Suharto family kleptocracy. That the US sought to topple Sukarno and supplied lists of leftists who were killed following the supposed coup attempt that provided a rationale for the seizure of power by the army (i.e., Suharto) and murders of two million Indonesians is beyond doubt, but Pram seemed unable to recognize the mismanagement of economy, the Javacentrism and lack of democracy of Sukarno’s failed state.

The dialogue is mostly about the failure of education, nation-building, and critical thinking in Indonesia. Pram said that Indonesia was better with a rule of law under the Dutch colonial regime that he worked to topple than it was at the time (2003-04), not only during the preceding decades (1965-98) of the quasi-fascist Suharto state supported by the US: “Western colonialism brought some benefits. For example, the unity of Indonesia was created by the Dutch. We learned about administration and governance from the Dutch. We learned about the rule of aw from the Dutch. We also learned about education from them? Education became a tool to apply pressure, to indoctrinate, and to extort money from students…”


There is little about his writing (either process or product). That he typed his work and did not look back at it, let alone revise anything, is not much of a surprise. (And directly connected to not attempting to rewrite the lost manuscripts: “I can write a book only once The surroundings and the mood one is submerged in during the writing can’t be recreated.”) His fiction as well as nonfiction aimed at communicating a critique of patriarchy, authoritarianism, colonialism, and neocolonialism more than it aimed at artistry. Before 1965, he was a public intellectual, working to build a national (Indonesian rather than Javanese) culture and a society of equality (for women as well as for Javanese). By the time he was allowed again to publish, his health had been destroyed.

The book is saddening in the aged social critic’s disappointment in his countrymen (and women), his feeling that his advocacy for the national language, national culture, and social justice failed. I think that Exile is a fairly good introduction to Pram’s biography and philosophy for those interested by reading his fiction.

“Today’s poor people have been impoverished by the elites. Before independence, they were robbed by the colonizers, now they are robbed by the elite…. During Sukarno’s rule, almost everybody was equally poor. If there was corruption at that time, only a small amount of money was involved. Present-day corruption involved billions and billions of dollars.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The final volume of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet

I bought and began reading the first volume (This Earth of Mankind: (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language) of the Buru Quartet by Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) in the Jakarta airport. It was spellbinding. It would have had to be to take me away from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the Garuda departure lounge!

There is a whole lot of soap opera and colonial injustice in the first two volumes (Child of All Nations is the second). By the third, Footsteps (Jejak Langkah, fkrst published in 1985), Minke has left medical school and become a fulltime anticolonialist journalist and activist. At the end of the volume he is exiled to the distant island of Ambo and denied any contact with his business, personal, and/or political confederates on Java. Footsteps largely buries Minke’s story under political intrigues.


The narrator of House of Glass (Rumah kaca, first published in 1988) is Jaques Pangemanann, a Catholic Menadonese (native but not Javanese) who rose to be the first native police commissioner and moved to the secret police as the expert formulating tactics to prevent nationalist awakening and the consequent anti-colonialist agitations. Educated at the Sorbonne, married to a French woman, and of higher official position than almost all the Europeans in the government of the Dutch East Indies, Pangemanann not only recommended exiling Minke, but also accompanied him into (internal) exile. Moreover, Pangemanann has the manuscripts of the three volumes of Minke’s memoirs and has studied them closely (better to understand the threat of awakening consciousness of failure of the colonial regime to live up to its avowed principles or even its laws, plus Minke was in touch with a Chinese nationalist and of Japanese and Filipino nationalist self-assertions).

Pangemanann is a complex character, painfully aware of the system’s racism, exploitation, and shirking of any “civilizing mission.” He seems to me preternaturally (which is to say unbelievably) aware of “contradictions” in the colonial system and of the tide of history (awakening nationalism in Asia and offshore islands) and in his narrative analyzes events in the framework of a late-20th-century (which is to say anachronistic) perspective.

Pangemanann clings to power, even as his family implodes. He has no friends and is greatly resented by his bosses and by his compatriates. Like Europeans going to pieces in the tropics, Pangemanann takes heavily to the bottle. Despite being incapacitated by illnesses and by plain inebriation, Pangemanann keeps his footing in the slippery bureaucracy, and succeeds in hobbling the organization Minke left behind.

Though Pangemanann is a rounded character, his plight and effective manipulation of potential dissidents does not seem to me to support a 384-page novel. Minke does not return from exile until page 296, his mother-in-law (the most riveting character in the first two volumes) later still.

I am confident that very few Anglophone readers have the key(s) for the account of incipient dissident activity and leaders on Java in the first two decades of the 20th century. As characters in a novel, only one of them (a woman) makes much of an impression (on Pangemanann or on the reader!).

House of Glass could be read as a modernist novel about the unraveling of an official whose life is acute bad faith —insofar as he is betraying his own people, Indonesians, to maintain exploitative and condescending Dutch rule. If religion rather than point of origin was the basis for his identity, Pangemanann was not betraying “his own kind,” acting for the interests of the Christian aliens against the Muslims of Java, but Pangemanann constantly sees himself as a “native,” mistrusted by the Dutch even more than by the Javanese, most of whom hope he might be a patron or mediator with the Dutch for them. The basis for allusions to Minke and his trilogy of memoirs do not need to be understood to follow the plot of House of Glass. But I think that This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations are more gripping narratives, reasons other than beginning at the beginning not to plunge into House of Glass.


In that the books were banned until Suharto was finally overthrown, at the back of my mind while reading the Buru Quartet was “What’s subversive here?” The whole quartet takes place before 1920. The injustices are those of the European colonizers, not of the post-colonial kleptocracy. Minke is a nationalist (and Pangemanann thinks of the Indonesian people and even colonized people as a “we” to which he belong) and Suharto came to prominence fighting (very ineffectively it must be granted) the re-establishment of Dutch colonialism after Japan surrendered control of Indonesia.

I guess that consideration of the functioning of secret police manipulating dissent was not something the Suharto autocracy wanted exposed, even if it was a past and enemy regime.

Supposedly, the Buru Quartet was first told to fellow prisoners at the remote Buru island prison. The complexity of the earlier volumes made me question how much the text could correspond to oral composition/recitation (mindful that the very long Ramayana and Mahabharata are the staples of Javanese puppet theater). I find it even more difficult to imagine prisoners being interested in the details of the disturbed life and nefarious activities of a colonial official in the 1910s. But there is not any of the class analysis that might have alarmed Pangemanann successors in the Suharto regime in Child of All Nations and the nitty-gritty of organizing protest groups in Footsteps.

Pramoedya, who had earlier been imprisoned by both the Dutch and the Sukarno regimes, was imprisoned without being charged with any crimes from 1965 to 1979 and held under house arrest until 1992, banned from publishing (in the early years doing hard labor, he was denied writing instruments). Sympathetic as I am to a writer persecuted as Pramoedya was, I don’t think that House of Glass is as compelling a novel or interesting a document as This Earth of Mankind or The Fugitive, or his own quasi-memoir, The Mute’s Soliloquy.

© 2017, Stephen O Murray

The third volume of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet: Footsteps

I bought and began reading the first volume (This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language) of the Buru Quartet by Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) in the Jakarta airport. It was spellbinding. It would have had to be to take me away from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the Garuda departure lounge!

Minke, who is the first native (Javanese in his case) student in the most elite Dutch high school in Surabaya narrates the first three volumes of the quartet. (Actually, there is another one, but adopted by European parents, this other one is not known by anyone in the school except Minke to be native.)

Minke becomes involved with the Indo (half-blood) daughter of a Javanese concubine (nyai) of a Dutch entrepreneur Herman Mellema. Mellema has ceded control of his burgeoning sugar and dairy empire to Nyai Ontosoroh. Minke marries their daughter, Annelies, in Muslim ceremonies that are disregarded by the authorities when Mellema is murdered and the companies seized by a “legitimate” Mellema son.


There is a whole lot of soap opera and colonial injustice in the first two volumes (Child of All Nations is the second). By the third, Footsteps (Jejak Langkah, fkrst published in 1985), Minke has left medical school and become a fulltime anticolonialist journalist and activist. At the end of the volume he is exiled to the distant island of Ambo and denied any contact with his business, personal, and/or political confederates on Java. Footsteps largely buries Minke’s story under political intrigues. I find the last two volumes of the quartet less interesting, less gripping than the first two

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The second volume of Pramoedya’s Buru quartet

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) wrote The Fugitive in Dutch prison in Bukit Duri (in South Jakarta). He told what became “the Buru quartet” to other prisoners in the remote Buru island prison before being allowed to write it down.


The second volume, Child of All Nation (Anak Semua Bangsas), retains almost all the characters of the first volume, This Earth of Mankind (both were published in 1980, while Pramoedya was under house arrest, having been released from Buru prison the year before after 16 years, never having had a trial). The two mixed-blood children of the Dutch adventurer Herman Mellema and the concubine he bought from her parents, Nyai Ontosoroh, are off the stage of Java, either writing or written about from overseas in lengthy letters to Nyai and/or her son-in-law (son in Muslim law, a marriage no recognized by the Dutch). Minke, the first native Javanese to graduate from the elite Dutch-language high school in Surabaya.

Minke is budding writer who after several trials (judicial ones as well as other kinds) starts medical school at the end of the second volume. He is a more filial and more able son to Nyai than her weak and resentful biological son, Robert. Robert is more his father’s son in character (dissolute): contracting syphilis at the same neighboring bordello in which his father was drank himself to death in the first volume, a process that was too slow for the Chinese owner, who poisoned Herman Mellema.

Though the dynamics and most of the characters in the second volume are continuations from the first, there is a mysterious new character, dubbed “Fatso,” who shadowed Minke on Minke’s return from his father’s installation as a bupati (someone of noble blood appointed as a nominal ruler of a district by the Dutch). Who “Fatso” is and what he is up to is revealed only late in the volume, so revelation would constitute plot spoiling.

So would recounting what happens to Khouw Ah Soe, a young Chinese anti-traditionalist missionary who explains the “logic of capitalism” to Minke as well as telling him about the Meiji modernization of Japan, the struggle of Chinese reformers (as the last decade of the Q’ing dynasty is beginning) and Filipino independence fighters (educated by the Spanish, rebelling against US rule).

Others press Minke to write in he lingua franca of Indonesia (Malay, pretty much what is now the official language of Bahasa Indonesian) and to show rather than lecture—even in a book with lengthy lectures from Khouw Ah Soe. I have to say that however useful these lectures are as primers to the condition of anti-colonial ferment in the West Pacific and as history not well known to the Indonesians of Pramoedya’s audience, these slow down the melodrama between extended set pieces at the beginning and end of the novel.

I thought that perhaps I was burning out on Pramoedya, reading the third novel by him in as many weeks, but the finale of Child of All Nations was as gripping a page-turner as the opening of This Earth of Mankind that enthralled me in the Jakarta airport where I purchased it. There are some adventures in the middle, including Khouw Ah Soe’s own, and a tale of a Dutch sugar factory owner determined to take a local concubine against her will supplementing that of Nyai Ontosoroh.

In writing about the first volume I wondered why would this critique of the colonial regime bother the Suharto regime (Reputedly, Suharto himself had the book banned.) The only aspect that I could think of is that Minke is a writer and writes critically of a regime, even though the regime is the Dutch colonial one. The possibility of dissidence was threatening, I guessed (not least remembering the previous US regime…

Child of All Nations is also set at the end of the nineteenth century and critical of Dutch prejudices and domination, the colonial setup that Suharto also fought against after the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere proved to be a chimera. But the analysis of capitalism and of lackeys in the press was more obviously at least an implicit critique of the Suharto kleptocracy that was partially established and certainly maintained by the US, legitimized as making a bulwark against communism (and there were many communists before the murky coups of 1965 that brought Suharto to power and Pramoedya to prison (which was followed by house arrest until 1992). That is, without in any way condoning either banning the book or keeping the author in prison, I can at least see the quest for freedom in a pan-Asian (including the archipelagoes of Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) rejection of western exploitation (“tutelage,” “protection,” whatever) and local corruption seemed volatile, all the more so joined with Minke’s Bildungsroman and the injustices especially on women in the book. (Again, I have to remark on the portrayal in a novel from the world’s most populous Muslim nation of a very strong and competent woman, Nyai Ontosoroh, who is joined by a niece of equivalent resolution, Surati.


The melodrama in both volumes may seem over the top to some readers raised on cool modernism. Those seeking an Indonesian Gone with the Wind would probably prefer the first volume along with the first part of the second. I can’t imagine making sense of Child of All Nations without having read This Earth of Mankind, so would strongly recommend taking the books in order.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


The Indonesian Gone with the Wind, not without war, though war is less central than in GWTW

Far and away the most famous Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), was imprisoned by the Dutch in the waning days of their colonial rule and again for more than ten years (without trial) by the Suharto regime. Denied writing material in prison, Pramoedya was one of the writers most advocated for by PEN. He was released from prison in 1979, but remained under house arrest in Jakarta until 1992, his books all banned in Indonesia, and his Australian Embassy translator into English of it, Maxwell Lane, ejected from the country.

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The tetralogy dubbed “the Buru quartet” after the name of the prison in which he was held for more than a decade was first told to other prisoners at Buru in 1973-75. It is really difficult for me to find anything that could be considered subversive in This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language, which is the one in which Toer consistently wrote), the first volume. It is set in the late-19th century and certainly shows racism (not just of the Dutch colonists, but perhaps even more of the Creoles, referred to as “Indos” condescending to “natives” with no European blood and only one name (like Sukarno and Suharto, but not the triple named author!)). There is nothing at all valorizing the workers. The characters are all in the most elite high school, Javanese sultan’s courts, or rich.

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The narrator, Minke, is of royal blood and is the only native in the colony’s top high school (at least he thinks so until another boy reveals that he is also native rather than Indo half way through the novel). Minke is prickly and hot-headed, and soon enamored with Annelies , the daughter of a leading entrepreneur, the ruthless Nyai Ontosoroh, who runs the businesses of the Dutch man, Herman Mellema, who bought her (as a concubine) from her parents. The property is in her name and as Mellema has sunk into alcoholism and living in a nearby bordello, he has ceded running the businesses to her.

Nyai is filled with rage at her parents and her status, and has found the opposite way to be a good parent, completely sheltering Annelies from realities. Nyai is delighted to have Minke to aid in protecting Annelies from realities and to help her run the Mellema business empire.

Got the romance? The melodrama goes beyond the sort of Indonesian Barbara Stanwyck running things when the Dutch son of Herman Mellema turns up and maneuvers to take control not only of the Mellema businesses but of his half-sister. The soap opera dovetails with a portrayal of Dutch racialist policy that is quite devastating, not least to Annelies, who identifies with her mother as native but outranks her mother and her lover whom she weds, because she is half-European.

Why would this critique of the colonial regime bother the Suharto regime? (And, reputedly, Suharto himself had the book banned.) The only aspect that I can think of is that Minke is a writer and writes critically of a regime, even though the regime is the Dutch colonial one. The possibility of dissidence was threatening, I guess

Though I cringed at some of the soap opera elements, I found the book absorbing and was able to tune out the considerable noise of the Jakarta airport to read the first hundred pages. (Though I’ve known of the author and tetraology for a long time, I was reluctant to launch into four longish books, but had rupiahs to spend in the airport and chose this book to spend them on, paying about a 50% airport store premium, but still having enough to pay for lunch. I don’t regret buying the book, though wish I had bought it before the trip.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray



My favorite Pramoedya novel

I was absorbed by Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai, 1962), his grandmother’s story slightly fictionalized. The girl whose beauty is reported to a local Javanese official (serving under a Dutch Resident) never has a name, even when she begs her parents to call her by her name rather than the “master’s wife” (bendoro’s wife). Her parents don’t quite sell her (like the concubine heroine of the Buru Quartet), but the pale and slender man has had children by a series of discarded wives before this one, and, when she produces a gir, hel divorces her though refusing to allow her to take her daughter with her.


Bora reminded me that a man can divorce a woman by saying “I divorce thee” (four times if I recall) and she must leave immediately. The only insurance is jewelry on her body, which accounts for the weight of bracelets sometimes reaching the armpit. The bendoro of the novel gives enough money to buy two boats to the father of the girl, whom he summoned to take her back, and all the clothes and jewelry she had acquired, though all she cared about was the daughter he had not even bothered to look at, but whose ownership he was unwilling to consider relinquishing. (No child of his could be raised a country bumpkin like her mother…)

I found the novel more gripping than the Buru Quartet. It was the first of a trilogy of novels about the Independence Movement and the author’s family. The other two were destroyed.


There is a wise old servant woman who is sent away after one of the Dutch-educated sons of the master steals money from the girl, and a treacherous aristocratic woman whose mission is to get the master married to an aristocratic Javanese women (being a divorcée, she is out of the running herself). Her fate is interesting as is that of the fishing villager afraid to go out to sea…

The novel moves right along without any of the disquisitions that slow down the Buru Quartet.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Early Pramoedya short stories

According to translator Willem Samuels, “In the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere Pramoedya [Ananta Toer, 1925-2006] is best known for his longer prose works… but in Indonesia the author is more highly respected for his skills as a short-story writer. Unlike in the West, where the noel is prized as the ultimate in literary form, in Indonesia, just as high a value, if not higher is placed on the short story, the novella, and poetry.” Be that as it may, the stories Samuels selected from Stories from Blora (1952) are not going to eclipse the Buru Quartet and The Girl from the Coast. The 70-page-long novella “Acceptance” is for me the most compelling work in All That Is Gone.


“Acceptance” is like some of those Chinese movies (To Live, Farewell My Concubine) in which hopes are dashed and a person and/or a family suffers from one regime as much as from its predecessor. The father of the family in the story is a nationalist schoolmaster, seeking independence from Dutch colonialism, initially delighted to be part of the Asian Co-Prosperity empire of Japan, less delighted when his eldest two sons die fighting for the Japanese in Burma, eager not to have Dutch colonialism restored, and seized by the “Reds.” His elder daughter, Ies, joins the “Reds,” spouts communist formuas, and does nothing to keep the second daughter, Sri, who had to give up schooling and manage the household at the age of eleven, from being drafted to the losing side. “Acceptance” seems too strong a descriptor. The Chinese “eat bitterness” seems quite apt. The family’s “cupboard remained bare” through each “revolutionary” change of regime.


Indeed, “Eat Bitterness” might have been the title for the whole collection, including the elegiac “All That Is Gone,” which shows from an uncomprehending child’s viewpoint his father’s abandonment of the family, the horror story of “Inem,” the narrator’s childhood favorite servant, Nyi Kin, who is married off at the age of eight (her mother thinks this already late marriage!) to a 17-year-old husband who will not postpone sex with his wife until she reaches puberty, and the ironically titled 42-page “The Rewards of Marriage.”

The recollection of “Circumcision” (at age eleven) is relatively light-hearted, at least in comparison to the other contents of the volume, but “In Twilight Born” provides another youngster’s puzzlement about “politics” and the disasters that befall his family. “Independence Day” is an account of a blinded soldier’s bitterness and rejection of his girlfriend. “Revenge” (which appeared first in Indonesian in Dawn, rather than in Stories from Blora) is a horrific account of a pilgrim suspected of being a spy being tortured.

The volume’s opening story, “All That Is Gone,” consists of vignettes from childhood, with a chorus that what the narrator recalls “is gone, carried away and not likely ever to return.” “All That Is Gone” seems the most oral of the stories. The volume’s final story, “The Rewards of Marriage” is a metafiction, that is, the story is willed by an insomniac who explicitly does not elaborate various things, e.g., “Now it is time for our story about marriage and its rewards to reach its end and this is how it goes:”. I was not surprised that the story did not have a happy ending. Much is lost to the characters in these stories (including foreskins). Surviving is sufficiently difficult to come across as being “upbeat.”


The author, who was imprisoned by the Dutch, by the quasi-leftist Sukarno regime, and for decades (without a trial or even an indictment) by the rightist Suharto regime shows common folk in his hometown of Blora (on Java) being buffeted by all parties who have power (of differing durations). Pramoedya suffered plenty himself and was deeply disappointed by the failure of his own side (nationalist and socialist) to behave humanely and to make life better for anyone but the kleptocrats. Mix in a lot of sadism, “pleasure that people took in playing judge,” and “bullet fever” that is not confined to any particular side in the series of conflicts. The book contains a lot of compassion, but not much hope, not much ground for hope. The (character of the) author of the last story tells himself: “You must be willing to tell stories about the loss of hope. People must be made to feel the suffering of others.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray