Theatrical novel about a Javanese fugitive from a failed rebellion against the Japanese colonizers

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born Pramoedya Ananta Mastoer in 1925 in Blora, the capital of the Blora kabupaten (regency) in the northeastern part of Central Java province of the Dutch East Indies. Dropping the honorific “mas,” like Sukarno and Suharto he initially believed in the Japanese promise of the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere would be an improvement over Dutch colonialism, but was disappointed by the new colonial regime’s brutality and racism (the Japanese considering themselves a “race” superior to others). Pramoedya supported the Republic declared by Sukarno following the surrender of Japan and was imprisoned by the re-established Dutch in Bukit Duri (in South Jakarta) from 1947 to 1949 (when Indonesia attained independence and Sukarno came to power).

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There, he wrote his first novel Perburuan, which was published in Indonesian 1950. Four decades later, two years after he was selected for the PEN /Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, as The Fugitive it became the first Pramoedya novel translated into English — at a time when he was under house arrest and all his writings were banned in Indonesia and possession of any of them was a criminal offense.

The novel is more than a little like a Javanese shadow play, with three lengthy dialogues preceding a dramatic conclusion. I found it harder to get into than This Earth of Mankind (the first of the quartet of novels that Pramoedya told fellow prisoners in Buru Prison when he had been denied access to writing materials), which grabbed me immediately.

Especially the first two scenes in which Hardo, who had been in command of a platoon of Indonesian Volunteer Army soldiers for the Japanese occupiers, and was sought by the Japanese after a failed rebellion, speaks to the father of his fiancée, the current headman of a Blora town of Karangjati, and then with his father, who was village head until Hardo’s “treason” led to the Japanese replacing him.

Both of the first two chapters/scenes include something akin to refrains, that is, repeated formulae (“I’m going to the stars” in the first, “I’m not your son” in the second).

The third chapter includes three scenes. In the first, Hardo meets up with another (less recognizable to the Japanese) Indonesian platoon commander turned rebel and fugitive, Dipo. Both, clad only in loincloths, have mixed into the (large) population of beggars.

Dipo is bent on revenge against a third, the best soldier, Karmin, who was supposed to rise with them against the Japanese, but was distracted by his wife deserting him. Pretty much everyone in Blora except Hardo considers Karmin a traitor.( “Public opinion, regardless of truth, is able to perpetuate itself,” Pramoedya remarks.)

In the following scene, Karmin convinced his Japanese commander to let him search where Hardo’s fiancée, Ningsih, lives with another teacher. He makes sure there is nothing compromising there before the Japanese commander arrives with her arrested father. Karmin entrusts Ningish with a message for Hardo.

The final chapter, the shortest, provides a swift multiple climaxes, as news of Japan’s surrender reaches Blora and there is a final tragedy. As in shadow plays, Good triumphs, but at a high cost and with Evil never eradicated.

Pramoedya told the Buru Quartet before he could write it down. The Fugitive seems even more oral to me. Both were composed in prison. Pramoedya could not publish under the re-established Dutch East Indies government, but could write. After the confusing rising (or hoax of a rising), Pramoedya was imprisoned for fourteen years and under house arrest until the fall of Suharto. Not just a banned writer, he was a prison writer, and a prison story-teller when he could not write anything down.

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The short novel (164 pages in English) did not develop rounded characters (shadow puppets are two-dimensional, not rounded) but shows complexity in the characters of Hardo and Karmin. The latter protected the former from within the Japanese colonial establishment, while Ningsih’s father betrays Hardo and is a toady to the Japanese.

Once I got into the rhythm of the speaking (and it is very easy to imagine each chapter being presented onstage), I found the book a very interesting take on complexities of “collaboration” and “resistance,” matters that have particularly interested me in recent years given US military ventures (in other Muslim lands than Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country) though there is nothing in The Fugitive to indicate the Javanese are Muslim or that the author was “leftist”; evidence that his nationalism came with recognition of ambiguities of motives and opportunities.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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