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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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

 

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