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.
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.
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