“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