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