Tag Archives: Dutch colonialism

Pramoedya’s own retrospect

“We hardly know anything about the world, and the world knows nothing about Indonesia.”

pramoedya-ananta-toer_20170206_071306.jpg

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…”

pramoedya.jpg

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

Advertisements

The final volume of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet

I bought and began reading the first volume (This Earth of Mankind: (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language) of the Buru Quartet by Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) in the Jakarta airport. It was spellbinding. It would have had to be to take me away from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the Garuda departure lounge!

There is a whole lot of soap opera and colonial injustice in the first two volumes (Child of All Nations is the second). By the third, Footsteps (Jejak Langkah, fkrst published in 1985), Minke has left medical school and become a fulltime anticolonialist journalist and activist. At the end of the volume he is exiled to the distant island of Ambo and denied any contact with his business, personal, and/or political confederates on Java. Footsteps largely buries Minke’s story under political intrigues.

61qQ4PdDUiL.jpeg

The narrator of House of Glass (Rumah kaca, first published in 1988) is Jaques Pangemanann, a Catholic Menadonese (native but not Javanese) who rose to be the first native police commissioner and moved to the secret police as the expert formulating tactics to prevent nationalist awakening and the consequent anti-colonialist agitations. Educated at the Sorbonne, married to a French woman, and of higher official position than almost all the Europeans in the government of the Dutch East Indies, Pangemanann not only recommended exiling Minke, but also accompanied him into (internal) exile. Moreover, Pangemanann has the manuscripts of the three volumes of Minke’s memoirs and has studied them closely (better to understand the threat of awakening consciousness of failure of the colonial regime to live up to its avowed principles or even its laws, plus Minke was in touch with a Chinese nationalist and of Japanese and Filipino nationalist self-assertions).

Pangemanann is a complex character, painfully aware of the system’s racism, exploitation, and shirking of any “civilizing mission.” He seems to me preternaturally (which is to say unbelievably) aware of “contradictions” in the colonial system and of the tide of history (awakening nationalism in Asia and offshore islands) and in his narrative analyzes events in the framework of a late-20th-century (which is to say anachronistic) perspective.

Pangemanann clings to power, even as his family implodes. He has no friends and is greatly resented by his bosses and by his compatriates. Like Europeans going to pieces in the tropics, Pangemanann takes heavily to the bottle. Despite being incapacitated by illnesses and by plain inebriation, Pangemanann keeps his footing in the slippery bureaucracy, and succeeds in hobbling the organization Minke left behind.

Though Pangemanann is a rounded character, his plight and effective manipulation of potential dissidents does not seem to me to support a 384-page novel. Minke does not return from exile until page 296, his mother-in-law (the most riveting character in the first two volumes) later still.

I am confident that very few Anglophone readers have the key(s) for the account of incipient dissident activity and leaders on Java in the first two decades of the 20th century. As characters in a novel, only one of them (a woman) makes much of an impression (on Pangemanann or on the reader!).

House of Glass could be read as a modernist novel about the unraveling of an official whose life is acute bad faith —insofar as he is betraying his own people, Indonesians, to maintain exploitative and condescending Dutch rule. If religion rather than point of origin was the basis for his identity, Pangemanann was not betraying “his own kind,” acting for the interests of the Christian aliens against the Muslims of Java, but Pangemanann constantly sees himself as a “native,” mistrusted by the Dutch even more than by the Javanese, most of whom hope he might be a patron or mediator with the Dutch for them. The basis for allusions to Minke and his trilogy of memoirs do not need to be understood to follow the plot of House of Glass. But I think that This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations are more gripping narratives, reasons other than beginning at the beginning not to plunge into House of Glass.

pramo_1986.jpg

In that the books were banned until Suharto was finally overthrown, at the back of my mind while reading the Buru Quartet was “What’s subversive here?” The whole quartet takes place before 1920. The injustices are those of the European colonizers, not of the post-colonial kleptocracy. Minke is a nationalist (and Pangemanann thinks of the Indonesian people and even colonized people as a “we” to which he belong) and Suharto came to prominence fighting (very ineffectively it must be granted) the re-establishment of Dutch colonialism after Japan surrendered control of Indonesia.

I guess that consideration of the functioning of secret police manipulating dissent was not something the Suharto autocracy wanted exposed, even if it was a past and enemy regime.

Supposedly, the Buru Quartet was first told to fellow prisoners at the remote Buru island prison. The complexity of the earlier volumes made me question how much the text could correspond to oral composition/recitation (mindful that the very long Ramayana and Mahabharata are the staples of Javanese puppet theater). I find it even more difficult to imagine prisoners being interested in the details of the disturbed life and nefarious activities of a colonial official in the 1910s. But there is not any of the class analysis that might have alarmed Pangemanann successors in the Suharto regime in Child of All Nations and the nitty-gritty of organizing protest groups in Footsteps.

Pramoedya, who had earlier been imprisoned by both the Dutch and the Sukarno regimes, was imprisoned without being charged with any crimes from 1965 to 1979 and held under house arrest until 1992, banned from publishing (in the early years doing hard labor, he was denied writing instruments). Sympathetic as I am to a writer persecuted as Pramoedya was, I don’t think that House of Glass is as compelling a novel or interesting a document as This Earth of Mankind or The Fugitive, or his own quasi-memoir, The Mute’s Soliloquy.

© 2017, Stephen O Murray

The third volume of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet: Footsteps

I bought and began reading the first volume (This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language) of the Buru Quartet by Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) in the Jakarta airport. It was spellbinding. It would have had to be to take me away from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the Garuda departure lounge!

Minke, who is the first native (Javanese in his case) student in the most elite Dutch high school in Surabaya narrates the first three volumes of the quartet. (Actually, there is another one, but adopted by European parents, this other one is not known by anyone in the school except Minke to be native.)

Minke becomes involved with the Indo (half-blood) daughter of a Javanese concubine (nyai) of a Dutch entrepreneur Herman Mellema. Mellema has ceded control of his burgeoning sugar and dairy empire to Nyai Ontosoroh. Minke marries their daughter, Annelies, in Muslim ceremonies that are disregarded by the authorities when Mellema is murdered and the companies seized by a “legitimate” Mellema son.

Footsteps_1996_book_cover.jpeg

There is a whole lot of soap opera and colonial injustice in the first two volumes (Child of All Nations is the second). By the third, Footsteps (Jejak Langkah, fkrst published in 1985), Minke has left medical school and become a fulltime anticolonialist journalist and activist. At the end of the volume he is exiled to the distant island of Ambo and denied any contact with his business, personal, and/or political confederates on Java. Footsteps largely buries Minke’s story under political intrigues. I find the last two volumes of the quartet less interesting, less gripping than the first two

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The second volume of Pramoedya’s Buru quartet

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.

Child_of_All_Nations_Cover.jpeg

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.

pram.jpg

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

 

The Indonesian Gone with the Wind, not without war, though war is less central than in GWTW

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.

pram (1).jpg

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.

This Earth.jpeg

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