Tag Archives: Java

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.


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.


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 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.


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


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.

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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.

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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



My favorite Pramoedya novel

I was absorbed by Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai, 1962), his grandmother’s story slightly fictionalized. The girl whose beauty is reported to a local Javanese official (serving under a Dutch Resident) never has a name, even when she begs her parents to call her by her name rather than the “master’s wife” (bendoro’s wife). Her parents don’t quite sell her (like the concubine heroine of the Buru Quartet), but the pale and slender man has had children by a series of discarded wives before this one, and, when she produces a gir, hel divorces her though refusing to allow her to take her daughter with her.


Bora reminded me that a man can divorce a woman by saying “I divorce thee” (four times if I recall) and she must leave immediately. The only insurance is jewelry on her body, which accounts for the weight of bracelets sometimes reaching the armpit. The bendoro of the novel gives enough money to buy two boats to the father of the girl, whom he summoned to take her back, and all the clothes and jewelry she had acquired, though all she cared about was the daughter he had not even bothered to look at, but whose ownership he was unwilling to consider relinquishing. (No child of his could be raised a country bumpkin like her mother…)

I found the novel more gripping than the Buru Quartet. It was the first of a trilogy of novels about the Independence Movement and the author’s family. The other two were destroyed.


There is a wise old servant woman who is sent away after one of the Dutch-educated sons of the master steals money from the girl, and a treacherous aristocratic woman whose mission is to get the master married to an aristocratic Javanese women (being a divorcée, she is out of the running herself). Her fate is interesting as is that of the fishing villager afraid to go out to sea…

The novel moves right along without any of the disquisitions that slow down the Buru Quartet.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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.


“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.


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.”


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