Beaten, banged up but still unbowed

May 18, 2001

Pramoedya Ananta Toer has endured prison and had his books banned. But at 75, international recognition has finally beckoned. C. W. Watson reports.

Book burnings and raids on libraries have been the sign of intolerance and extremism the world over - from Adolf Hitler's Germany to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Now censorship by brute force has spread to Indonesia, with militant Muslim groups attacking book shops and libraries deemed to be promoting leftwing literature. One target is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, by far and away the country's greatest living literary figure. The attacks have in part succeeded, with Gramedia, the largest book chain in Indonesia, removing his books from its shelves. On Sunday, intellectuals are staging a protest in Jakarta.

Ironically, the attacks coincide with a resurgence of interest in Pramoedya's work, both in Indonesia and internationally. Some even hoped that he would win the Nobel literature prize this year, when it was revealed that it was likely to go to an Asian writer.

One reason why he may not have got the prize, which went to the Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, is that, despite his high standing in Asia - his novels are set texts in Malaysia and are widely available in translation in China, and he was recently given prestigious awards in Japan and the Philippines - he is little known among Anglophone readers. The only English translation that is at all familiar is that of a remarkable quartet of historical novels. Often known as the Buru quartet because they were composed when Pramoedya was a political prisoner on the remote eastern Indonesian island of Buru in the 1970s, the collection was published by Penguin in Australia and is little known elsewhere.

But there are signs that Pramoedya may at last be finding an English readership. His recent frank and moving memoir The Mute's Soliloquy has been internationally distributed. A new translation of an early novel, Perburuan (The Fugitive), has just been published by Penguin. And recently, a new publishing house in Jakarta, Equinox, run by American Mark Hanusz, has republished some of his early works that had been languishing in academic journals. At the moment sales of these reissued translations, Tales From Jakarta and It's Not an All Night Fair , are restricted to Southeast Asia, but it is hoped that the easing of copyright restrictions will make them more widely available.

This renewed interest was not unexpected once Suharto and his New Order government fell from power in 1998. Even after Pramoedya's release from prison in the 1980s, the New Order refused to let him travel abroad and banned his books - a ban that is still in place, although not enforced - and consequently as long as Suharto was in power, Pramoedya's work was confined to samizdat publications in Indonesia.

But since 1998, Pramoedya has had the opportunity to travel to the United States, Europe, Japan and the Philippines. Now 75 and suffering from deafness induced by blows to his head when he was in prison, Pramoedya has found these trips tiring but exhilarating. He lives in a village about an hour's drive from Jakarta, does a little farming and occasionally visits the city for television interviews or book launches. Thanks to the greater openness of the present regime, a young generation of Indonesians is able to appreciate his work.

Although Pramoedya's style has been consistently realist with an emphasis on social injustice, it can be divided into three main periods: autobiographical realism (1947-56); social realism (1956-65); and historical realism (1980 onward). His early writings were drawn largely from early childhood in Blora in central Java. Other novels and stories record his later observations of the revolutionary era when Indonesians were fighting for their independence and when Pramoedya found himself imprisoned for the first time, on this occasion by the Dutch. One of his best-known novels Keluarga Gerilya (Guerrilla Family), a disturbing account of the social turbulence of the time, belongs to this period.

The social realism that followed was influenced by the impact on Indonesia of the cold war. Not only was the nation forced to take up a position with regard to the super-powers, but Indonesian intellectuals were individually challenged to make a choice. Regarding American pressure as essentially neo-colonial in its intentions and true to his early championing of the underclass in Indonesian society, Pramoedya found himself a natural ally of the leftwing writers, and artists' organisation Lekra.

Another well-known Indonesian writer of the time, Mochtar Lubis, opted to support the Americans and was championed by the CIA-funded Congress of Cultural Freedom.

As the cold war intensified and writers on the right and left, including Pramoedya, attacked each other in print, the political weight shifted against Lubis, who was imprisoned and had his books banned.

At this time, Pramoedya was beginning to delve into Indonesian history, especially literary history, and was constructing an account of the development of a nationalist consciousness among early Indonesian radicals, which was dramatically different from the Dutch-inspired orthodox version. His failure to speak out against the ban on the writings of Lubis and his companions and his attacks on them is still remembered with much bitterness by them. Pramoedya's response is that the polemics need to be understood in the context of that period in Indonesia's political history. And certainly the restrictions on the liberty of the pro-American writers pale into insignificance when compared to the treatment meted out to Pramoedya and fellow Lekra members later.

Arrested in 1965 and never formally charged, Pramoedya was first imprisoned in Jakarta before being sent to Buru, from where he was released in 1979. All his papers, both a carefully collected archive of research materials and the drafts of several books, were burnt or disappeared when a mob attacked his house on the night of his arrest.

Admirers of Pramoedya's novels each have their favourites. My own preference is for the earlier autobiographical works that graphically convey an immediate sense of a particular time and place, Blora in the 1930s and after 1940s, through a series of impressionistic and poignant vignettes. They also wonderfully capture the sufferings and emotions of individuals caught up in the events of the time. Other readers, especially the younger generation eager to understand the dynamics of the late colonial period and the development of Indonesian nationalism, prefer the Buru quartet with its central character, Minke, the Dutch-educated Indonesian aristocrat whose career unfolds against the political developments of the early 20th century. The four volumes of the quartet came out soon after Pramoedya's release from Buru. Apparently, having initially been denied pen and paper, he had originally composed the novels in an oral version that he recited to his fellow prisoners.

Another post-Buru work that has won critical acclaim is Gadis Pantai - available in English translation by Harry Aveling as Girl on The Beach . This had originally appeared in serial form in a literary supplement that Pramoedya edited in the early 1960s that, fortunately, was preserved in university libraries overseas. It recounts the life of a young girl on the north coast of Java at the end of the 19th century and describes how she becomes the subordinate wife of a revered Muslim scholar and what happens when she is turned out of the house. Again it is a striking historical evocation of a specific cultural milieu imaginatively recreated in the feelings and perceptions of the young girl.

In March this year, Pramoedya attended the launch of the translation of It's Not an All Night Fair , one of his Blora novels, at the British Council in Jakarta. Among the guests were a number of fellow journalists from the early 1960s, who like Pramoedya had had a difficult time under Suharto. But the general mood was one of optimism for the future. Ironically, given present events, Pramoedya said he hoped that the formal banning of his books would soon be lifted. He talked about his boyhood in Blora, but when asked whether he would write any further autobiographical accounts of that period, he said no, that the novels, short stories and memoir contained everything.

Taken together those works are an eloquent and powerful testimony not only to the swings of fortune in the life of an exceptional individual, but also to the extraordinary twists and turns of Indonesian post-colonial history in the 20th century. Let us hope that it is a testimony that becomes more widely known, despite the continued attempts to silence him.

C. W. Watson is senior lecturer in the department of anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury and translator of It's Not an All Night Fair .

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