Every book banned is another star, another badge of honor, on my breast. Pramoedya Anata Toer, 1995.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading my first real novel in Indonesian. The book I chose (or rather, was chosen for me) for this momentous milestone in my language learning endeavor was “Gadis Pantai” (Girl from the Coast) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006, hereafter known as "Pram"), one of Indonesia’s most known writers. Although I'd read a number of other books by Pram, this was the first in the native language. Although it was tough going, I really got a feel for the use of the language. The book tells the story of a beautiful young girl born in a poor fishing village on the north coast of Java around the beginning of the 20th century. As a young woman, Gadis Pantai’s beauty becomes known throughout the region until finally a local nobleman sends for her to become his wife. Gadis Pantai struggles with the contrasts between her new life as an aristocrat and her memories of the world she left behind. Although she lives in luxury, she longs to return to her home, her family, and the simple world she left behind.
Pram's most known work is the Buru Quartet (or Tetrology), a series of four historical novels that narrate the story of Indonesian nationalism during the late colonial period. The protagonist, Minke, is based on Tirto Adi Suryo, a pioneer in the field of modern Indonesian journalism. The story begins with during Minke's youth, where as a member of the upper-class he's born into a life of leisure far from the daily toils of the lower classes. However, as a native Indonesian he still experiences the repression of the colonial establishment. Minke begins to question the status quo and eventually becomes a key figure in the nationalist movement. He founds a newspaper and has frequent run-ins with the colonial authorities as he becomes increasingly critical of their policies. The quartet incorporates Pram's extensive research on the history of Indonesia as well as his personal experience and observations, and thus provides profound insight into the forces that led to the creation of the Indonesian nation. Minke's development as a critical thinker parallels Pram's own journey, and we can see a vivid picture of the abuses of the colonial regime and the direct and indirect effects of colonialism on society. Minke is also heavily influenced by two women that play a prominent role in the quartet: his love interest Annilise and his patron Nyai Ontosoroh. Women play a prominent role in much of Pram's work, and he frequently mentioned in interviews that he was strongly influenced by his mother: "In my view, women deliver everything. In the back of my mind is always my own mother--my mother as a teacher, educator, and bearer of ideas."
Pram "wrote" the Buru Quartet while imprisoned on the prison isle of Buru (hence the name) in the 1970s. Although he was denied pen and paper by his jailers, he told the story every night to his fellow prisoners to raise their morale and take their minds of the death and deprivation they witnessed on a nearly daily basis. Pram came to be imprisoned in the wake of a coup d'etat in 1965 which toppled Indonesia's first president Sukarno. Pram had always been a vocal critic of the government, but in the 1950s he became increasingly harsh in his critique. He felt the nation's leaders weren't doing enough to address the poverty and misery experienced by the majority of the population, and that the leadership had betrayed the idealistic values of equality that characterized the revolutionary movement of the 1940s. When Sukarno was deposed, Suharto soon came to power, establishing the authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) regime amidst a mass purge and organized campaign of terror against the opposition. Pram's critiques would no longer be stomached by the government; he was branded a subversive and sent to prison. His personal archives and papers were seized and have been lost to this day. Pram eventually was released from Pulau Buru, but he was kept under house arrest in Jakarta into the 1990s. When the first two books from the Buru Quartet were published in Indonesia in the early 1980s they instantly became bestsellers, but they were soon banned by the Suharto regime on the grounds that they secretly supported "Marxism-Leninism". The books continued to be published abroad and smuggled in, and you can frequently here stories about people reading them in secret.
Pram was considered a threat by the New Order because he questioned the relationship between the individual and established power structures in society that constrain the individual. Not content to simply accept the status quo, Pram constantly examined the nature of power and its often crippling effects on the spirit and aspirations of the individual. Manuaba (2003) describes 4 fundamental aspects of the nexus between power and spirit.
1. Defiling of humanity stemming from extreme differences between socio-economic classes. This theme is developed in Gadis Pantai, where the heroine is constrained and ultimately undermined by her lower-class origins. She is completely at the mercy of her aristocratic husband.
2. The objectification of humans. This theme is also developed in Gadis Pantai. The heroine is treated as a mere object for the pleasure of her upper-class husband. She must sacrifice her desires, her dreams, and even her thoughts to become an accessory to him.
3. The fate of people from lower classes. Pram's writing describe how class-based systems, like the colonial regime, debase humans and limit their potential for growth and development. People are not free to rise above their class and ultimately their fates are determined by the status into which they are born.
4. Violence towards humanity. Pram shows how violence is used to solve problems, to enforce class divisions, and as an expression of frustration and emotion by people that have no other options. Violence is a product of unjust systems of governance.
Pram's novels usually don't have a happy ending, but that's because he felt a strong obligation to support an ongoing transformation in society. One gets the sense of his buried optimism from his works; he is guided by idealistic principles about equality amongst all people.
Pram is regarded as one of the leading Southeast Asian candidates for the Nobel Prize for literature. Over the course of his career he received numerous awards, including the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 1988, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995, UNESCO's Madanjeet Singh Prize in 1996, and the Chevalier de l'Orderes des Arts et des Letters in 1999. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1999.
If you'd like to sample Pram's work, I'd recommend The Fugitive (Perburuan), his first novel published in 1950. This short novel is a good introduction to some of the themes that appear frequently throughout his novels. Pram developed the story while in prison under the Dutch, who returned to Indonesia after World War II to retake control from the Japanese. The story is about a young man returning to his village after participating in guerilla campaigns against the Japanese occupiers. He finds that everything changed while he was away, and falls into a fatalistic acceptance that things will never be the same.
GoGwilt, Chris. 1996. Pramoedya’s Fiction and History: An Interview with Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Yale Journal of Criticism 9:1, pp147-164
Foulcher, Keith. 2008. On A Roll: Pramoedya and the Postcolonial Transition. Indonesian Studies Working Papers #4, University of Sydney. 24pp.
Manuaba, I.B. Putera. 2003. Novel-Novel Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Refleksi Pendegradasian Dan Interpretasi Makna Perjuangan Martabat Manusia. Humaniora 15:3, pp276-284
Toer, Pramoedya Anata. 1982. Gadis Pantai. Lentera Dipantara 2003 imprint. Jakarta, Indonesia, 270pp.