Pramoedya Ananta Toer

By Max Lane
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in Blora, Java, Indonesia, on February 6, 1925, and died in Jakarta on April 30, 2006. Blora was a small but busy town. His father was a teacher in a local nationalist school and prominent in nationalist activity. Pramoedya finished primary school, graduating in 1939, and later went on to study at a vocational school in radio in the city of Surabaya. He worked in a Japanese news agency during the Japanese occupation of the East Indies, where he also learned stenography. He left the agency and moved back to Java during this period.
After the proclamation of independence, he joined a youth militia and then the republican army fighting the Dutch colonial army, during which time he was captured and imprisoned. He resigned from the army after the war against the Dutch and from then on became immersed in the world of literature, although he had already begun writing before this.1
Pramoedya Ananta Toer established his international status as a major writer with the publication of his series of four novels, Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps) and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass). These four novels were based on the life and imagined experiences of Raden Mas Tirto Adhisuryo, a pioneer of Indonesian journalism, literature and national awakening at the beginning of the twentieth century. The four novels were also a sub-set of a greater intellectual and literary enterprise: the exploration and retelling of a new history of Indonesia from the twelfth century through to the early twentieth century.
Prequels to the This Earth of Mankind series are the novels Arok Dedes (Arok and Dedes) and Arus Balik (The Current Turns) and the play Mangir (the name of a village). There was also a lost manuscript, Mata Pusaran. Arok Dedes is set in the twelfth, Arus Balik in the sixteenth and Mangir in the eighteenth century. Mata Pusaran was set in the seventeenth century. Only Arok Dedes has been translated into English. There is a Dutch translation of Arok Dedes and Arus Balik. All these prequels are explorations through fiction of issues that Pramoedya considered central to the course of Indonesian history and to explaining the situation of his country today.
These seven novels and one play were written on the prison island of Buru. Pramoedya was imprisoned on the notorious island for ten years, having been kept for four years in jail Jakarta before this. He was imprisoned without charge or trial between 1965 and 1979. When released, he was issued with a statement confirming that he had not been found guilty of any offence. However, for the next two decades he was required to report regularly to the security authorities.
This project -- to rewrite, from a new Indonesian, rather than Western, perspective -- the whole course of Indonesian history was built upon the previous two decades of writing and literary evolution.
Subversive literature
Pramoedya was detained in 1965 along with tens of thousands of other Indonesians who had been active or sympathetic to left-wing political parties, trade unions, peasant federations, women's organisations and cultural institutions. There are no available figures for how many people were detained and kept in prisons and safe houses during the first years (1965-68) of the military government of Suharto (which lasted from 1965 until 1998). At least 15,000 were kept in prison beyond 1968. Furthermore, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million people were slaughtered in perhaps the biggest act of ideological mass murder in human history.
Pramoedya had been a prominent figure in literature and politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1960-65, his writing began to engage directly with central issues of politics and society. In 1959 and 1960, he wrote frequently attacking what he saw as racially based policies being pursued by the government of the day, which persecuted the Chinese community. In particular, he opposed a new policy banning all Chinese from operating businesses outside provincial capitals, a policy that caused immense suffering to tens of thousands of Chinese families. He attacked the campaign of stereotyping Chinese that some leading right-wing politicians in the government were pursuing. Later these articles were published as Hokkiau di Indonesia (The Chinese in Indonesia, forthcoming in English, 2006) As a result of his defence of the Chinese community in these essays, he was arrested in 1960 and detained for one year without charge or trial. The arrest was carried out under martial law conditions. This was Pramoedya's first direct clash with the rising new militarism.
From at least 1959, Pramoedya was a supporter of the Indonesian president, Soekarno. (Although Soekarno was president when Pramoedya was arrested in 1960, he was unable to get Pramoedya released. Soekarno never had complete control of the government, being unable to bring his main allies on the left, such as the Indonesian Communist Party and the radical left of the Indonesian National Party, into the cabinet in significant positions.) Pramoedya shared with Soekarno his critical view of imperialism and neo-colonialism. Most crucially, he shared with Soekarno the fundamental idea that the Indonesian revolution, which had begun at the start of the twentieth century, was not yet finished. ``The revolution is not completed'', became a battle cry of Soekarno and the Indonesian left wing during the 1960s. This struck a chord with tens of millions of Indonesians, the overwhelming majority.
The conviction that the revolution was not finished flowed from Pramoedya's observation, one shared by tens of millions, that a decade after the national revolution (1945-49) poverty, exploitation, misery, corruption, authoritarianism and feudal behaviour, irrationality and dependence on foreigners had only strengthened. Pramoedya aligned himself with Soekarno and the left of politics, who saw the political organisation of the mass of the people and some form of socialism as the way to complete the revolution.
On the literary front, Pramoedya began using his story-telling abilities to explore the roots of the Indonesian situation: the historical ``why?''. He turned to writing and preparing to write historical novels. Initially, he wrote based on family history. Gadis Pantai (Girl from the Coast) explored the historical roots of the oppression of women with a story inspired by the experiences of his own grandmother: a woman virtually kidnapped by an aristocrat to act as his “practice wife”. During the same period, he began a historical work on the life of Kartini (1880-1904), the extraordinary young Javanese woman, confined to live the isolated life of an aristocrat’s daughter, who was probably the first Indonesian to engage literarily with the ideas of modern Europe. Pramoedya wrote Panggil aku Kartini saja (Just call me Kartini).
During this period also, Pramoedya was researching widely on Indonesian history, questioning the histories that the country had inherited from Dutch scholarship. One central project was researching the period that gave birth to the very idea of Indonesia. This idea, of the peoples of the archipelago being or being able to become one nation, emerged into open discussion only after 1910. Pramoedya began to research the how and the why and also the who of this process. He wrote prolifically in the mass circulation daily newspaper Bintang Timur, bringing the results of his research to hundreds of thousands of readers. This process was also laying the foundations for the This Earth of Mankind series of four novels that he later wrote from memory in the Buru Island prison camp.
His search for the historical roots of independent Indonesia’s situation was the main literary project within Pramoedya’s commitment to the idea of “completing the revolution”. At the same time, he also polemicised vigorously against those who opposed this framework, who did not see the same pressing political priority of saving the revolution. His polemics pitted him against all those writers and artists who stood outside the left. It was these intellectuals who—with just a few exceptions—took over the universities, magazines, education ministries and publishers as a kind of booty after the left were murdered and imprisoned in 1965. Pramoedya held a titular post in the Indonesian Cultural Institute (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyatse—lekra), which was in political solidarity with the Indonesian Communist Party (pki). Pramoedya’s literary struggle for completing the revolution was, however, markedly different than that being promoted by the pki.
The pki was influenced by ideas about cultural activism that came from China under Mao Zedong. The fundamental slogan for cultural work adopted by the pki was “turun ke bawah” (“go down [to the masses]”). The idea was that writers and artists should engage directly with workers and peasants in their daily struggle and present that struggle through their art. In reality, the actual practice of this was complex because different left-wing writers all brought their own angles to this process. Even so, this slogan defined the pki’s approach to culture, including literature. Pramoedya’s emphasis, however, was not on the immediate experience of the people, although he also valued this. His emphasis was on uncovering the historical roots of the contemporary situation, on evaluating the current situation as the outcome of previous social and political struggles and thereby providing a guide for “completing the revolution”. The most common form of literature promoted by the pki was the short story about daily struggle. Pramoedya was looking to write more historical fiction—novels set in the past, not as metaphorical analysis of the present, but as real explorations of past struggles.
Humanist foundation
Pramoedya’s aligning with the idea of “completing the revolution” and his devotion to history represented a qualitative change in his thinking, which had been preceded by a decade of more incremental changes evident in his writing. Pramoedya began writing during the national revolution, 1945-49. His stories were mainly inspired by his direct observation and immediate experiences. He wrote many journalistic pieces, some of which have been recently republished in a book, as well as short stories. His first novel was Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh, written in 1947. In the 1950s Pramoedya published several novels, novellas and short stories. These included Perburuan (The Fugitive) and Keluarga Gerilya (Guerrilla Family). Both had the national revolution, including the period of the arrival of British forces at the end of the second world war, as their background. All of Pramoedya’s writings of this period explored the situation of individuals, their pains and contradictions. Society was a context, not a subject of exploration. These works quickly won respect. Perburuan won a prize for the best novel. Pramoedya’s story-telling abilities, the empathy in his writings with the people he was depicting, hero and anti-hero, and his easy language meant that he was soon recognised as one of the country’s leading writers.
The humanism of his works began to evolve further in what has sometimes been called his “middle period”. Keith Foulcher writes on this period:
… their savagely ironical portrayals of the Indonesian post-colonial elite open up quite new ground in post-war literature. In the short novel Korupsi [Corruption] (1954) and the short story collection Tjerita dari Jakarta [Stories from Jakarta] (1957), a number of quite striking post-colonial emphases emerge in Indonesian literature for the first time. In the semi-autobiographical reflection Sunyisenjap disiang hidup [Silence at life’s noon], the fiction is contextualised in a profound disillusionment with the writer’s own location in the cultural and political contradictions of the post-colonial state.2
Foulcher, in this excellent essay, deals with the novelette Korupsi and two short stories Djongos + Babu (Houseboy + Maid) and Machluk dibelakang Rumah (The creature behind the house). These writings not only developed new themes but also extended the literary range of his writing: they are more complex, individual emotions, the emotions of the writer and society—context—start to interact more and more as equals. Context is no longer just the setting for an exploration of individual experience but a dynamic part of that experience.
In these works, and others of the period, we also identify the beginnings of the search that led Pramoedya to the form of the historical novel. As Foulcher writes:
Djongos + Babu is a brilliant satire on the “slave mentality” that generations of colonial servitude has inculcated in those who wait upon the colonial elite, specifically in this case, the Eurasian servant class. With no sense of authenticity beyond their links to the master race (links they owe to the sexual subordination of native women to Dutch men), the story’s bearers of this slave mentality strive to be admitted to the ranks of master, where they innocently believe they will automatically discard all their subordinate, indigenous characteristics.
Pramoedya was beginning to discover the roots of contemporary problems in the outcome of past struggles. In Machluk dibelakang Rumah, the exploitative and narcissistic mentality of the “petty aristocrats of Jakarta” is also traced back to the legacy of an “outdated morality” reflecting the mentality of the lower level Javanese aristocracy. Understanding and then explaining through fiction the basis for the resilience of this petty feudal mentality became one of the central issues in Pramoedya’s later historical novels.
Foulcher also points to another new theme in works of this period: “Korupsi is important, because although the indictment of corruption is a familiar theme in the fiction of other writers of this period, only Pramoedya’s treatment of the theme begins to draw the links between class, colonialism, and the national bourgeoisie ...”
History and class entered Pramoedya’s map of reality alongside the contradictions and energies of individual humanity. Foulcher’s choice of incident captures well the dynamic that Pramoedya brought to life in the novelette:
Basir, the protagonist of Pramoedya’s story, is a petty government official who is driven to corruption, fearfully and unsteadily, by his sense of his legitimate right to a respectable standard of living and the desire for the status and respect that was formerly accorded to civil servants of the colonial state. Hence, it is his claim to the rights and privileges that have been lost by men of his rank in the transition to national independence that guides his forays into the easy rewards of bureaucratic corruption. Early on in the narrative, in his initial pursuit of the means towards the life he craves—house “such as pictured in American magazines”—he sets out dreamily on his old bicycle, only to be involved in a traffic accident where he collides with and injures a young school boy. An angry crowd gathers, blaming Basir for the boy’s injury. He is threatened by a becak [trishaw] driver, and is confronted by the brute force of a class whose standard of living he shares, even though he is separated from them by his potential for access to the spoils of state wealth. The scene is arresting, and marks Pramoedya’s identification of the betrayal of the nation as a betrayal of its working people ... It is those conditions whereby those who made no contribution to the winning of national independence now pursue wealth by the misuse of their class position in the post-colonial state.
Here are the clear seeds of the idea that the revolution is unfinished.
History and literature
Pramoedya’s turn to history and to the task of completing the revolution was the product of a critical humanist engagement with the social reality of Indonesia and the class nature of Indonesian society. This leap to a new way of looking at society and art was built upon Pramoedya’s humanism and provoked by the failure of existing ideological frameworks to come to grips with this reality. As the political situation developed, Pramoedya became closer politically to Soekarno. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Soekarno’s popularity was growing. But the organisation of his support was based on the pki and the left wing of the pni, parties or groups that were excluded from the government as a result of opposition from the armed forces, who also sat in the cabinet. Even as Soekarno moved to the left, after 1960, his cabinet remained dominated by the armed forces and right-wing figures, who simply learned to use the left language of Soekarno.
What appealed to Pramoedya was Soekarno’s love of ideas and his determination to win full national liberation. Liberation—i.e. finishing the unfinished national revolution—required the people, the nation, as Soekarno emphasised, to berdikari—berdiri di atas kaki sendiri (stand on one’s own feet). This included in exploring and understanding history. The history of the Indonesian national awakening had to be freed from its colonial framework. History and literature and their interconnection became a new arena for Pramoedya. He later wrote about this issue:
Perhaps if earlier I had been educated in a particular discipline, history for example, I might do the research that would answer: why does all this happen and continue to happen? But I am a writer with minimal education, so it is not the materials of history that I examine, but its spirit. This I began with the tetralogy Bumi Manusia, particularly working on the currents that ebbed and flowed during the period of Indonesia’s National Awakening. And so there came to be a new reality, a literary reality, a downstream reality, whose origin was an upstream reality, that is, a historical reality. A literary reality that contains within it a reorientation and evaluation of civilization and culture, which is precisely not contained in the historical reality. So it is that the literary work is a sort of thesis, an infant that on its own begins to grow in the superstructure of the life of its readers’ society. It is the same with new discoveries in every field, which carry society a step forward.
I began deliberately with the theme of Indonesia’s National Awakening—which, while limited regionally and nationally, nonetheless remains part of the world and of humanity. Step by step I am writing [my way] to the roots of its history, that for the moment is not ready to be published, or perhaps may never be published. In this way I have tried to answer: why did my people get to be like this, like that? So I do not write escapist fiction either, nor do I serve the status quo. Indeed I am outside of and have left the system that is “in effect.” The outcome is very clear: I am thought a nuisance to the status quo in the system that is in effect. And because writing is a personal activity—even though the personal is also a product of the whole of society, present and past—the consequences have to be endured alone. And if sympathy arrives, wherever it comes from, to me it is a surplus value, that never entered my reckoning in advance. For that of course I give my thanks.
Before the tetralogy, I had already written a number of works, all of which would flow into it. And even back then the hostility of those who at the time were busy pursuing [their place in] the status quo had started. Surprisingly, in the beginning my works were well received, and indeed several times received awards. This was especially true during the period of Guided Democracy in the last years of the 50s and the first half of the 60s, the period of the Trisakti doctrine—political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, cultural integrity—a doctrine that, while universal among nationalist states everywhere, was, however, a bogey for the countries stuffed with capital, and hungry for new fields of enterprise around the world. History teaches much about the power of capital. Free peoples are enslaved; artless people are transformed into compradores; the unemployed become paid murderers with uniforms and badges of rank; vast forests are torn apart by infrastructure; cities and ports spring up out of nothing at its command; labor force is sucked in from all over, even from remote hamlets whose names no one has ever clearly heard. The governments of so many states it turns into mere instruments of its will; and when they are no longer wanted, they are overthrown. This is a boring story, one that is part of the experience of many peoples in the world. It is part of the experience of each person who shares the consequences, both the one who profits from it and the one who takes the loss. And each experience for a writer becomes the foundation for the creative process, no matter whether the experience is sensory or spiritual.
Would Indonesia with its independence accommodate itself to the power of capital that has no nationality, or would it challenge it as had been demonstrated during the 1945 revolution? As far back as in the revolutionary years, Soekarno had refused Ford’s proposal that he give the company a monopoly in exchange for building a trans-Sumatra-Java highway. During [the process of] development in the period of national independence, he was also the one who bypassed the alternatives of accommodation: capitalist bloc and communist bloc. Nor is it an accident that it was he who invented the term Third World. Whatever people’s problems with his several weaknesses, it is clear he had a first-rate Indonesianness internal factor. He did not want his country to become part of any hemisphere-bloc. And Indonesia increasingly sank into economic difficulties. In these extraordinary economic difficulties I gave [him] my support, and naturally endured my portion of those difficulties.3
Pramoedya saw the threat of neo-colonialism in the context of the need to finish a national revolution. As an Indonesian historian of the current generation, Hilmar Farid, wrote in a recent paper, “One of the central themes in Pramoedya’s historical thinking is the nation”.4 On the issue of the historical origins of the Indonesian nation, Pramoedya gave a qualitatively different emphasis than the pki . The pki, like the petty-bourgeois nationalist forces, tended to hold up the ancient kingdoms of Java and Sumatra as the precursors of “Indonesia”. Pramoedya did not see a continuity with the pre-modern feudal kingdoms, but saw Indonesia as something new. Farid quotes Pramoedya:
In the beginning Indonesia was nothing more than a geographical term, but with the rise of the non-cooperation nationalist movement it became a political term … because Indonesia today is indeed a political term, has legal status and is the name of our state, people easily forget the origins of how it became the name of our state. Primarily this was the result of a political struggle.
For Pramoedya this struggle was unfinished and therefore history was crucial because, “Every person who does not understand from where they start, that is their history, will also not understand where they are going, their destination”.
In his search and historical writing on the origins of the struggle for Indonesia, he disregarded the bourgeois ethno-nationalist prehistory. He identified Kartini as the precursor of the national awakening. Farid again quotes Pramoedya:
Kartini is the person who begins Indonesian modern history. It was she who processed the aspirations for progress which had begun to develop for the first time in Indonesia in the Demak-Kudus-Jepara region since the middle of the 19th century. In her hands, the ideals of progress we formulated, examined and struggled for were later to become the property of the whole nation.
While other writers, including many on the left, looked for the “ethnically authentic” origins of Indonesia, Pramoedya searched for them in, among other things, the spread of a new common language as a living part of a cultural awakening. He found that it was Chinese and Indo-Europeans who laid the foundations for such an awakening. He discovered a world of cultural change and struggle which predated the “official beginning” of the nationalist movement as declared by Dutch scholarship and adopted by the Indonesian intelligentsia, including most of its left wing.
In one area, there was a shared interest across the left’s approach to history in this period: there was a search for a radical tradition in literature. This search led to the rediscovery of the novels of early communist writers such as Marco Kartodikromo and Semaun. Both appear as figures in Pramoedya’s novel House of Glass. Farid sums up well Pramoedya’s interest in this research:
For Pramoedya the rediscovery of this radical tradition was important because it revealed how the colonial power, especially the [official colonial publishing house] Balai Pustaka and its supporting colonial scholars, had influenced what people knew about the nation and so influenced the course of the nation itself.
These figures—Marco, Semaun and several others—had been written out of the histories of the time. Even Kartini’s writings, which had been published by Dutch sympathisers, had some of her more radical pieces edited out, such as her commentaries on the writing of August Bebel on socialism and women. Farid continues:
The search for the origins of thinking [about Indonesia] in radical nationalist thinking was not, for Pramoedya, just a matter of strengthening the legitimacy of lekra and the left movement, but a statement that the “Indonesian nation” itself has its origins in the radical tradition. In other words, he was of the view that it was these radicals who first envisioned Indonesia as a unity and what the 1960s Indonesian left was doing was nothing more than the continuation of that project.
The historical novels
Pramoedya wrote, “And so there came to be a new reality, a literary reality, a downstream reality, whose origin was an upstream reality, that is, a historical reality”.
In the opening page of This Earth of Mankind we find other words speaking to the same idea: “I read and studied these short notes over again. I merged them together with dreams, imaginings. Naturally they became different from the original. Different? But that doesn’t matter!”
With these words, the narrator of This Earth of Mankind, the youth named Minke, tells how he came to write the book. While the novel is not at all autobiographical, in this case Minke is also explaining Pramoedya’s approach to creating the novels. He “read and studied his notes over again”, that is, he bases what he writes on reality. But then he merged them with “dreams, imaginings” and they became different. “But that doesn’t matter!” History in literature is a “downstream reality” further away from “reality” than a straight historical rendering, yet more revealing because it “contains within it a reorientation and evaluation of civilization and culture”.
The This Earth of Mankind books are historical novels in which the historical process comprises the substance of the plots, not just the setting. (There are no doubt other examples of this in other literatures. The closest that I am familiar with are the historical novels of the us writer, Howard Fast, whose Spartacus is the greatest example.)
The central figure in these novels is Minke, a character inspired by the life of Raden Mas Tirto Adhisuryo. Pramoedya later wrote an extended historical essay on Adhisuryo entitled Sang Pemula (He Who Began), which introduced a collection of Adhisuryo’s own short stories. In 1907 Adhisuryo became the first “Indonesian” to publish and edit a newspaper, the Medan Priyayi. He helped publish and edit other magazines, including one of the first magazines for women. He played a crucial role in establishing what became the first genuinely mass-based political organisation in Indonesia, the Sarekat Islam. He was one of the first “Indonesians” to own a limited liability company. (Indonesian is in quotation marks because in 1907 the word was not yet in use and the concept not yet born.)
Over more than 1200 pages, Pramoedya explored the evolution of the personality of Minke alongside and intertwined with the evolution of the embryonic social, cultural, political entity that was beginning to become Indonesia. It is impossible in a short biographical note even to begin to deal with all the threads that run through these books. As “downstream history”, they present the problems of Indonesian history in a framework that does reorient and evaluate and not just tell a story. For Pramoedya, the central problem was the cultural legacy left to society by a feudal class too easily defeated in the sixteenth century by European power. This defeated class, in Pramoedya’s depiction, is servile facing European power, but a class that was allowed to continue to exist, with all the superficial symbols of power. Servility towards their colonial masters was one side of their character; a brutal and ignorant arrogance and oppression of their own people was the other. This culture continued unchallenged for almost four hundred years until the national awakening and national revolution of the twentieth century.
In This Earth of Mankind, the most thrilling story is that of the evolution of the personality of Minke. The evolution of personality—character development—is, of course, the substance of all well-told serious stories. But in the case of Minke, the story is not just any “character development” but the story of how a completely new kind of human being comes into being on “Indonesian” earth. There was nobody—or almost nobody—like Minke in “Indonesia” at that time. The change from despotic feudal society and culture to modern bourgeois culture (and even beyond bourgeois culture to proletarian culture) was qualitative. The emergence of personalities like Minke was a manifestation of that qualitative change. If the question is asked—what is the basic plot of This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations in particular?—that is the answer: the birth of a new personality.
A qualitative leap has taken place, but Pramoedya was not unaware of the last stages in the accumulation of incremental change that preceded the leap. He told too the story of the personalities that emerged slightly earlier, such as Kartini, or the nyai, the Indonesian women who became concubines to Dutch men but also real partners, bridges between cultures and eras. In This Earth of Mankind, one such young woman, driven by revenge against the culture that sold her into concubinage, and given access to the weapons of modernity, uses them to free herself—although Pramoedya also knew that real freedom for the likes of her inside Indonesia was not yet possible.
In Footsteps and House of Glass, the new personality is, while still learning, matured. And there is a new character introduced with a new plot. This new character is Organisation, with a capital “o”. This character is new not only because it did not appear in the first two novels, but because, before the organisations that appear in Footsteps and House of Glass appeared in “Indonesia”, there were no such organisations. What grips and thrills in Pramoedya’s story-telling is his ability to capture these processes of conception, gestation and birth. We read not only about scores of fascinating, vividly drawn characters and their lives and adventures, but about how a whole new society starts to be born.
These four novels were the final part of the “downstream history” of Indonesia that he wrote.
Arok and Dedes,5 a novel presenting Pramoedya’s version of history and legend emerging out of the mists of the historical past, is a tale of palace politics, conspiracy and revolution. It sets out the beginning of the historical process that began on Java and gives the most vivid picture of the political, cultural and social forces that Pramoedya saw as having remained crucial until today: the castes of the Brahman intellectuals, the satria military and the sudra, the people, the farmers, the artisans and labourers. It is set in thirteenth century Java, in the region of Tumapel, a vassal governorship under the king of Kediri, Sri Kretajaya. Ruling Tumapel is a former brigand, elevated to the governorship by Sri Kretajaya with the title of Tunggul Ametung. He also uses the title of Akuwu of Tumapel.
In the original Indonesian edition of Arok Dedes, it is stated that Tunggul Ametung is a title of the gendarmerie, literally meaning “wielder of a wooden club”. Akuwu originally meant the controller of water. In these terms are summed up the essence of the social and political system that prevailed in Java at the time. Javanese rulers, especially those away from the ports and harbours, based their power on the control of water used for rice irrigation as well as on the riverways used for trade and, secondly, on brute force, on armies.
Although the novel covers a period that ends before the arrival of European power, Pramoedya was explaining the fundamental political heritage that later was preserved, in a much weakened form, by the colonial rulers. This was a bureaucratic police caste, dependent on a powerful centre and incapable of independent vision and ambition beyond desire for bureaucratic position. This caste was later called the prijaji.
In The Arok Conspiracy, the Akuwu of Tumapel is the oppressor. The person who emerges as the leader of a revolution to depose him is Arok. Arok, sometimes spelled Angrok, is one of the great characters in Indonesian historic legend. His rebellion against the king of Kediri, which began in Tumapel and culminated in 1222 when he defeated the king in battle, is first mentioned in Nagarakertagama, an epic length poem written by the fourteenth century poet Prapanca, and then in the Pararaton (The Book of Kings), a manuscript dated 1613. Arok’s origin, usually described as a bandit or brigand, has given him the aura of a rebel from below. Pramoedya constructed his own, original, version of the Arok story from these sources and the modern scholarship available before 1965, when he was imprisoned.
In Pramoedya’s version, however, Arok is no ordinary bandit. First, of course, in the society of thirteenth century Java, all theft is from the state. In the rich range of fictional versions of the English bandit prince, Robin Hood, the victims of theft are rich abbots, local lords and also wealthy merchants. In the tale of Arok, no rich abbots, local lords and wealthy merchants are robbed, only the Akuwu of Tumapel. Second, he does not rob for himself. He lives the life of a religious student and a peasant bandit. He gives some of his booty to the poor and stores more of it to finance a future revolution. Third, he defies caste definition. This is partly a matter of keeping his origins a mystery—we never learn who his real parents are. This keeps open the possibility that, after all, he is not a sudra. This is a very conventional technique in works telling of the rise of a plebeian to aristocratic rule—make the post facto claim that he or she was after all of noble blood, or at least leave this open. But Pramoedya went beyond this approach. He wanted to deal with the very nature of caste and comment on its destructive impact on social progress. Arok is depicted as a man of peasant background, spending his youth working in the rice fields as the adopted son of a farmer. But he goes on to receive an education at the feet of a Buddhist and then a Hindu priest. He is sudra, who by dint of talent and study, becomes a Brahman, the highest caste. And he is a sudra, who by dint of talent and consistency of struggle and leadership, emerges as a military leader: a ksatria.
It is not uncommon in the epic tales of the pre-modern past, in both Asia and Europe, to depict a hero or enlightened leader as an amalgamation of scholar and warrior, where both are considered honoured professions or, in Asia, castes. However, Pramoedya negated both the Brahman and the ksatria as useful or positive at all. The Brahmans of Java in Pramoedya’s novel are an exasperation for Arok. They talk forever and never act. They have knowledge as a result of studying books. They know the secret that it is necessary to collect information and to plan before acting. But they never act. Indeed, the very fact that study and planning are separated off as a distinct activity separate from other aspects of life and society makes the Brahmans unable to contribute productively to resolving the people’s problems, which are defined by their oppression. The Brahmans, in their existence as a separate caste, are part of the problem of oppression rather than a part of the solution. As we read Pramoedya’s description of the Brahmans sitting in their hideaway monastery discussing their plight in the light of the sacred texts, how vivid is the echo of the never-ending chatter of the ivory tower world of the unengaged or pretend engaged academic of the modern world. Even Arok, trying to intervene in this academic discussion, is forced to speak in the same academic Brahmanic language, dulling the usual accessibility of his thinking.
The ksatria, those who monopolise the wielding of weapons, are, in Pramoedya’s depiction, brutalised and made stupid by their existence as a distinct and separated functional group. The purest example here is the Akuwu of Tumapel himself, but this ignorance and stupidity are shown as endemic throughout the whole of the Akuwu’s army. There are no saving graces. The Akuwu’s control over his army is based on his ability to provide them with opportunities to pillage and rape. If the Brahmans are part of the problem, separating knowledge and rational thinking from the work of liberation and enlightenment of the people, the ksatria are the essence of the problem. They combine alienation of the means of violence from the people with the lust for power and wealth.
Arok brings the skills of rational thinking and planning learned from the Brahmans to the task of revolution, involving also the taking up of arms. Arok, in Pramoedya’s novel, does not take up arms separated from the sudra, the people, but together with them. Here we can see that in Pramoedya’s eyes, there was virtually nothing to be learned from the ksatria as a caste. They are nothing more than the wielders of the wooden club. Arok does not spend time learning martial arts from them, for example. They are not samurai or the Chinese sword fighter or silat master. They are thugs: they do not need the martial arts to beat the people—the farmers, their wives and children. Pramoedya ruthlessly stripped away any romantic visions of the pre-modern knight or fighter.
But what about the sudra, the people?
Arok Dedes combines realism and legend. Indeed, at one point Arok escapes his pursuers by strapping great palm leaves to his torso and flying off from the tree tops. Arok has mastered meditation and so the arts of telekinetic power. However, Pramoedya described the actual revolution that Arok leads against Tunggal Ametung as made under the conditions that were set by the nature of Javanese society in the thirteenth century. Magical powers play no role. Instead the revolution combines popular organising—with Arok’s peasant bandits at its core and proletarian uprisings (aided by the peasant rebels)—with deceit and conspiracy.
Faced by increasing rebellion of the peasant bandits, Tunggal Ametung seeks advice from the local Brahmans. They advise him to employ Arok to suppress the rebellions. He does not realise that Arok is indeed the leader of the rebellions. Having been accepted into the palace of the Akuwu, Arok conspires with the Akuwu’s wife, Dedes. Conspiracy in the palace combines with rebellion in the villages and the gold fields to defeat the Akuwu.
The other major novel in this massive literary endeavour was Arus Balik. In his introduction to a translation of one chapter of Arus Balik, John Roosa gives a good description of the novel:
The novel Arus Balik is set in the early sixteenth century, roughly 1510-30, when the Majapahit empire had just recently collapsed. The rulers of the successor states that have emerged in its stead face a moment of decision: whether to attempt to recreate the empire or jealously guard their own little kingdoms. The appearance of the powerful Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean becomes an added factor: whether to fight the Portuguese or to accommodate them. To challenge the Portuguese, they would need to rebuild the empire. But to accommodate them, they need to carefully think how they can use the Portuguese money and cannons to build up the power of the kingdom of Tuban, which Pramoedya presents as the main successor state to the Majapahit empire, the most powerful of all the small kingdoms. He had just led a secret federation of governors to end the centralized power of the Majapahit kingdom and carve out his own kingdom. The only homage he pays to Majapahit is rhetorical: he continues to call himself “governor” and disavow the title of king It is the decision of this ruler that is of greatest importance for the future of Java and the archipelago. He has the ability to recreate the empire if he so chooses. That he chooses not to, even in the face of the Portuguese threat, signals the end of Majapahit’s era of cosmopolitanism and the return of Java to its own little kingdoms. One of the main characters in the novel is the ruler of the “kampung” civilization.
Roosa uses the term “kampung” civilisation, borrowing the idea from Pramoedya. “Kampung” means hamlet or village, and he used the idea of a “kampung civilisation” to depict the extreme parochialism and lack of interest in the outside world that existed among the Javanese aristocracy even before the colonisation of the archipelago. The aristocracy, developing out of a layer of state thugs in a society where intellectual life was hived off into an alienated caste, always looked inwards, to their own very immediate needs. In Pramoedya’s view, one exception to this, as Roosa explains, was the cosmopolitan kingdom of Majapahit. With the fall of Majapahit, contact with the outside world instigated by the people of the archipelago declined. The outside world imposed itself on its terms. Roosa quotes a passage from Arus Balik which he rightly says captures Pramoedya’s vivid portrayal of the reversal of current:
Now fewer and fewer Javanese ships sailed to the north, to the lands Above the Winds, such as Champa or China. The stream of ships to the north became reduced to a trickle. The stream to the south, however, became wider and swifter, carrying new commodities, new ideas, new religions.
Roosa comments: “The novel’s title refers to this reversal of Java’s position in the world, from venturing out into the world itself to remaining stationary and receiving others: arus balik is a current, particularly a current of water, that turns back and heads in the other direction.”
International and Indonesian writer
Pramoedya has been described as a great post-colonial writer. He was definitely a writer of the national revolution, driven by the quest for the liberation of his nation from its cultural legacy of defeat and its dependence on the foreign. At the same time, Arus Balik underlines how for Pramoedya reaching out and learning from the world at large were essential to winning liberation. In his own literary development, authors such as Steinbeck, Tolstoy and Gorky were important, not to mention the Dutch writer Multatuli. Child of All Nations is a novel that describes the maturing of Minke’s personality in interaction with persons and ideas from China and the Philippines as well as the Netherlands.
Moreover, his works have won appreciation internationally and are now translated into more than 40 languages. Embedded as they are in his struggle to help Indonesians rediscover their own history and the reasons for their current plight, his story telling and empathy with the human condition of our era have given them an international accessibility. Publishers still hesitate to publish Arok Dedes and The Current Turns, afraid that their setting will make them inaccessible to the international reader, but this is a mistake.
In Indonesia, Pramoedya’s works are now beginning to win the recognition and appreciation they deserve. After Pramoedya’s arrest in 1965, all his works were banned. They were removed from bookshops and library shelves. Soon after he was released from Buru in 1979, he published This Earth of Mankind, soon followed by Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. One after the other these books too were banned. The books were published by a new company called Hasta Mitra, set up by fellow former prisoners, Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman. Both had been journalists and supporters of Soekarno before their arrest in 1965. Without their initiative, it is quite possible that Pramoedya’s manuscripts would have had to await the fall of the dictator Suharto to see the light of day.
It took the dictatorship several months to build up its justification for banning This Earth of Mankind. There was enough time for it to be printed in several editions. It was widely reviewed and discussed. Even after it was banned, sales continued surreptitiously. Two students and a university clerk were arrested in the 1980s and imprisoned for several years for selling his books. They were photocopied and were passed from hand to hand. These books established themselves as the books of a generation that went on to be the vanguard of the movement that eventually overthrew Suharto. But, even so, by the 1990s, it had become harder to obtain copies. A new generation of university students emerged that did not have the same access to the novels.
Since the fall of Suharto, this too has been changing fast. Although not yet officially unbanned, all his works are now available in the major bookshops. He established a family company that is now reprinting many of his earlier works, carrying on from the courageous pioneering work of Hasta Mitra. (Hasta Mitra now concentrates on publishing historical and political works.) Reading groups, clubs and organisations have been founded, centred on his books. There is an email list, “reading Pramoedya”. However, none of Pramoedya’s books are part of the high school literature curriculum. (The same applies to some other of Indonesia’s major writers who have been critics of the Suharto dictatorship and the current government.) In the modern world, and in a country of 230 million people, accessibility and familiarity with major works of literature, especially in a sustained way, depends on such works being first introduced in the schools. It is possible that in 2006 or 2007, the profile of Pramoedya’s works in Indonesia may be boosted by a film version of This Earth of Mankind and a major theatrical production inspired by the character of Nyai Ontosoroh.
There is also a film project under way that will tell the story of how This Earth of Mankind came into being in the prison huts of Buru. While Pramoedya had carried out the research for those novels before he was arrested, it was in prison that the new stories were finally told. At a time when morale among prisoners was at its lowest, after prisoners had been killed and the guards’ savagery was at its worst, Pramoedya began telling the story of Nyai Ontosoroh, the young village girl, powerless, with nothing, not even real parents, and her struggle to survive and overcome. Relating the story at bedtime in the huts, sometimes while waiting for roll call, Pramoedya enthralled his fellow prisoners with this melodramatic tale that became the backbone of a great historical novel. Other prisoners retold their version of the story in the fields.
There have been other works by Pramoedya published alongside or since the historical novels. These includes anthologies of writings by the pioneers of Indonesian language literature from the beginning of the twentieth century, which Pramoedya compiled and for which he wrote introductory essays. There is also his work on literary criticism entitled Socialist Realism, written in the late 1950s but recently republished. In 2005, he published a collection of his very early essays and journalistic writings. And originating directly from the experience of Buru was the two-volume collection of his letters and essays, Nanya Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Silent Song of a Mute). A selection of these has been published in English under the title The Mute’s Soliloquy. In one of the essays published in this edition, Pramoedya wrote of one of the great agonies of oppression and loss of freedom:
Following the events of 1965, I lost everything or, to be more accurate, all the illusions I had ever owned. I was a newborn child, outfitted with the only instrument a newly born babe finds necessary for life: a voice. Thus like a child my only means of communication was my voice: my screams, cries, whimpers, and yelps.
What would happen to me if my voice, my sole means of communication, were to be taken from me? Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?
Fortunately, Pramoedya successfully defended his voice, even telling the epic tale of Nyai Ontosoroh and Minke on Buru. And he did not let go of his memory or learning either. So now we have these and other great books.
1. Based on a brief biographical note at <> taken from “Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga Gerilya 1950”, trans. and ed. by Benedict Anderson, Indonesia 36 (October 1983), p.43.
2. Keith Foulcher, “In search of the post-colonial in Indonesian literature”, in Sojourn, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1996), p. 165.
3. “My Apologies, in the Name of Experience”, translated by Alex G. Bardsley, Indonesia 61 (April 1996).
4. Hilmar Farid, “Pramoedya dan Historiografi Indonesia”, unpublished paper, 2005.
5. This will be published in English translation in 2006.

[Max Lane is a member of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia and the national coordinator of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific. He was the translator into English of This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass.]