Outlook >> Monday April 28, 2008
Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the death of the famous Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Tur (1926-2006). Benedict Anderson reflects on the Indonesian’s legacy, and what it means for writers in his homeland and beyond
Pramoedya Ananta Tur was born in 1926, in the small, very poor Javanese town of Blora, perhaps like Roi Et was 50 years ago.
So he came into the world 10 years before I did, and six years before the downfall of the absolute monarchy in Siam. His father was a primary school teacher and a nationalist, but eventually became an obsessive gambler out of political frustration.
His mother, however, was from a pious Muslim family. Probably the marriage was unhappy. Pram had no formal education beyond primary school, but both his parents were readers. All his life he was an autodidact.
A few months before the Japanese invasion in early 1942, he left for the big city of Surabaya to learn professional typing and stenography. This enabled him to get a minor job in Jakarta, working as a clerk for the Japanese imperial news agency, Domei. There he met some of Indonesia’s most famous nationalist leaders and activists of his own age. After Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Indonesians declared their independence and began a four year military and diplomatic struggle against Dutch efforts to reimpose colonial rule. Pramoedya joined one of the military units for two years, and then decided to devote himself to writing and to non-military resistance. He was captured and imprisoned by the Dutch, and used his time in jail to produce his first great works, at the age of 24.
In the early 1950s he produced a huge amount of first-class writing and was already reckoned as his country’s major novelist and short-story writer. But he made little money out of his writing, and became extremely disappointed by the conditions in post-revolutionary Indonesia. So he started moving politically to the left, particularly after a visit to Mao’s China (where he fell in love wth his Chinese guide), which struck him as a big contrast to his own country. Though not a communist, he then joined and became a prominent figure in Lekra, an association of artists and writers loosely affiliated with Indonesia’s Communist Party, the third largest in the world. In 1960 he was again jailed, this time by Indonesia’s military, for writing a powerful book defending the rights and the contributions of the country’s often hated Chinese minority.
After General Suharto took power in the wake of the failed, and still mysterious, so-called “attempted communist coup” of October 1, 1965, he followed this up with the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of leftists, and the imprisonment, without trial, of hundreds of thousands of others. Pramoedya’s house and personal library were destroyed, and he himself was imprisoned for the next 13 years, mostly in a penal colony on the remote eastern island of Buru. It was here that he created his famous Buru Tetralogy, initially telling the story to his fellow-prisoners, and later, when he was allowed a typewriter, putting it on paper.
He was released in 1978, at the age of 52, and had to struggle to survive. Two old friends helped him publish the Tetralogy, but the books were quickly prohibited, though they circulated clandestinely. Even today, all his work is still officially banned, though the ban is no longer enforced. He lived long enough to observe the downfall of Suharto, and for the first time in his life to make a decent living from Western and Japanese translations of his novels. He was also regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Although we corresponded occasionally, I did not meet Pramoedya in person until after Suharto fell in 1998, since I was banned from Indonesia, and Pramoedya was not allowed out of the country. But once we did meet, in Jakarta, we had some wonderful, often very funny conversations. His spirit was absolutely not broken, though he found the Indonesia of the 1980s and 1990s very alien.
– His work
A right-wing literary enemy once told me dismissively that Pramoedya was not a real writer, but simply a purveyor of dongeng, an Indonesian word that covers nithan in Thai, i.e. folk tales and legends. In this malicious remark there was a kernel of truth. Pramoedya grew up in an overwhelmingly oral culture, where illiteracy was common, TV did not yet exist, but people were accustomed to travelling live theatre groups, the famous shadow-puppet theatre, old people’s stories and legends, and a rich tradition of songs and always sung poetry.
To fully appreciate Pramoedya’s work, you have to hear it read aloud. When he finally visited Cornell University, he agreed to read aloud to our students (with a tape recorder nearby) one of his greatest short stories, Ketjapi, the name of a traditional Indonesian zither. He had a wonderful, deep voice, and by the end some of us were crying.
Although Pram was soaked through and through with Javanese culture (and a literary tradition that goes back almost 1,000 years), he was also its determined enemy. Not a single one of his works was written in Javanese, his mother tongue. When I asked him about this, he gave two reasons. The first was that he was a nationalist, and Indonesian was the national language – he wanted to reach all his fellow countrymen, not just his fellow Javanese. The second was that he thought Javanese was incurably feudal, forcing speakers either to look down on or slavishly look up to the people they spoke to. (For example, there are three completely different words for horse, and each one represents a step on the feudal ladder. Those Thais who find rajasap difficult and complicated should imagine Javanese as three times harder.) Most of the main villains of his early novels and stories are what Thais are forced to call phu di. His heroes and heroines are always common people. He also enjoyed parodying and mocking Javanese phu di culture.
Pram was also unique in his literary attachment to women. His work contains many complex portraits of different kinds of women, in a manner unmatched by his literary contemporaries who made men their major fictional figures, with women marginalised as stereotypical mothers, sweethearts, and prostitutes.
The Buru Tetralogy, however, marked a major turning point in Pramoedya’s career. In the many books he published between 1950 and 1965, there are virtually no foreigners, no local Chinese and almost no non-Javanese Indonesians. In the Tetralogy, however, one finds Eurasian journalists and gangsters, a pathetic Japanese prostitute, a young female Chinese activist who has fled persecution in China, a brave Madurese guard, a sinister Menadonese secret policeman, a Dutch feminist, a crippled French painter, a local Chinese brothel-keeper, a princess from the farthest eastern margin of the Indonesian archipelago, good and bad Dutch officials, and so on. This new outlook is sharply signalled in the titles of the first two Buru novels, which can literally be translated as This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations. Both reject any kind of narrow Luang Wijit Watthakan-style ethnicised nationalism. There is no grand international panorama like this in any other fiction by a writer from Southeast Asia over the past 50 years.
Why the change? In the early ’60s, Pramoedya started to do systematic research on the complex origins of Indonesian nationalism. He combed libraries and newspaper archives and took very detailed notes. What he discovered was in fact just such a cosmopolitan world in the colony of 1910-25, which the standard nationalist textbook writers either knew nothing about or censored. Even when his library and notes were destroyed, he kept a fantastic amount of the information he collected in his own head. He would be as true to the past as he could manage.
Secondly, even in prison, Pram was learning a lot more about the outside world than he had wanted to do earlier. The socialist or communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union quickly made their peace with the Suharto regime, and even China would follow in due course. The people who worked hardest to help the political prisoners were the members of Amnesty International, based in London, who came from many parts of the world. The single most influential figure in getting Pram and his fellow prisoners released was a progressive American congressman from Minnesota who found a way to attach a human rights condition to any substantial aid given by the US to client regimes overseas. The US State Department was then forced, much against its will, to produce every year a comprehensive report on the human rights situations under these regimes. It was the fear that Indonesia would suffer financially if its government did not release the prisoners that really made the difference.
In 2000, I was with Pramoedya in Fukuoka, Japan, when he received that year’s Fukuoka Prize for outstanding contributions by Asians. We both knew that he had been repeatedly nominated for this prize in previous years, but the Fukuoka prize committee was too scared of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which in turn was too scared of Suharto, to give him the award. As a younger man, he would surely have been enraged by this cowardice and opportunism, but at the age of 74, he could even joke about it – in the dismayed presence of some Fukuoka officials.
What has Pramoedya to say to Siam today? Simple things mainly. Great writers have to be brave; they have to work very hard; they have to abandon official textbook history for the real study of their country’s past in old newspapers, memoirs, popular memories, archives and so on; they have to know their countrymen from top to bottom, with a special emphasis on the bottom, the mass of their fellow citizens who do not enjoy the middle class life of many authors; they have to stand up against censorship and intimidation; and they have to take to heart the lesson that if they are not careful and curious, “Thailand”, like “Indonesia”, can easily become the half-shell of a coconut that the proverbial frog imagines to be the sky (kob nai kala). When I told him that most of my American students could not name the prime minister of Canada, or the president of Mexico, the US’s next-door neighbours, he laughed and said, “Just like Indonesia, alas.”
A final note. The first three of the four Buru novels have been excellently translated into Thai, but the publishers have so far rejected, on commercial grounds, the publication of the last, which has the enigmatic title: The Glass House. This is a great pity, since Pramoedya did something in this book that is still astonishing. Throughout the first three novels, the narrating “I” character is a young Javanese aristocrat who abandons his feudal background to become a crusading anti-colonial journalist and a founder of the Indonesian popular nationalist movement. In the last volume, the “I” is a native who has become a top official in the colonial regime’s Santiban, who arranges the young hero’s imprisonment, early death and erasure from history. The reader gradually learns that everything he or she has read so far comes from Santiban files, and that these have been tampered with, so they cannot always be taken as reliable. In reality, no native ever held high office in the colonial secret police. But ex-natives created Suharto’s vast web of intelligence agencies and prisons, into whose clutches Pramoedya fell. Probably his experience under Suharto enabled Pramoedya brilliantly to get into the complicated mindset of his enemies. I know of no Southeast Asian novelist (since Jose’ Rizal of the Phillipines) who has wanted or been capable of this artistic and moral achievement.
The first three volumes of Pramoedya Ananta Tur’s Buru Tetralogy have been translated into Thai by Pakawadee Weerapaspong. ‘Phaendin haeng cheewit’ (This Earth of Mankind), ‘Phu sueb thod’ (Child of All Nations) and ‘Roy yang gao’ (Footsteps) and are published by Kobfai.
Benedict Anderson is a professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, and a well-known authority on 20th century Indonesian history and politics. For over two decades, he was banned from entering Indonesia until the end of the Suharto regime due to his writing criticising the role of the military in the October 1965 coup. Anderson also writes extensively on Thailand’s contemporary history, politics and literature. One of his major works is ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism’.
Source: Bangkok Post
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