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Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006)


Indonesian novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and critic, deeply influenced by the work of John Steinbeck. The Japanese occupation (1942-1944) and Indonesia's struggle for independence  provided the basic material for Pramoedya's writing. His best-known novel is the Buru Quartet (1980-88), banned by the Suharto regime. The story, originally written between 1965 and 1979, is set at the turn of the 19th century and depicts the emergence of anticolonial Indonesian nationalism. Pramoedya's books have been translated into some 30 languages.

"That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there – willing or unwilling, with all our soul and body. And too often it proves to be a great despot. And so, in the end, I arrived too. Whether the future is a kind or a cruel god is, of course, its own affair. Humanity too often claps with just one hand." (in This Earth of Mankind, volume 1 of Buru Quartet, 1980)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer ((known as Pramoedya or Pram) was born in the village of Blora, in East Java. His father was an activist and headmaster of the nationalist school, a figure of some social prominence, but who ruined the family by obsessive gambling. As a boy Pramoedya wanted to become an engineer. After completing elementary school course in 1939, he moved to Surabaya, graduating from the Radiovakschool (Radio Vocational School) at the end of 1941. Following this, he moved to Jakarta, where he continued his studies and was employed for a period by the Japanese news agency "Domei." In 1945 he attended lectures at the Islamic University. 

After the Dutch army arrived to establish colonial rule, Pramoedya joined the Indonesian armed forces in East Jakarta. Commissioned in the rank of second lieutenant, Pramoedya led in 1946 a unit of sixty people. He then moved back to Jakarta, where he edited the journal Sadar. As a novelist Pramoedya made his debut with Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh (1947). In an interview he once said that "From my personal experiece, the impact of colonialism was that in the past, we – even I – felt inferior to people from the West. I only lost my inferiority complex in 1953, eight years after independence, because I was then living in Holland and had a Dutch girlfried. . . . " (Exile: Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira,  edited by Nagesh Rao, 2006, p. 43)

Considered ''anti-colonial", Pramoedya was imprisoned between the years 1947 and 1949 by the Dutch in various places. "My life was regulated by a schedule determined by authorities propped up by rifles and bayonets, he recalled. "Forced labor outside the jail, four days a week . . . " ('Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga Gerilya 1950' by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Benedict Anderson, in Indonesia, No. 36 (Oct., 1983) While in the prison, he read William Saroyan's The Human Comedy and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, incorporating a lot of its emotive style into his writings. He also translated Steinbeck's novella into Bahasa Indonesia. From these and other books Pramoedya drew strength to survive and write Perburuan (1950, The Fugitive), about a rebellion against the Japanese and its betrayal. The novel was smuggled from prison, and approved by Balai Pustaka, the government publishing house.

Perburuan was first praised, then banned, but tanks to its succeess, Pramoedya continued writing cathartic stories and novels that transcend even while they record tragic events. After gaining some financial security, Pramoedya was able to marry. In the early 1950s, Pramoedya became an editor in the Modern Indonesian Literature department of the Balai Pustaka. He also held the post of editor of the magazine Indonesia and of the children's magazine Kunang-kunang.  

"It is really surprising sometimes how a prohibition seems to exist solely in order to be violated. And when I disobeyed I felt that what I did was pleasurable. For children such as I at that time – oh, how many prohibitions and restrictions were heaped on our heads! Yes, it was as though the whole world was watching us, bent forbidding whatever we did and what ever we wanted. Inevitably we children felt that this world was really intended only for adults." (in 'Inem')

Pramoedya's short-story collections from this period include Subuh (1950) and Percikan Revolusi (1950), both of which are set during the revolution, Cerita dari Blora (1952), dealing with provincial Javanese society, war, and the struggle for independence, and Cerita dari (1957), about postrevolutionary catastrophes in Indonesia's capital. The novel Keluarga Gerilya (1950) was directed against the Dutch and Allied forces. It depicted the destruction of a Javanese family during the national revolution.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Pramoedya's short stories were translated individually into Dutch, Chinese, English, Russian, and French. Pramoedya frequently used the first person in his fiction; it was a kind of trademark for him. A longer work, Bukan Pasar Malam ( It’s Not an All-Night Fair), translated by C.W. Watson, was published by Cornell University in 1973. All That Is Gone (2004) collected Pramoedya's short stories written in his 20s. Noteworthy, in Indonesia the short story as a literary form was as highly valued as the novel. They were meant to be read out loud, and to be shared with others.

The title story is a childhood memory, in which the narrator tells of his nanny, who had no children of her own – the syphilis had eaten her womb – and becomes gradually aware of a rift betweeen his mother and father.  'Inem,' written in the style of social realism, which Pramoedya never adopted as his own,  was a critique of the traditional institutions of child marriage. The narrator, Gus Muk, follows the life of his neighbor, Inem, an eight year old girl, who is going to be married. Her father keeps gamecocks but everybody knows that he is a criminal, whose main occupation had been robbing people in the teak forest. Inem's mother makes a living by doing batik work. Markaban, Inem's husband, is seventeen and the son of a well-to-do man. After a year Inem leaves her husband, she tells Gus Muk's mother that Markaban often beat her, and returns to her parents house. "And thereafter, the nine-year-old divorce – since she was nothing but a burden to her family – could be beaten by anyone who wanted to: her mother, her brothers, her uncle, her neighbors, her aunts. Yet Inem never came to our house."

In 1953, Pramoedya spent with his family a year in the Netherlands on a cultural exchange program and wrote there the novels Korupsi (1954) and Midah - Si Manis Bergigi Emas (1954). He was appointed in 1958 a member of Lekra's Plenum, the Institute of People's Culture, an organization championing the nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution. After moving politically to the left, Pramoedya largely abandoned fiction for critical essays and historical studies. In 1960, he was imprisoned for defending the country's persecuted ethnic Chinese.

Between 1962 and 1965, Pramoedya served as the editor of Lentera (Lantern), the weekly section of the leftist daily Bintang Timur. He lectured on Indonesian language and literature at the independent University of Res Publika, taught at "Dr. Abdul Rivai" Academy for Journalism, and was a founder of the "Multatuli" Literature Academy. As a social critic, he was many times at odds with conservative historians and those whom he considered to be reactionaries. In defining his own identity, Pramoedya once labelled himself as communist Muslim.

During the events that led to mass arrests and the establishment of "New Order" Indonesia under General Suharto, Pramoedya was imprisoned in October 1965 without trial by the military regime. The Institute for People's Culture was banned as a Communist front. At his arrest, Pramoedya was severely beaten. For the rest of his life, Pramoedya suffered from hearing difficulties. ''Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?'' he once said. Pramoedya's personal archives, unpublished works, and research materials were either destroyed or lost. After four years at Salemba prison in Jakarta, he was shipped to exile on the notorious snake-infected island of Buru in the Moluccas.

Silenced by the Suharto regime, the political prisoners were only occasionally permitted to write letters, but not given a permission to send them. When Pramoedya, "political prisoner no. 641," received a letter from the President of the Republic Indonesia, he was shocked and moved. Suharto wrote that "an error for human being is natural" and "naturalness should also have a natural sequel." In his reply Pramoedya said that "A great mind forgives errors and a strong had reaches out to the weak." (Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colonial Vietnam, ed. by Vicente L. Rafael, 1999, pp. 231-232)

Due to international protests, Pramoedya was granted access to a typewriter in 1973, and he began working on a series of historical novels originally narrated to his fellow prisoners.  In the last years of his confinement, Pramoedya was able to produce four historical novels, which were published on his release – the Buru QuartetBumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations), Jejak Lamgkah (Footsteps) and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass). Pramoedya was freed in the end of 1979, but he was still persona non grata. Confined to Jakarta, Pramoedya had to report to his parole officer every month, part of the terms of his city arrest. In 1992, on the occasion of Human Rights Day, he announced that he would stop reporting to the East Jakarta military post. Since the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, Pramoedya was a free man, but his books were still officially banned.

In the Buru Quartet the protagonist is Minke, a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat and writer, who is familiar with Western and Javanese culture. Manke falls in love with the beautiful Indo-European Annelies. After losing her Minke becomes increasingly involved in mass movements of resistance to the colonial rule. "This parting was a turning point in my life. My youth was over, a youth beautifully full of hopes and dreams. It would never return."

Minke's model was Tirto Adi Suryo (1880-1918), a journalist and activist. The first two volumes, depicting the dawn of Indonesia's struggle against colonial exploitation, gained a huge popularity. This Earth of Mankind, which started the story, was originally recited orally by the author to his fellow prisoners. Informed by "the subversive resonance of the book's tragiromantic plot" the Attorney General banned both This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, which continued the story of the young hero with radical leanings. ('Toer (Tur), Pramoedya Ananta,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 742)  The last two volumes, banned on the charge that they covertly spread Communism, Marxism and Leninism, were smuggled out of the country.

In Gadis Pantai (1982, The Girl from the Coast), set on the colonial period, the protaginist is a young woman, whose character was based on the life of Pramoedya's grandmother. The heroine comes from humble origins and she doesn't have a name. At the age of 14 she is married to a nobleman, but she realizes that her place in the new family will be inferior and she is not allowed to keep her child. "The problem with The Girl From the Coast may be that the language, characterization and plotting are too well defined, as if the author's desire to communicate and the urgency of his message have overwhelmed his art." (Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times, August 11, 2002)

Pramoedya's later works include Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995-97), an autobiography, and Arus Balik (1995), a historical novel of 16th-century Indonesia. He also translated into Indonesia works from such authors as John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoi, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Maxim Gorki. He won the 'Freedom to Write' Award in 1988 from PEN's American Center. UNESCO's Executive Council awaerded Pramoedya the Madanjeet Singh Prize in 1966 for his services to the cause of non-violence and tolerance. Since 1981, he was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1999 he toured the United States, Canada and Europe. Pramoedya died in Jakarta on April 20, 2006. He was married two times; first to Arfah Iljas and then to Maemunah Thamrin.

In his work, Pramoedya synthesized a wide variety of literary traditions, from the pioneers of the literature of Indonesian revolution (Chairil Anwar) to the Javanese storytelling, and from historical chronicles to various European and American writers. Pramoedya's personal style – exclamation marks, interjections in the middle of his descriptions, characters who just appear and disappear, sketchiness, meandering narrative – divided opinion. The pioneer of the modern Indonesian short story, Idrus, said once that "Pram doesn't know how to write short stories; what he produces are simply dongeng [tales]." ('Introduction' by Benedict R. O'G. Anderson, in Tales from Djakarta: Caricatures of Circumstances and Their Human Beings by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1999, p. 11)  Pramoedya wrote in Bahasa Indonesia, a language developed form the old lingua franca Malaya and adopted by the nationalist movement in 1928. During his career, he was imprisoned both by the colonial Dutch regime and the following nationalist governments. His fiction has been translated into some twenty-four languages.

For further reading: 'Perburuan 1950 and Keluarga Gerilya 1950' by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Benedict Anderson, in Indonesia, No. 36 (Oct., 1983); Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia by Benedict Anderson (1990); Pramoewdya Ananta Toer by A. Teeuw (1993); Pramoewdya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun, ed.  Bob Hering (1995); Identity in Asian Literature, edited by Lisbeth Littrup (1996); Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colonial Vietnam, ed. by Vicente L. Rafael (1999); Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony by Rudolf Mrázek (2002); Exile: Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira,  edited by Nagesh Rao  (2006); Of Self and Injustice: Autobiography and Repression in Modern Indonesia by C. W. Watson (2006); Pramoedya Postcolonially: (Re-)Viewing History, Gender and Identity in the Buru Tetralogy by Razif Bahari (2007); The Long Space: Transnationalism and Postcolonial Form by Peter Hitchcock (2009); The Passage of Literature: Genealogies of Modernism in Conrad, Rhys, and Pramoedya by Christopher GoGwilt (2011); 'Translation and Literary Mimesis: The Case of Nobel Nominee Pramoedya Ananta Toer' by Elisabet Titik Murtisari, in Literature as Translation / Translation as Literature, ed. by Christopher Conti, James Gourley (2014).  See also: Multatuli, a 19th-century Dutch administrator who wrote against colonialism.  Note: In an article from April 2001 Pramoedya Anata Toer argued, that if the younger generation do not rise into power, it is possible that Indonesia will break up. According to the writer, President Abdurrahman Wahid, a leader without visions, has failed to bring peace in the country.

Selected works:

  • Krandji-Bekasi Djatuh, 1947
  • Perburuan, 1950 - The Fugitive (translated by Harry Aveling, 1975; Willem Samuels, 1990) / Rape of the Wayang: A Play (by Ron Verburgt, based on the novel Perburuan, translated by Willem Samuels, 1994)  
  • Keluarga Gerilya, 1950 [The Guerrilla Family]
  • John Steinbeck: Tikus dan Manusia, 1950 (Of Mice and Men; translator)
  • Subuh: Tjerita-Tjerita Pendek Revolusi, 1950
  • Percikan Revolusi, 1950
  • Mereka Jang Dilumpuhkan, 1951 (2 vols.)
  • Bukan Pasar malam, 1951 - It’s Not an All-Night Fair (translated by C.W. Watson, 1973; 2001) / A Heap of Ashes (edited and translated Harry Aveling, 1975) /
  • Di Tepi Kali Bekasi, 1951
  • Dia Yang Menyerah, 1951
  • Cerita dari Blora, 1952 - A Heap of Ashes (edited and translated Harry Aveling,  1975) /  All That Is Gone (translated by  Willem Samuels, 2004)
  • Gulat di Djakarta, 1953
  • Midah - Si Manis Bergigi Emas, 1954
  • Korupsi, 1954
  • Cerita dari Jakarta, 1957 (short stories) - Tales from Djakarta: Caricatures of Circumstances and Their Human Beings (tr. 1999)
  • Cerita Calon Arang, 1957
  • Suatu Peristiwa di Banten Selatan, 1958
  • Sekali Peristawa di Bengen Selatan, 1958
  • Orang-orang Baru dari Banten Selatan, 1959
  • Hoakiau di Indonesia, 1960 - The Chinese in Indonesia (tr. 2007)
  • Panggil Aku Kartini Saja I & II, 1962
  • Realisme Sosialis & Sastra Indonesia, 1963
  • Bumi Manusia, 1980 (Buru Quartet , vol. 1) - This Earth of Mankind (translated by Max Lane, 1982)
  • Anak Semua Bangsa, 1980 (Buru Quartet , vol. 2) - Child of All Nations (translated by Max Lane, 1984)
  • Sikap dan Peran Kaum Intelektual di Dunia Ketiga, 1982
  • Tempo Doeloe, 1982 (ed.)
  • Gadis Pantai, 1982 - The Girl from the Coast (translated by Harry Aveling, 1991; Willem Samuels, 2002)
  • Jejak Langkah, 1985 (Buru Quartet , vol. 3) - Footsteps (translated by Max Lane, 1990)
  • Sang Pemula dan karya-karya non-fiksi (jurnalistik)-fiksi (cerpen/novel) R.M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo, 1985
  • Crossing the Border: Five Indonesian Short Stories, 1986 (by Danarto and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Harry Aveling)
  • Rumah Kaca, 1988 (Buru Quartet, vol. 4) - House of Glass  (translated by Max Lane, 1992)
  • Hikayat Siti Mariah, 1987 (ed.)
  • Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat, 1995 (ed.)
  • Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu 1-2, 1995-1997 - The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir, 2000 (translated by Willem Samuels, 1999)
  • Arus Balik, 1995
  • Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat, 1995 (ed.)
  • Tales from Djakarta: Caricatures of Circumstances and their Human Beings, 1999 (introduction by Benedict R. O'G. Anderson)
  • Dongeng Calon Arang, 1999 (also: Calon Arang) - The King, the Witch, and the Priest: A Twelfth Century Javanese Tale (as told by Pramoedya Ananta Toer; translated and edited by Willem Samuels, 2002)
  • Arok Dedes, 1999 - Arok of Java: A Novel of Early Indonesia (translated by Max Lane, 2007)
  • Kronik Revolusi Indonesia, 1999 (ed.)
  • Mangir, 1999
  • Larasati: Sebuah Roman Revolusi, 2000
  • Perawan remaja dalam cengkeraman militer, 2001
  • All That Is Gone, 2004 (translated by Willem Samuels; contains 'All That Is Gone,' 'Inem,' 'In Twilight Born,' 'Circumcision,' 'Independence Day,' 'Acceptance,' 'The Rewards of Marriage' )
  • 1000 wajah Pram dalam kata dan sketsa, 2009

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