Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The Buru Quartet

(Probably wise when reading this to keep in mind that I lived in Indonesia for four and a half months, and while that means that I know more about the country than the average westerner, probably, it doesn't make me some sort of expert; while I don't THINK I'm full of shit on any of this, it's entirely possible that my history is mixed up or that I'm mischaracterizing things; I'm very aware that it could very easily look as though I'm positioning myself as being far more authoritative than I actually am.  So take it all with a big ol' grain of salt.)

Pramoedya is the first name in Indonesian literature, and, while not quite the last, pretty close.  He is definitely a big fish in a small pond.  The question of why a country the size of Indonesia has never really established a national literature to the extent that others have is complex, but in part, I think it boils down to the ambivalent and unresolved relationship that it has with its own history.

He was first imprisoned by the Dutch for participating in the Indonesian Revolution in the forties.  Afterwards, he did a lot of writing and thinking about the country and its literature and national consciousness and the role of literature in propagating same--the kind of thing you would want people to be doing after newly-achieved independence, really.  He was planning a series of novels on these themes, but during the 1965-66 Purges, he was imprisoned and his library and all his notes burned (fucking barbarians).  It probably goes without saying that all his writing was banned as well.  In prison, reading and writing was strictly forbidden, but he composed the planned novels in his head and recited them to fellow inmates so that they would have a chance of living on if he never got to write them down (an interesting topic in itself--what does it MEAN to compose a novel in your head?  How much exactitude are we talking about here?).  However, in the mid seventies, regulations were loosened a bit and he was able to commit them to writing.  He was released in 1979 (although he remained under house arrest until 1992), and the Buru Quartet (so-called after the prison where he wrote them) was finally published, to popular and critical acclaim…until, in rather short order (apparently worried that someone might not quite be convinced that they were really fascist bully boys), the Suharto government banned them.  According to the translator, Max Lane, "the government accused the books of surreptitiously spreading 'Marxism-Leninism'--surreptitious because, they claimed, the author's great literary dexterity made it impossible to identify actual examples of this 'Marxism-Leninism.'"  CASE CLOSED.

(Though it fairness (it's always important to be scrupulously fair to authoritarian thugs everywhere), though it's not inevitable, one could really do a Marxist reading of these texts without breaking a sweat.)

It goes without saying that I strongly disapprove of books that support Marxism and/or Leninism, or anything, being banned, but it looks especially peculiar in this case: why would the Indonesian government not strongly approve of staunchly anti-colonialist texts like Pramoedya's?  I would argue that it just comes down to a matter of control.  Suharto and company were small, scared people, terrified of losing control of their country's narrative and people's understanding thereof.  Even if these books are okay, if we don't nip this shit in the bud, someone else'll come along and write something that isn't.  Then too, embracing Pramoedya would've entailed acknowledging the country's prior shameful treatment of him and others like him.  As I understand it, the mass murders in 65-66 still aren't officially acknowledged in the country (though given the internet, trying to cover them up is more and more a futile endeavor).

(And speaking of "shameful," I think the Nobel Committee's failure to award him the prize would qualify.  Pramoedya is exactly the sort of writer they should be acknowledging, and in this instance, it could even have been politically valuable.  The government might or might not have taken some of the pressure off him and his works in response, but even if not, making him more internationally visible would--in a world where Indonesia is eager to engage with the international community--surely have had some effect.)

So, no go.  Again, according to Lane (in this article), "there has been no public announcement that his writings are no longer banned--they may very well be still formally banned.  His works are not introduced, or even mentioned, in high school curricula for Indonesian language or literature in state schools."  I don't think it's likely that you'd get in trouble for reading Pramoedya in Indonesia in this day and age, but this is certainly suggestive.  If you want to be a vibrant, dynamic country, you've got to face up to these things.

I should emphasize that I think--and hopefully I'm not being wildly over-optimistic--that the future looks bright for Indonesia (as with everything I write about the future, take it as a given that that should be followed by "…assuming climate change doesn't destroy civilization").  The recent election of Joko "Jokowi" Widodo as President is a positive sign: Jokowi ran on an extremely transformative, reform-minded campaign--he's actually like Obama in many ways (right down to his opponents accusing him of being a secret Christian or secretly Chinese--people are the same all over, alas), and like Obama, he's sure to disappoint.  Nonetheless, at least in theory, he really represents an opportunity for the country to honestly look at itself and move forward.  This opportunity is only underlined by the fact that his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was a truly awful sort: a general under Suharto who back in the day dealt in shockingly xenophobic anti-Chinese rhetoric and who was responsible for the kidnapping and torture of pro-democracy activists.  And DON'T THINK that Indonesians--at least a great many of them--weren't keenly aware of this.  Yes, the fact that he came as close as he did to winning was…disconcerting (though we Americans should probably avoid launching projectiles, whether igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, from the comfort of our transparent domiciles), but all the students I had who ever expressed a political opinion were uniformly pro-Jokowi--or, perhaps more accurately, pro-what-he-represents--and, I'm pretty darn sure, quite in favor of a more open, honest society.  These are mainly people from their teens to their thirties, so just wait 'til the current establishment dies off; then maybe--maybe!--the country can get somewhere.  It seems like the potentiality is there, is what I'm saying.

NOW, as for Pramoedya's books themselves.  They take place from the eighteen nineties to the nineteen teens.  One of the most salient features of the Dutch East Indies was the presence of three classes of people: Natives, Europeans, and Indos (people of mixed parentage) (an important aspect of this that I think is a little bit lost in translation is the fact that whether you were speaking in Dutch, Malay (ie, Bahasa Indonesia), or Javanese was freighted with political significance).  The narrator and protagonist of the series is one Minke, a native from a noble background who, therefore, is highly educated--one of the only natives to be allowed into the Dutch schools ("Minke" is technically a nickname, Dutch for "Monkey"--there may be a sooper-secret metaphor hidden somewhere in there.  We never learn his "real" name, though we do get his initials in the fourth book).  His character is based on the real-life Tirto Adhi Soerjo, of whom Pramoedya had previously written a biography (and whose initials are the same as Minke's).  The books are the story of his political education, awakening, and activism.

It all starts in This Earth of Mankind, and is precipitated when he becomes involved with the family of Nyai Ontosoroh, the concubine of a Dutch official (such arrangements were common, and "Nyai" is the title they were given).  Her master, Herman Mellema, is said to have been a decent man at one point, but by the time of the novel, he's basically gone insane and is rarely seen.  She herself is highly, albeit unofficially, educated, and manages their business interests single-handedly.  Ontosoroh has two children, Robert and Annelies.  Minke and Annelies fall in love, and the book tells of their romance as Minke begins to realize the contradictions and injustices of the colonial system.  Many other characters are also introduced who will go on to appear to varying degrees throughout the series, eg: Minke's business partner, Jean Marais, a French painter who formerly fought for the colonial Dutch army until he began to sympathize with the colonized; Magda Peters, Minke's radical Dutch language and literature teacher; Darsam, Nyai Ontosoroh's faithful bodyguard; the administrator Herbert de la Croix and his daughters Sarah and Miriam, sympathetic but somewhat clueless liberals; Kommer, an anti-colonialist journalist; Dr. Martinet, a humanitarian doctor, and many more.  Through them, we see many aspects of the colonial world.  

It took me a little while to really get into the story, partially no doubt because it's such an alien milieu to me that it was a little hard to get my footing (characters, for instance, are frequently referred to by a wide variety of unfamiliar honorifics; there's a glossary in the back, but it still takes getting used to).  Also--and I'm really sorry to say this, because it has such massive literal and symbolic significance within the novel--the romance aspect isn't great.  For whatever significance she may have, Annelies is a really uninteresting, almost totally passive character.  Nonetheless, I persisted, and the climax--which manages in spite of everything to be fairly shattering--was enough to push me forward.  I wasn't sure at first whether I was going to read the whole series or leave it at the first one just to get an idea, but the story is so unresolved that there seemed no choice but to push onward.  And I know perfectly well that if I had stopped, the momentum would've been gone and I'd never have had the gumption to see the entire narrative through.

…which is good, because the story really started gripping me with Child of All Nations.  In part, this may just be me getting used to Praemodya's writing style; in part it may be that Annelies plays such a reduced role here--but whatever it is, it kept me going.  Minke's main obstacle in this second book is learning to identify with the native peoples.  In This Earth of Mankind, he had become cognizant of the injustice of colonialism, but he was still thinking like a European (because they had educated him and, naturally, made a very strong impression).  Here, he has to figure out how to get--to a certain extent--"deprogrammed."  The novel also analogizes the situation of the Dutch and the Indies to that of Japan and China, broadening the scope of the story.  The narrative momentum is a little bit dulled by a few somewhat didactic sections where characters explain the roots of colonialism, why it develops as it does, &c, but I still liked it a lot.

In Footsteps, Minke has traveled to Betawi (Batavia in Dutch, the modern-day Jakarta) to be a medical student, which is seen as the highest education a native can pursue.  However, he becomes disenchanted with the notion of being a doctor: he would just end up working for the government, propping up the colonial regime.  So instead, he decides to start a magazine and then a newspaper helping people better understand the nature of the government and its laws, with the eventual goal of bringing modernity to them and ultimately helping to emancipate them.  He also founds a solidarity-oriented organization to go along with.  Good idea in theory, but most people are more interested in going along to get along, and there are also questions about working for the entire people versus just focusing on a single one of the Indies' many cultures.  There are also feminist issues raised here: to what extent and how do feminism and anti-colonialism intersect?  All of this action is in front of the backdrop of increased violence, as the Dutch colonial army tries to put down rebellions throughout the country.  The uncompromising nature of Pramoedya's anti-colonialism becomes ever more explicit.   Now, it should be said up-front: it really is slow as molasses.  Child of All Nations was just a dress-rehearsal, speechifying-wise.  Footsteps is the longest book in the quartet by a wide-ish margin, and that is NOT because there's a lot more action--though there is SOME, which I'm skimming over for spoiler reasons (yes, I feel ridiculous talking about "spoilers" for a book like this, but it's so engrained in my psyche I just can't help it at this point).  Nonetheless, I found it educational and eye-opening and compelling.  Onward!

House of Glass concludes the series in a surprising fashion, as Minke is no longer the narrator.  He had been arrested and exiled at the end of Footsteps--let's face it, there was no way THAT wasn't going to happen--and our new narrator is one Jacques Pangemanann, the police officer who had previously arrested Minke (the first part of the novel rewinds and shows us events from Footsteps from his perspective, which is quite interesting).  In theory, he respects and sympathizes with Minke and his cause, but in practice, well…he does his job.  The fact that Minke's narrative is over is in one sense disappointing, but it also makes sense, as it underlines the fact that anti-colonialism is not a Great Man type of situation: it comes from all over the place, in many different forms.

The title refers to Pangemanann's conception of his work, in which the native groups are living inside the house in question and he is able to perfectly observe and manipulate them from outside.  A lot of the book is--no surprise--taken up with the successes and failures of the various disparate anti-colonial groups in the Indies, which is, again, interesting if a bit slow going at times, but it's probably most compelling as a character study, as Pangemanann becomes more and more corrupted by his work.  He has frequent cries de coeurs in which he vows, no!  I WON'T do it!  I won't destroy this person! but they never mean anything: he always goes ahead and does what he has to do anyway, culminating in Minke's final downfall (which, let me tell you, is really hard to read).  And as he does all this he starts more and more to enjoy it, even as a detached part of him looks on in horror.  It has something of the feel of a film noir, in which the protagonist sinks deeper and deeper in his own lies and corruption until he's ultimately destroyed.  He's a contemptible character, but memorably so.  I think it's quite plausible that in him, Pramoedya is accurately representing the mindset of a certain kind of colonial apparatchik.

So there you have it.  I think that part of the impact of these books on me was lost in translation, but they still affected me strongly.  I've incidentally read various books here and there that dealt with colonialism, but Pramoedya really helped me grasp some of the related issues in ways I never had before--as well as realize more viscerally the horrors of colonialism (for a while, certain right-wing dipshits like Dinesh D'Souza were accusing Obama of being an "anti-colonialist," as if that, if true, would be a bad thing--more evidence of what moral voids they are).  I think This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations are ultimately more successful as novels than Footsteps and House of Glass--they more effectively mix theory and, you know, praxis--stuff happening--but the entire series feels vital to me, and I want to emphasize how much I admire Pramoedya for persevering under such unimaginably difficult circumstances.


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