Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The story of western colonization is well known, but too often is told by the colonizers alone. The colonized remain silent, the passive, frequently unnamed, victims of decisions taken in London, Paris or The Hague. For many western historical novelists, the former colonies simply form an exotic backdrop to the action, the natives provide little more than picturesque colour.   All the more reason then to be grateful for the works of the late Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  It might seem an undertaking  to read all 1,500 pages, of his Buru Quartet, but this magnificent novel is divided into four volumes (most quartets are!), so you can simply start with the first one, This Earth of Mankind.

I don’t know of any other work that so clearly dissects the phenomenon of imperialism, reveals the haughty ignorance of the colonizer and the despair of the colonized, and exposes how colonialism poisoned the relationship between the so-called developed and lesser-developed countries. This epic work tells the story of the education, political awakening and gradual maturing of Minke, a young Indonesian writer living under Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies. It also tells the parallel story of the birth of a concept – the idea of the nation state that would become Indonesia. The story of Minke is loosely based on the life of Tirto Aldi Suryo, one of the pioneers of Indonesian national awakening.

The novel is starred with colourful characters who influence, for good or bad, Minke. But let me share with you some of Pramoedya’s own words. These examples come from the second volume of the novel: Child of All Nations.

A French friend of Minke, disillusioned with European civilisation and its imperial project, tells him that

pity is the feeling of well intentioned people who are unable to act.  Pity is only a luxury, or a weakness.  It is those who are able to carry out their good intentions who deserve praise.

A Chinese socialist revolutionary tells Minke.

Science and modern learning will pursue everyone everywhere.  Mankind is forever being pursued because modern science and learning constantly provide the inspiration and desire to control nature and man together.  There is no power that brings to a halt this passion to control, except greater science and learning, in the hands of more virtuous people

Nyai, his Javanese mother-in-law, who has endured bitter injustice at the hands of the Dutch authorities, warns Minke:

Don’t worship Europe in its totality.  There is good as well as evil everywhere.  There are angels and devils everywhere.  There are devils with the faces of angels, and angels with the faces of devils everywhere.  And there is one thing that stays the same, Child, that is eternal.  The colonist is always a devil

Ouch! A Dutch journalist advises Minke, (and try swapping the words “the modern age” with “globalisation”):

What people call the modern age is really the age of the triumph of capital.  Everybody alive in the modern age is ordered about by big capital: even the education you received was adjusted to capital’s needs, not your own.  So too the newspapers.  Everything is arranged by it, including morality, law, truth and knowledge.

This is a big novel of political ideas.  And ideas, of course, are dangerous.  The Dutch imprisoned Pramoedya during the struggle for Indonesian independence.  Later, the brutal dictatorship of General Suharto locked him away in a concentration camp (Buru) for fourteen years and kept him under house arrest for a further twelve. For years he was banned from traveling abroad and all of his work was banned, though widely read outside of his country.  But the people who fear his ideas, and try to kill them, are barbarians.  In fact he described this himself, again in the words of Nyai to Minke:

People greedy for money and property never read stories; they are barbarians.  They have no concern for the fate of other people, let alone people who exist only in a story.

With the fall of the military dictatorship in the early 1990s Pramoedya Ananta Toer found himself to be a world-wide celebrated author, the recipient of honourary doctorates, national medals and some of the world’s leading and most prestigious literary awards, though the call from the Nobel Committee never arrived.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer died in 2006 aged 81. If you haven’t read his Buru Quartet yet, you should start now.

For more on the Dutch in Indonesia see my earlier post.

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