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You should read Indonesia's This Earth of Mankind
Max Lane Online - April 30, 2014
As of 2013 it is thirty years since the Penguin English language edition of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's historical novel, This Earth of Mankind, was published in 1983. The sequels to this novel, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass were published over the following several years, all by Penguin in Australia and the United Kingdom. They were launched into the United States by William Morrow, Hyperion and Penguin in the 1990s. As their translator, it is very pleasing to see that they are still in print 30 years later, having had many reprints. In 2014, the four novels are likely to appear as eBooks, with Penguin USA buying the eBook rights. They appear already to be advertised as eBooks for Kindle on Amazon.com.
Pramoedya work has, on the whole, met with critical acclaim in the West, in particular the United States, since the books were published. Later this was supplemented by the publications of other translations, such as those of Silent Songs of a Mute, Fugitive, Girl from the Coast and collections of short stories. In 1992 the New York Times reviewer wrote:
Now comes a book of far greater scope and depth from independent Indonesia's greatest but still most controversial fiction writer, whose career spans more than 40 years. "This Earth of Mankind," the first in a cycle of four novels, is the tale of a bittersweet coming of age in Java, Indonesia's dominant island, almost a century ago. Through it, we are taken back to the days of nascent Indonesian nationalism. But the author is a humanist, not a propagandist, and so his novel is also a wonderful example of the best storytelling tradition of his country. (http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/19/books/banned-in-jakarta.html)In 1996, after House of Glass appeared, the Washington Post reviewer wrote:
The Buru Tetralogy is one of the 20th century's great artistic creations, a work of the richest variety, color, size and import, founded on a profound belief in mankind's potential for greatness and shaped by a huge compassion for mankind's weakness. http://www.library.ohiou.edu/indopubs/1996/09/03/0053.html)Jamie James in his article "The Indonesiad" in The New Yorker wrote:
Pramoedya's masterwork is the Buru Quartet, a cycle of novels set in the final, decadent years of Dutch colonialism in Java. The series follows the life of a revolutionary journalist named Minke. The first native Javanese boy to attend the elite Dutch colonial high school, Minke is full of idealistic notions about European progress. The process of his disillusionment and forging of his Indonesian identity-a new element in the periodic table of history-for the novels' core. The Buru Quartet is saturated with the gothic gloom and steamy atmosphere of the rain forest. With the publication this month, by William Morrow, of the quartet's final volume, "House of Glass," and the paperback reissue, by Penguin, of its predecessors, "This Earth of Mankind," "Child of All Nations," and "Footsteps," American readers can now follow Pramoedya's saga of Minke-one of the most ambitions undertakings in postwar world literature-from beginning to end. (http://www.library.ohiou.edu/indopubs/1996/05/25/0002.html)James description of some of Pramoedya's style – "the Buru Quartet is saturated with the gothic gloom and steamy atmosphere of the rain forest" – speaks as to how the novels reach across cultures. The reception in America is a particularly convincing tribute to Pramoedya's story-telling and writing remembering that Indonesia is almost invisible and unknown to Americans, unlike the situation in Australia.
The books which followed This Earth of Mankind and its sequels, A Mutes Soliloquy, Fugitive and Girl from the Coast, translated by John McGlynn were also, on the whole received with acclaim. Most of the reviews in the mainstream media in the West have been kind also to the English translation work.
A Google search of This Earth of Mankind will bring up thousands of references. It is clear that this book, and to some extent its sequels, have entered to a certain realm of canon, for those interested in world literature, comparative literature, post-colonial literature and just a good read. When a high school or university student can now find a wide selection of possible essay answers to a wide selection of topics on a novel it is a sign that the book has entered a sustainable cycle of reading and is well loved and appreciated, even in English translation. Teaching guides and lesson plans for teachers are now also available.
Among Indonesianists (Indonesia specialists and fellow translators), as one might expect, there is more criticisms and different evaluations. Different approaches to understanding Indonesia, from Orientalist, disguised and open, to historical materialist; and different levels, depths and character of experience with Indonesia and its language and its discourses produces different tastes and evaluations.
When I translated This Earth of Mankind I was 30 years old and had ten years of experience with Indonesia. I was working as staff in the Australian Embassy. Now 30 years later, with a new variety of engagement with the country, more familiarity with the language, a longer period to get to know Pramoedya, perhaps I would have translated differently. But then again perhaps not: perhaps there is continuity in the nature of the engagement with a society, even as time unfolds. My engagement with the beauty of Indonesia has always been in the form on friendship and collaboration with those struggling for, or who stood for, radical political change, including Pramoedya and his editor Joesoef Isak and publisher, Hasyim Rachman as well as the poet and dramatist Rendra, but mostly those much younger. Their language, expression and communication, amongst themselves and with their society, produces a "text" of its own. In Indonesia, where modern literature is only now just beginning to assert itself as a separate existential realm, the 'text' of radical political interaction has determined a lot of how literary communication takes place. Political Indonesian youth who have read This Earth of Mankind love it, as do many who have lived through the politicising period of the rise of the opposition to Suharto. I have met many fanatical lovers of these books. For them, the mode of communication used in big sections of the novels, described below by the pioneering American anthropologist of Indonesia, Clifford Geertz, (but not a sympathetic reader of Pramoedya) are in fact beautiful:
Western critics have been generally at a loss to convey the peculiarly didactic and reiterative quality of Pramoedya's writing in general, and of the tetralogy in particular – its relentless succession of desperately earnest conversations between typified characters in schematized scenes. So they have reached, in worried confusion, for all sorts of Western analogues: Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Dickens, Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and (the only one with very much to be said for it) a television miniseries. It is, in fact, a narrative, or a series of narratives, that consists almost entirely of talking heads explaining and re-explaining themselves to one another over a thirty-year period of political upheaval, almost all of which takes place offstage as summarily reported event – all of which fits oral patterns of literature and the memory devices that sustain them a good deal better than it does the plots and subplots of the realistic novel. The told tale, later transcribed, moves in a different way than a tale that has been constructed from the start as a written text. For the reader used to crises and conclusions, to peripeties of character, and to the seaward flow of cause and consequence, it may seem hardly to move at all. (http://www.library.ohiou.edu/indopubs/1996/09/16/0085.html)Judging from the reactions of the scores of readers who have written to me or searched me out to talk to me and who also have expressed their views on websites like Amazon.com, there are also western readers for whom the "desperately earnest conversations" meld into a gripping and beautiful story-telling. Apart from the resilience of the books remaining in print, it is to these readers of the English editions that I turn for the occasional counter-balance to the less happy evaluations of the expert colleagues. (see http://www.amazon.com/This-Earth-Mankind-Buru-Quartet/product-reviews/0140256350/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_summary?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=byRankDescending for some of the spontaneous readers views on amazon.com)
James in The New Yorker continues feels what Geertz called "desperate earnestness" differently:
The scale of the Buru cycle, which sprawls across twenty years and more than fifteen hundred pages in the English translation, by Max Lane. The first volume of the series, "This Earth of Mankind," is one of those books that, like "The Catcher in the Rye," inspire such devotion that an admirer instinctively mistrusts anyone who scoffs at them. As I read it, I kept regretting that I had not been able to do so at fifteen, when, with the fanaticism of adolescence, I could have appropriated Minke's passionate idealism as my own.Although James too feels the earnestness in his own way:
The earlier novels are the better ones: tightly written and swift-paced, they strike a careful balance between narrative and ideas. In the third and fourth volumes, there are some fairly rough patches that approach nonfiction, with characters setting forth Pramoedya's version of Indonesian history to one another in "he said/she said" form. Hugo and Dostoyevski are the writers Pramoedya resembles at his best. Somehow the roughness is part of the greatness: it conveys a sense of abundance-of ideas, history, plot-pressing against and sometimes overflowing the capacities of literary assimilation.However in Indonesia itself the most dynamic aspect of contemporary culture has precisely been the hundreds of thousands of desperately earnest conversations that drove the emergence of a mass protest movement and a thousand other little but very earnest subversions that were central to the ending of a dictatorship and the creative work of bringing into existence the Indonesia as the work-in-progress that exists today. Desperately earnest conversations are taking place in even greater number and intensity today and they will still comprise the textual context and the most beautiful aesthetic for the coming period. To what extent a still embryonic literary arena – represented by writers like Eka Kurniawan, Linda Christanty, Faiza Mardzoeki and others – will overlap and interact with this context and aesthetic is yet to be seen. It is in the earnestness that the most beauty is to be found not, for now, in the nuances of "style".
Another American academic, Benedict Anderson wrote of Pramoedya, "Only after his death did he become accepted as his country's grandest modern writer." Unfortunately, this is a completely wrong conclusion. I wish it was true, but it isn't. There has been no public announcement that his writings are no longer banned – they very well may be still formally banned. His works are not introduced, or even mentioned, in high school curriculum for Indonesian language or literature in state schools. (Is this like US schools ignoring Steinbeck? Or is it like US schools ignoring Howard Fast?) In fact, there is no separate subject "Indonesian literature: in the state school system. The novels are barely studied at university level, depending on the youthful rebelliousness of staff and students. He has won no awards or prizes in Indonesia. Those that still wield power in the institutions of the literary establishment still minimise reference to him. Over the last ten years, in a country of 230 million, no more than 30,000 copies of any one title has been printed annually – although there is also a small thriving market in pirated copies. In fact, public recognition and publicly expressed praise for Pramoedya's novels was much higher in the early 1980s in the brief period before This Earth of Mankind was banned. Caught off guard, Indonesia's conglomerate owned media published excellent and positive reviews. Indonesia's Vice-President, Adam Malik, a revolutionary in his youth, invited Pramoedya and his publisher comrades, Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman to his office for a meeting. Their photograph appeared in the major daily newspapers. Vice-President Malik stated publicly that the novel should be read by all students in the schools. Today, more than 30 years later that is still not the case. This is a direct reflection of the repression, control and hegemony of the still ruling lumpen elite and its hangers-on in the media and schools. Of course, since the books were published more than 30 years ago, there has been a steady accumulation of devoted, even fanatical, readers all of whom love these books. The very limited circulation of the books, itself a product of a lack of society-wide recognition, in turn a product of the refusal of the Indonesian elite to properly recognise the novels (through announcing loudly the lifting of the ban, if it has been lifted, and by teaching them – and others – in the schools for example), this readership remains a tiny percentage of the population. Understanding this reality is fundamental to contemporary Indonesian political and cultural reality. What began in the 1980s, after Pramoedya's books were published and as new small revolutionary groups were formed, was a new process of preparing the ground for the relaunching of the national revolution whose origins are the subject of Pramoedya's novels and the social revolution which he declares for between the lines in the resolutions of the novels. The absence of full and official recognition of his works, their still marginal position, is a manifestation of the unfinished nature of this revolutionary process. The analytical task is to understand the dynamics of this process, the dynamics and aesthetics of its earnest conversations and the political and cultural outcomes it produces. One fascinating part of this, although by no means the most important, is the emergence here and there of reading groups around This Earth of Mankind and its sequels, including among young factory worker members of trade unions as well as students.
Another reflection of the still marginal (but subversive) status of Pramoedya's works is almost the total absence of an impact of his novels on public and academic discussion of his radical contributions to understanding Indonesian history. He re-depicted the formation of Indonesia's first truly mass organisation, Sarekat Islam (first as Sarekat Dagang Islam, SDI), as driven by its founder, Tirto Adhisuryo, understanding that a movement resisting the excesses of colonialism needed to be based on those earning their living separate from the colonisers. His first attempt was to organise the civil servants, in the Sarekat Priyayi, whose dependence on a Dutch salary and whose consciousness was formed partly by their identification with the colonial state and its regulations. This failed and he turned to the free people, the burgers, the "pedagang", those who traded or who otherwise earned their living by working for it. I regularly teach classes of candidate teachers in Indonesia, and their textbooks still say that the SDI was purely set up to counter Chinese batik traders, and that another very feudal Javanese organisation, Budi Utomo, was the first modern organisation in Indonesia, not Sarekat Priyayi, as Pramoedya showed clearly was the case.
Real recognition of Pramoedya as the country's greatest writer, by the majority of society, will be won as part of the unfolding of a re-launched national and social revolution, whose ground was partly prepared by the movement against the Suharto dictatorship and is being further prepared now by both natural sociological processes connected to labor organising as well as to radical artistic, intellectual and cultural ferment alongside more conscious efforts to lead conditions towards such a re-launch. One of the important claims to greatness that his novels have, and will have, is that the appreciation of them have been and are still an integral part of that preparing the ground. They will be one of the cultural weapons of these revolutions: in any case these revolutions will also entail a cultural revolution. Pramoedya, until his dying day, was a supporter of Sukarno who argued, right up to the moment he was overthrown in 1965, that neither nation-building nor character-building for Indonesia was completed. This Earth of Mankind and its sequels are not only rich in their exposition of the experiences of political struggle and organising and how this is linked to class and socio-economic processes, but they are also very much about character, that is strength of character. This orientation to issues of character is also the origins for its powerful statements, through its characters and stories, against sexism. Human beings are valued based on their character. Gender becomes irrelevant and some of Pramoedya's most inspiring characters are women, whose character has been forged out of their resistance to their oppression of women.
For those seeking to be active in the unfinished process of preparing the ground, the books provide guidance on struggling for all these. Factory workers post quotes from the novels on their facebook wall on the question of strength of character. Activists and organisers draw on the books' treasury of statements on the principles of organising. Collations of quotes from the novels abound.
Geertz, as quoted above, claims that Western critics have sought comparisons with "Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Dickens, Conrad, Nadine Gordimer, Camus, and Dostoyevsky" as well as, he adds, a television mini-series. (It would be great to see a well made Indonesian mini-series based on the novels.) For myself, I see the clearest international comparison with the great American novelist, Howard Fast, and especially the historical novels of his early period of writing, exemplified by Last Frontier, Freedom Road and especially Citizen Tom Paine, but also slightly later works such as April Morning. Both are the great story-tellers of their revolutions. Fast's novels depicted the first American revolution against British colonial rule and the second against slavery. (He also wrote eloquently depicting the American counter-revolution embodied in the occupation of the 'West" and the extermination of the American Indians.) (Fast also wrote the great novel of rebellion Spartacus.) Pramoedya's historical novels depict the pre-Indonesian origins of what he called the "Indonesian national awakening", the gestation of the Indonesian national revolution. Both were associated with the far left of their respective countries, although Fast later disassociated himself from it.
In any case, as great revolutionary story-tellers, they were both harassed and suppressed, because neither the values and content nor the aesthetics of revolutionary narrative coincide with either the political or literary elite's own ideology or aesthetics. Pramoedya's historical novels are, in some ways safer in terms of the West's dominant political tastes, dealing as they do with a time and place far away and a form of oppression – colonialism – which everybody now claims to oppose. Even so, with Geertz's comments as just one example, not everybody relates to the aesthetics of earnestness. Some fans of Pramoedya, especially in the west, prefer his very vivid, but less didactically earnest, short stories from the period before his revolutionary story-telling. Fast's recognition has still not been properly re-won in the United States. While Indonesia has still not completed its national revolution, whose origins and gestation Pramoedya so brilliantly relates, and is, in that sense, an unfinished nation, perhaps in the United States whose nation creation process has finished, it is not a matter of completing the national revolution, but re-winning its ideals, probably requiring a social revolution of even greated radicalness. Re-winning Fast for Americans (and in the process dragging the great bourgeois writers back to be appreciated as well) and extending recognition and appreciation of Pramoedya's novels to the whole of Indonesian society are both connected to a necessity to re-launch revolutionary processes.
Pramoedya never published extensively, either in fiction or non-fiction, on the history of his own generation (1930s to 1965) nor on Suharto era Indonesia, nor on the contemporary world. His greatest contribution to understanding Indonesia was his works dealing with the pre-colonial and colonial period. However, the This Earth of Mankind and its sequels did make a statement about the dynamic behind the historical processes that were driven forward by the vanguard of his own generation and, I think, the necessary trajectory of the process ahead for Indonesia now. The heroic protagonists of the four books were Minke, inspired by the historical figure of TirtoAdhisryo, and Nyai Ontosoroh, the concubine taken by a Dutch colonial businessman. Nyai Ontorosoh becomes the spiritual guide for Minke in This Earth of Mankind. Nyai essentially educates Minke in the ideas and values of the European Enlightenment, some of which he has already inclucated, as well as Europe's black hypocrisy in how it deals with its colony. Later, in Footsteps and House of Glass, Minke – reflecting Pramoedya's assessment of the real Adhisuryo – becomes a more and more committed democrat and partisan for social justice. He is also a newspaper proprietor and entrepreneur, owning a printing press, stationary business and a hotel. Both he and Nyai are figures of the bourgeoisie: perhaps if we applied an orthodox Marxist categorisation they were representative of a revolutionary bourgeois democratic outlook.
A crucial point – and I don't want to act as too much of a spoiler for those who haven't yet read the novels – is that they fail totally in all their immediate efforts to resist and change. Of course, they (that is, Adhisuryo and his associates and their social layer) left an important legacy in the record of what they did. But they were crushed. Indeed, until Pramoedya wrote these novels, Adhisuryo had pretty much disappeared from the Indonesians historical radar. And their fate in the novels was no less final. Towards the end of Pramoedya's depiction of this process of their failure, as he explains it throughout all four books directly and indirectly, he points to where he think the real energy and intellect for change will come. New characters are introduced – more-or-less as cameos. They are not playing the main roles in the epic Pramoedya has written but in the epic to come. They are figures from the revolutionary working class movement that will shake up the Dutch East Indies during the decade or more that followed Adhisuryo. Of course, we know, Indonesians know, that that generation too was crushed by colonial power and had to await colonialism's next weak moment in the aftermath of World War II.
That Pramoedya saw the future as a revival of that revolutionary working class political tradition is not only to be deduced from his introduction of these characters into the final parts of his story telling of the origins of the Indonesian revolution. His statements after his release from prison, especially in the 1990s when the protest movement was emerging, as well as after the fall of Suharto again and again emphasised that the future needed a revolution that wiped away all that Suharto's New Order had created and that the agency of change must be the youth. Furthermore, he underlined that he did not just mean any youth, but youth building an organised revolutionary left. In 1999 he took the step of being sworn in at a big public event as a member of the Peoples' Democratic Party (PRD), which at that time represented that trajectory. It was a symbolic act, but one which emphasised his perspective.
Last month in Jakarta after speaking to a crowded out public forum on the Indonesian poet Rendra, I was introduced to a worker from a factory belt area outside Jakarta. We sat on the steps chatting with a couple of other activists. He explained that was organising a reading group among the workers in his area based on the This Earth of Mankind series. You could see he did not just respect and admire the books; he loved them. To him, they were beautiful. And yes, he was a very earnest young man. Even though it is early days in the process of preparing the ground for the re-launching of the country's social and national revolution, I know that the number of this kind of reading group is growing. I am very sure that Pramoedya Ananta Toer will be recognised as Indonesia's greatest modern writer or – when others emerge which rival him in the future – the country's first great modern writer. This recognition will be won as part of either the process of preparing the ground for the relaunch of the revolutions or of the relaunch itself. And I am sure too winning such recognition will be part of a flowering of revolutionary literature in general. It will necessarily mean an end to the situation where the appreciation and study of literature is not taught at all in Indonesian schools and where literary communications becomes part of the revolutionary process.
Internationally I am hopeful that, even 30 years after their publication in Indonesia, This Earth of Mankind and its sequels, and his other novels, will remain in print in English. Their presence as an eBook will further help expand their exposure. I am sure more people will read and love them, despite the fact that the translator is certainly not a literary figure of Pramoedya's own stature. But will there ever be a real internationalisation: where Indonesia's This Earth of Mankind and Indonesia's Pramoedya become household words? This, I am sure will also happen. But when it does it will be primarily because Indonesia as a country, a nation, a people, will also have burst upon the world scene. And when the revolution is re-launched – and all the ingredients are steadily maturing – in the fourth most populous country in the world, you will notice it and the revolution's intellectual and cultural output will be of interest to many. Why I am so convinced that this will happen and not so far into the distant future? Well, there are many reasons, which will have to be set out elsewhere. But one thing which gives me confidence is that all the young men and women committed to this course remain today excited and inspired by the power and beauty of Pramoedya's fictional painting of their country's origins. A very good start. And prizes? I think this will be part of winning a prize indeed: as the song says: there is a "world to win".
Meanwhile, you don't have to wait; if you haven't read This Earth of Mankind and its sequels, you should do so now.