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Pramoedya Ananta Toer, This earth of mankind

June 16, 2009

Nationalism, in today’s western world, is pretty much a dirty word – and yet it is the idea of nationalism which underpins Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer‘s Buru Quartet, of which I have just read the first book, This earth of mankind. Toer’s concept of nationalism was formed under colonial rule of his country by the Dutch and then under military rule by Indonesians. His notion of nationalism encompasses ideas of individual freedom and dignity, and the right of individuals and, by extension, the nations which they form, to be self-determining. None of these are well supported under colonial or military regimes.

Toer & a translator. Photo: Michael Scott Moore at radiofreemike.com

Toer & a translator. Photo: Michael Scott Moore at radiofreemike.com

Toer (1925-2006) spent quite a bit of his life as a political prisoner and, in fact, this novel was first told orally to co-inmates in 1973 when he was imprisoned on the Buru Island penal settlement. He was first imprisoned (1947-1949) by the Dutch government after an anti British and Dutch revolution, and then later by the Indonesian government, first in 1963 when he supported Chinese minorities, and then after a military coup in 1965.  On this third occasion, he was imprisoned until 1979, though after that was essentially kept under house arrest until 2002. The first two novels were published in 1979/1980, and were translated into English in 1981 by Australian diplomat in Indonesia, Max Lane, who was recalled to Australia that same year as a result. Clearly, the Indonesian government was not amused. Indeed, the books were banned by that government in 1981.

 

From Wikipedia, under GNU Free Documentation License

From Wikipedia, under GNU Free Documentation License

This earth of mankind is set in 1898, and provides a fascinating look at colonial life in Indonesia at that time. It tells the story of a Native, the only one to attend an elite school. Being a Native he has no formal name, and so throughout he is called several names – Sinyo or Nyo, Gus, and most commonly Minke. Early in the novel, he is introduced to a succesful concubine Nyai Ontosoroh and her beautiful daughter, Annelies, and is gradually drawn into their lives. The novel follows his – and their – fortunes as the colonial authority does its best to see that a Native does not rise above his station. Life turns out to be a paradoxical one for Minke – on the one hand his education teaches him to think and argue and believe that all things are possible while on the other hand the colonial structure, within which he lives, works to ensure that little is possible.

The novel is peopled with a wide range of characters of various ethnic backgrounds – primarily Dutch, Indo (people with Dutch and Native parentage), and Natives, but also French and Chinese. This ensures that the strictly enforced layer of colonially-decided rights is set against a wide variety of political and personal opinions and provides the reader with an excellent insight into a complex society. This is perhaps also the cause of its main flaw because it is, at heart, an ideological novel. And, like many ideological novels, characters and plots are simplified and exaggerated to make the point. So, in simple terms the story can be seen as poor clever boy meets rich powerful concubine and falls in love with her beautiful but weak daughter only to be crossed by the wicked brother. The story has a melodramatic edge and there’s not a lot of complexity – of greys – to the characters. They are there to serve a purpose.

That said, it is a rivetting read. Told, first person, in Minke’s voice, the novel immediately engages us with him and his situation. He is, in fact, a little more rounded than the others: we get a sense of his uncertainty as he makes his various decisions throughout the book. This is largely because it is also a coming-of-age novel: paralleling the ideological issues underpinning the novel is the story of Minke’s emotional, social and intellectual development. A major thread is that of education and what can (should) be expected of an educated person. Early in the novel his “mentor”, the French artist, Jean Marais, tells him:

You’re educated Minke. An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning first of all with his thoughts, then later in his deeds. That is what it means to be educated.

This advice underpins Minke’s thought and actions from that point on: at each test or decision point he tries to apply his education.  There’s bitter irony here though because it is the source of that education – Europe – that causes his major problems at the end. As Minke is fast learning, you have to be strong to survive.

There’s a lot more that can be teased out in this book – including the role played by language in controlling and enforcing power and status – but rather than ramble on, I will end with the words of Minke’s favourite teacher, Magda Peters. She says:

…without a love of literature, you’ll remain just a lot of clever animals

It is not surprising then that Minke, Toer’s alter ego in this book, becomes a writer!

(Translated by Max Lane)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. residentjudge permalink
    June 17, 2009 2:01 pm

    I’ve never heard of this book, or the writer. How did you come to read it?

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    June 17, 2009 2:17 pm

    Longish story. My son had it as a novel in high school – back in about 1999 when he was 15 (that would make it year 10). I’d never heard of it but decided then that I wanted to read it. BUT it languished in my TBR pile for a long time – you know how it is. Anyhow, I nominated it for the bookgrouplist and it got selected! It’s the first one I’ve properly read with them for many many months. Discussion is just starting now. I’d like to read others in the quartet but whether I will is another thing. Given Indonesia’s proximity to us it’s pretty awful that we don’t know about it isn’t it.

  3. June 26, 2009 8:41 pm

    Wow, this brings back memories. We lived in Bogor in West Java for 3 years in the mid-eighties when my husband worked for Australian overseas aid in Indonesia. This book was highly valued but people spoke about it in a hushed breath because of the censorship. Expats had bought copies outside of Indonesia and there were translations surreptitiously around.

    I’m impressed that your son studied it at school. He must have had some special English teachers.

    I must look for a copy. Thank you for this.

  4. whisperinggums permalink*
    June 26, 2009 9:22 pm

    Thanks Steph, that’s really interesting. We are trying to understand the background to him and it, and Toer’s rel. with other writers in Indonesia. Clearly you were there not long after it was banned! You must have had an interesting experience over there.

    Yes, he did have some good English teachers.

  5. Ema Matondang S.Pd permalink
    April 5, 2011 10:21 am

    To any one, please,
    how can i get a free script of “This Earth of Mankind”, by Pramudya Ananta Toer?
    Please somebody can help?
    thanks,
    ema

    • April 5, 2011 7:32 pm

      I’m not sure what you mean by script but I’m afraid I’m not sure how you can get access to it free, except in libraries.

  6. Eugene Lee permalink
    October 8, 2011 4:51 am

    great review. I work for a hedge fund and stumbled on this review while reseaching for a political/economic history for Indonesia and reading about the massive lefist purge of 1965-66. such a crazy time. The story of Toer is just amazing (albiet a touch dejecting) and since I wanted to learn more about his books, it was great to see your solid coverage of his first work in the quartet.

    I agree, your son has some awesome English teachers. Luv the structure, content, and sytle of writing in your site. Do keep it up!

    Eugene

    • October 8, 2011 7:04 am

      How fascinating that you found my review Eugene. It’s always nice too having comments on older posts. Anyhow, I’m glad you found it interesting … I’m sorry that I haven’t yet managed to get to the other books. Oh, and Toer’s story is a little rejecting – and it’s a story repeated way too often around the world.

  7. Lindsey permalink
    February 12, 2016 3:45 am

    Thank you for this! I am highly impressed he read it in High School! I am a junior in college in the Houston, Texas area and I am reading it in my post colonial literature class. It is wonderful, and I am enjoying it so far. I really enjoyed this review because I didn’t know anything about Toer’s background. It is very good for a biographical criticism paper, too! I don’t know what else you have rad but another good book some what with the same theme is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

    • February 12, 2016 7:46 am

      Thanks Lindsey. Lovely to hear from you. We bloggers love it when someone comments on an old post. Makes it feel worthwhile somehow.

      Would you believe I’m going to read Things fall apart this year? I’ve been wanting to read it for along time and this year my reading group agreed to do it.

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