Toer: From Indonesia
Mon 21 Apr 2551 at 13:00-16:00
Room 201 Liberal Arts, TU,
Anderson (speaking in English)
Suchart Sawasdisri (in Thai)
Pakavadee V. (in Thai, tranlator of: This Earth of
Child of all
Jelak Langkah (2547)
A talk on Pramoedya Ananta Tur
Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the death of the famous
Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta
Tur (1926-2006). Benedict Anderson reflects on the
Indonesian's legacy, and what it means for writers in
his homeland and beyond
Pramoedya Ananta Tur (1926-2006).
Pramoedya Ananta Tur was born in 1926, in
the small, very poor Javanese town of Blora, perhaps like Roi Et was 50 years ago.
So he came into the world 10 years before I did, and six years
before the downfall of the absolute monarchy in Siam. His father was a primary
school teacher and a nationalist, but eventually became an obsessive gambler
out of political frustration.
His mother, however, was from a pious Muslim family. Probably the
marriage was unhappy. Pram had no formal education beyond primary school, but
both his parents were readers. All his life he was an autodidact.
A few months before the Japanese invasion in early 1942, he left
for the big city of Surabaya
to learn professional typing and stenography. This enabled him to get a minor
job in Jakarta,
working as a clerk for the Japanese imperial news agency, Domei.
There he met some of Indonesia's
most famous nationalist leaders and activists of his own age. After Japan
surrendered in August 1945, the Indonesians declared their independence and
began a four year military and diplomatic struggle against Dutch efforts to reimpose colonial rule. Pramoedya
joined one of the military units for two years, and then decided to devote
himself to writing and to non-military resistance. He was captured and
imprisoned by the Dutch, and used his time in jail to produce his first great
works, at the age of 24.
In the early 1950s he produced a huge amount of first-class
writing and was already reckoned as his country's major novelist and
short-story writer. But he made little money out of his writing, and became
extremely disappointed by the conditions in post-revolutionary Indonesia. So
he started moving politically to the left, particularly after a visit to Mao's China (where he
fell in love wth his Chinese guide), which struck him
as a big contrast to his own country. Though not a communist, he then joined
and became a prominent figure in Lekra, an
association of artists and writers loosely affiliated with Indonesia's
Communist Party, the third largest in the world. In 1960 he was again jailed,
this time by Indonesia's military, for writing a powerful book defending the
rights and the contributions of the country's often hated Chinese minority.
After General Suharto took power in the
wake of the failed, and still mysterious, so-called "attempted communist
coup" of October 1, 1965, he followed this up with the mass murder of
hundreds of thousands of leftists, and the imprisonment, without trial, of
hundreds of thousands of others. Pramoedya's house
and personal library were destroyed, and he himself was imprisoned for the next
13 years, mostly in a penal colony on the remote eastern island of Buru. It was here that he
created his famous Buru Tetralogy,
initially telling the story to his fellow-prisoners, and later, when he was
allowed a typewriter, putting it on paper.
He was released in 1978, at the age of 52, and had to struggle to
survive. Two old friends helped him publish the Tetralogy,
but the books were quickly prohibited, though they circulated clandestinely.
Even today, all his work is still officially banned, though the ban is no
longer enforced. He lived long enough to observe the downfall of Suharto, and for the first time in his life to make a
decent living from Western and Japanese translations of his novels. He was also
regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Although we corresponded occasionally, I did not meet Pramoedya in person until after Suharto
fell in 1998, since I was banned from Indonesia, and Pramoedya
was not allowed out of the country. But once we did meet, in Jakarta, we had some wonderful, often very
funny conversations. His spirit was absolutely not broken, though he found the Indonesia of
the 1980s and 1990s very alien.
- His work
A right-wing literary enemy once told me dismissively that Pramoedya was not a real writer, but simply a purveyor of dongeng, an Indonesian word that covers nithan
in Thai, i.e. folk tales and legends. In this malicious remark there was a
kernel of truth. Pramoedya grew up in an
overwhelmingly oral culture, where illiteracy was common, TV did not yet exist,
but people were accustomed to travelling live theatre
groups, the famous shadow-puppet theatre, old people's stories and legends, and
a rich tradition of songs and always sung poetry.
To fully appreciate Pramoedya's work,
you have to hear it read aloud. When he finally visited Cornell University,
he agreed to read aloud to our students (with a tape recorder nearby) one of
his greatest short stories, Ketjapi, the name of a
traditional Indonesian zither. He had a wonderful, deep voice, and by the end
some of us were crying.
Although Pram was soaked through and through with Javanese culture
(and a literary tradition that goes back almost 1,000 years), he was also its
determined enemy. Not a single one of his works was written in Javanese, his
mother tongue. When I asked him about this, he gave two reasons. The first was
that he was a nationalist, and Indonesian was the national language - he wanted
to reach all his fellow countrymen, not just his fellow Javanese. The second
was that he thought Javanese was incurably feudal,
forcing speakers either to look down on or slavishly look up to the people they
spoke to. (For example, there are three completely different words for horse,
and each one represents a step on the feudal ladder. Those Thais who find rajasap difficult and complicated should imagine Javanese
as three times harder.) Most of the main villains of his early novels and
stories are what Thais are forced to call phu di. His heroes and heroines are always common people. He
also enjoyed parodying and mocking Javanese phu di culture.
Pram was also unique in his literary attachment to women. His work
contains many complex portraits of different kinds of women, in a manner
unmatched by his literary contemporaries who made men their major fictional
figures, with women marginalised as stereotypical
mothers, sweethearts, and prostitutes.
The Buru Tetralogy,
however, marked a major turning point in Pramoedya's
career. In the many books he published between 1950 and 1965, there are
virtually no foreigners, no local Chinese and almost no non-Javanese
Indonesians. In the Tetralogy, however, one finds
Eurasian journalists and gangsters, a pathetic Japanese prostitute, a young
female Chinese activist who has fled persecution in China, a brave Madurese guard, a sinister Menadonese
secret policeman, a Dutch feminist, a crippled French painter, a local Chinese
brothel-keeper, a princess from the farthest eastern margin of the Indonesian
archipelago, good and bad Dutch officials, and so on. This new outlook is sharply
signalled in the titles of the first two Buru novels, which can
literally be translated as This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations. Both
reject any kind of narrow Luang Wijit
nationalism. There is no grand international panorama like this in any other
fiction by a writer from Southeast Asia over
the past 50 years.
Why the change? In the early '60s, Pramoedya
started to do systematic research on the complex origins of Indonesian
nationalism. He combed libraries and newspaper archives and took very detailed
notes. What he discovered was in fact just such a cosmopolitan world in the
colony of 1910-25, which the standard nationalist textbook writers either knew
nothing about or censored. Even when his library and notes were destroyed, he
kept a fantastic amount of the information he collected in his own head. He
would be as true to the past as he could manage.
Secondly, even in prison, Pram was learning a lot more about the
outside world than he had wanted to do earlier. The socialist or communist
countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union quickly made their peace with
the Suharto regime, and even China would
follow in due course. The people who worked hardest to help the political
prisoners were the members of Amnesty International, based in London, who came from many parts of the
world. The single most influential figure in getting Pram and his fellow
prisoners released was a progressive American congressman from Minnesota who found a way to attach a human rights condition
to any substantial aid given by the US to client regimes overseas. The
US State Department was then forced, much against its will, to produce every
year a comprehensive report on the human rights situations under these regimes.
It was the fear that Indonesia
would suffer financially if its government did not release the prisoners that
really made the difference.
In 2000, I was with Pramoedya in Fukuoka, Japan,
when he received that year's Fukuoka Prize for outstanding contributions by
Asians. We both knew that he had been repeatedly nominated for this prize in
previous years, but the Fukuoka
prize committee was too scared of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which in turn
was too scared of Suharto, to give him the award. As
a younger man, he would surely have been enraged by this cowardice and
opportunism, but at the age of 74, he could even joke about it - in the
dismayed presence of some Fukuoka
What has Pramoedya to say to Siam today? Simple things mainly. Great writers have to be brave; they
have to work very hard; they have to abandon official textbook history for the
real study of their country's past in old newspapers, memoirs, popular
memories, archives and so on; they have to know their countrymen from top to
bottom, with a special emphasis on the bottom, the mass of their fellow
citizens who do not enjoy the middle class life of many authors; they have to
stand up against censorship and intimidation; and they have to take to heart
the lesson that if they are not careful and curious, "Thailand", like
"Indonesia", can easily become the half-shell of a coconut that the
proverbial frog imagines to be the sky (kob nai kala). When I told him that
most of my American students could not name the prime minister of Canada, or the president of Mexico, the US's
next-door neighbours, he laughed and said, "Just
A final note. The first three
of the four Buru
novels have been excellently translated into Thai, but the publishers have so
far rejected, on commercial grounds, the publication of the last, which has the
enigmatic title: The Glass House. This is a great pity, since Pramoedya did something in this book that is still
astonishing. Throughout the first three novels, the narrating "I"
character is a young Javanese aristocrat who abandons his feudal background to
become a crusading anti-colonial journalist and a founder of the Indonesian
popular nationalist movement. In the last volume, the "I" is a native
who has become a top official in the colonial regime's Santiban,
who arranges the young hero's imprisonment, early death and erasure from
history. The reader gradually learns that everything he or she has read so far
comes from Santiban files, and that these have been
tampered with, so they cannot always be taken as reliable. In reality, no
native ever held high office in the colonial secret police. But ex-natives
created Suharto's vast web of intelligence agencies
and prisons, into whose clutches Pramoedya fell.
Probably his experience under Suharto enabled Pramoedya brilliantly to get into the complicated mindset
of his enemies. I know of no Southeast Asian novelist (since Jose' Rizal of the
Phillipines) who has wanted or been capable of this
artistic and moral achievement.
The first three volumes of Pramoedya Ananta Tur's Buru
Tetralogy have been translated into Thai by Pakawadee Weerapaspong. 'Phaendin haeng cheewit' (This Earth of Mankind), 'Phu
sueb thod' (Child of All
Nations) and 'Roy
yang gao' (Footsteps) and
are published by Kobfai.
Benedict Anderson is a professor emeritus of International Studies
at Cornell University, and a well-known authority
on 20th century Indonesian history and politics. For over two decades, he was
banned from entering Indonesia
until the end of the Suharto regime due to his writing
criticising the role of the military in the October
1965 coup. Anderson also writes extensively on Thailand's
contemporary history, politics and literature. One of his major works is
'Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism'.