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Indonesia's Greatest Writer

On the Death of Pramoedya Ananta Toer

by TARIQ ALI

The death of the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in Jakarta on April 30, is an enormous loss to world literature. He was a leading intellectual of the Indonesian left and a brilliant writer of fiction, always in pursuit of a time that never came. Sometimes he would think he had glimpsed the future and this immediately became magnified and was reflected in his fiction. His passion for radical politics was never hidden. Author of the ‘Buru Quartet’, he spent 15 years in prison–first under the Dutch, then under Suharto.

In "Diajang menjerah", "She Who Gave Up", a short story published in a 1952 collection (Tjerita dari Blora, "Stories from Blora"), he wrote:

‘In such times too the rage for politics roared along like a tidal wave, out of control. Each person felt as though she, he could not be truly alive without being political, without debating political questions. In truth, it was as though they could stay alive even without rice. Even schoolteachers, who had all along lived "neutrally", were infected by the rage for politics–and, so far as they were able, they influenced their pupils with the politics to which they had attached themselves. Each struggled to claim new members for his party. And schools proved to be fertile battlefields for their struggles. Politics! Politics! No different from rice under the Japanese Occupation.’

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, once contained the largest Communist Party outside the actual world of Communism. In 1965, the military seized the country and bathed it in blood: at least a million people, mainly Communists and their sympathisers, were massacred. [The CIA station supplied the killers with its own lists of Communists and leftists. AC/JSC ] In Bali and elsewhere, the pro-West military leaders worked with Islamist vigilantes to make sure that few were left alive. Twenty years later a writer from a younger generation, Pripit Rochijat Kartawidjaja, recalled the hellish night:

‘Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

Toer, born in 1925 in Blora in central Java, was the country’s most distinguished novelist and, significantly, published in the United States. His life was spared. The generals dared not execute him, but hoped that the conditions in which he was kept would take care of the problem.

Arrested after the military coup in Jakarta in 1965, he was sent to Buru island, a tropical gulag where many died of exhaustion, hard labour or starvation. Toer survived. He would later recall how every night, for three thousand and one nights (eight years), he fought against cruelty, disease and creeping insanity by telling stories to his fellow prisoners. It kept hope alive for him and them. As they listened, the prisoners momentarily forgot where they were or who had sentenced them.

He spent 12 years altogether on Buru. It was not his first prison journey and this led him to compare present-day conditions with the colonial past. There was no room for doubt. Conditions were qualitatively worse than they had been almost two decades ago when he was a prisoner from 1947 to 1949 at the forced labor camp of Bukitduri. Then he had been actively engaged in the revolutionary struggle against the Dutch after the Second World War.

The Dutch, unlike their post-colonial mimics, had not deprived him of writing implements and this was where he wrote his first novel, Perburuan (1950), translated as The Fugitive (1975 and 1990), a 170-page masterpiece superior in composition and content to the fiction of Albert Camus with which Western critics sometimes compared it.

In Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu (1995: The Mute’s Soliloquy, 1999)–an affecting account of his life in prison–Toer describes, in spare, contained prose, the institutionalized brutality of Suharto’s New Order. The old cargo vessel on which he and 800 prisoners are being transported to Buru island reminds him of the coolies on Captain Bontekoe’s ship, the kidnapped Chinese on Michener’s ship bound for Hawaii . . . the four million Africans loaded on to British and American ships for transport across the Atlantic.

In extreme moments during the colonial period, the threatened, insecure Dutch administrators, aware of the Javanese obsession with cleanliness, used to hurl excrement at the natives, to humiliate and debase them. The New Order prison ship went one better. The prisoners’ hold was adjacent to the latrine and during stormy weather the two locations became inseparable. The prisoners were regularly mistreated and starved so that only the fittest would survive. Toer describes a desperate menu:

‘Imagine a diet of gutter rats, the mouldy outgrowth on papaya trees and banana plants, and leeches, skewered on palm-leaf ribs prior to eating. Even J.P., one of our most well-educated prisoners, found himself reduced to eating cicak, though he always broke off the lizard’s toe pads first. He’d become quite an expert at catching them. After amputating the lizard’s toes, he would squeeze the unfortunate creature between his thumb and forefinger, shove it to the back of his throat, and swallow it whole. The man’s will to defend himself against hunger was a victory in itself.

And all the while the regime sent in preachers and Islamist journalists to inspect the minds of the inmates and urge them to become Believers:

‘I have no doubt that this year, just as in previous years, at the beginning of the fasting month my mates and I will be treated to a lecture by a religious official specially brought in from the free world, on the importance of fasting and controlling one’s hunger and desires. Imagine the humour of that!’

After 15 years in his country’s prisons, a campaign by Amnesty and other groups in the West helped, in 1979, to secure Toer’s release, but it was conditional: until 1992 he was confined to house arrest in Jakarta and forced to report regularly to the police. But his time was his own and he could write again.

The allegories he had tried out on the political prisoners during desperate times became a much-acclaimed quartet of novels known as "Minke’s Story" or the "Buru Quartet". The first of these, Bumi manusia (translated as This Earth of Mankind, 1982), was published in 1980 and topped the best-seller list for 10 months. The second, too, Anak semua bangsa (1980: A Child of All Nations, 1984), became a best-seller. Thus thousands of Indonesian citizens chose to welcome "Pram", their most celebrated dissident, back to literary life.

The novels–part realist, part historical (the succeeding volumes were translated as Footsteps, 1990, and House of Glass, 1992)–were set in the colonial period. The inspiration was provided by the legendary figure of Tirto Adi Surya, the father of Indonesian nationalist journalism. The scale and depth of the work was such that, for most Indonesian readers forced by the political climate to stifle their own thoughts, the effect was dramatic. Toer was writing about the past, but much of what he wrote resonated with the present. Were Suharto and the New Order a continuation of the colonial regime? In 1981 the books were banned. The publishers were forced to close down. One of them was imprisoned for three months.

Had Pramoedya Ananta Toer been a Soviet dissident he would have received the Nobel Prize, but his status as a literary master is secure and, unlike some Latin American contemporaries, he remained unapologetic throughout his life:

‘Just as politics cannot be separated from life, life cannot be separated from politics. People who consider themselves to be non-political are no different; they’ve already been assimilated by the dominant political culture–they just don’t feel it any more.’

TARIQ ALI is author of the recently released Street Fighting Years (new edition) and, with David Barsamian, Speaking of Empires & Resistance. He can be reached at: tariq.ali3@btinternet.com