Imagination and Liberation

Pramoedya in the 1990s. Lontar Foundation – CC BY 3.0

When I was doing interviews for my dissertation in Santiago, Chile, in 1972, I was told that the word “Jakarta” had been spray-painted on walls throughout the city. The message was unmistakable: the Chilean left should expect the same fate that had befallen their comrades in Indonesia in 1965. A year later, the threat in that one ominous word was carried out, as the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, followed by months of extrajudicial killings and massive repression.

What took place in Chile was horrible, but what happened in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 was horrific. At least one million people were massacred by the Indonesian Army and allied paramilitary gangs in a killing spree that was one of the most vicious acts of genocide in the post-World War II period. The main target was the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, but caught in the dragnet were sympathizers of the party, supporters of President Sukarno, and so many that were far from the frontlines of political struggle.


In Max Lane’s pithy summary,

After 1 October 1965, Indonesia was sent into exile. This exile took the form of a counterrevolution, which killed a million people, imprisoned tens of thousands, smashed organizations that had 20 million members and banned ideas with millions of adherents. The victims of the counterrevolutionary terror comprised at least half of the adult population. They went into exile. They were no longer considered Indonesians. They and their “selves” were portrayed as alien devils. The men were “communists” in its special new Indonesian satanic meaning, and the women were “kuntilanak”: whoring witches come up from hell. They could all be killed and tortured with no hesitation of remorse.

A progressive analysis of what led up to the events in 1965 and the “New Order” that followed was provided by Lane’s earlier book, Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto, perhaps the finest social history of that tragic country. Indonesia Out of Exile is about a brighter topic: how the novels of the acclaimed writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer contributed to the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship.

Pramoedya is undoubtedly Indonesia’s greatest writer. Why he was not given the Nobel Prize for literature during his lifetime is one of the mysteries of the opaque Nobel selection process. He did receive, in 1995, the Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel, but, as to be expected in the case of an author with a controversial political history, the accolade triggered opposition, with an earlier Indonesian recipient, Mochtar Lubis, returning his prize in protest.

Pramoedya was the author of four scintillating novels that made up what became popularly known as the “Buru Quartet”: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. He was also tagged as a communist or communist sympathizer by the military counterrevolutionaries that engineered the mayhem of 1965. For his promoting progressive ideas in his journalistic work and fiction, he was imprisoned, without trial, for 14 years in the inhospitable, hardscrabble island of Buru, which served as a political penitentiary.

Creating a Fictional World Within Prison Walls

The most interesting part of the book is its detailing how the Buru Quartet and two other novels were written under the most inhospitable conditions. “I started to figure out ways to boost their [the prisoners’] spirit, because being imprisoned on this island was bad enough, we shouldn’t have to deal with low morale on top of it,” Pramoedya told Lane. “I still remember the first time I started storytelling.  It was at night after working: on the veranda, the veranda for the barrack that we had built for ourselves. I was sitting on a bench that I made myself, the others were standing or sitting down, listening.”

Without paper to write on, Pramoedya related the stories that eventually made up the first novel, This Earth of Mankind, to groups of prisoners, who would then tell them to others. It is likely that with retelling, a good number of the 14,000 inmates in Buru heard the stories. It was the stories from the first novel, This Earth of Mankind, that enthralled the prisoners. This was not surprising since it was about a people’s coming to consciousness as a nation told through the lives and deeds of unforgettable characters that the Buru prisoners could relate to and who took their imagination away from the miserable conditions in which they found themselves. Describing the book, Lane writes:

It was set at the turn of the twentieth century when the Dutch still ruled supreme in the East Indies. Its central figure, a Javanese village girl sold as a concubine to a Dutch sugar plantation manager, develops as a person of great strength of character, knowledge, and understanding, despite and because of her oppressed circumstances. She resists and teaches others to resist, including a young Javanese high school student, growing alienated from Javanese feudalism—from whence he came—and soon to be forced into questioning European moral superiority. Bravery and strength of character in the face of oppression and in the process of resistance were themes that had the potential to revive morale.

It was only in 1975, after he was provided with paper, a typewriter, and a room to write in, that Pramoedya committed This Earth of Mankind and his subsequent novels to print. Having read all those books and experienced being transported by the author’s creative imagination to the birth of a nation in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia, I could relate to the rapture that those tapol, or political detainees, must have felt during those evenings in Buru.

Defying Censorship

Another highlight of the book is Lane’s recounting how the Buru Quartet were published. Here, two comrades of Pramoedya who, like him were released from captivity in the late 1970s, played a key role. These were Hasjim Rachman and Joesoef Isak, who created the publishing house Hasta Mitra that published the books and other progressive works. Though the books were set in the past, even before the struggle for independence from the Dutch, the New Order authorities were apprehensive about works by a former high-profile political prisoner being published. They set out to ban This Earth of Mankind as soon as it came out in 1980. However, ingenious delaying tactics on the part of the publishers, coupled with differing opinions within the regime on how to deal with the book, allowed the novel to sell thousands of copies for 10 months before it was formally banned.

The sequels were banned shortly after they appeared. But the word was out that Pramoedya had come out with masterpieces, and people, especially a younger generation of students and intellectuals suffocating under the strictures of President Suharto’s New Order, found a way to get hold of and read them. Banning the books was, paradoxically, probably the best way to draw interest to them.

Despite its setting in late nineteenth-century Dutch East Indies and its preoccupation with the emergence of an anti-colonial consciousness, despite its having nothing to say about the events that led up to the events of 1965 or about the New Order, the Suharto censors were right to see the Buru Quartet as subversive, for the novels were about the struggles of the novel’s characters, notably the student Minke and the concubine Ontosoroh, to break free from the past.  As Lane puts it,

The way the Bumi Manusia [This Earth of Mankind] killed the New Order was not through propagandizing for class struggle, but by connecting young, critical-minded students with Indonesian history in general, and with history, as such. A part of that history was what happened and was happening to the thousands of released prisoners, but also included everything that had come before them. Looking at history with a fresh eye liberated from the hegemony of their immediate seniors and mentors. In realpolitik terms, it meant the breaking of the mentorship of all the anti-PKI intellectuals, including the ones fighting against the New Order. There were no new mentors, though: just conversations to be had, books and history to be studied and answers to be found. It was in this process that enough of these new, young activists found “class,” and so began a process of students seeking to organize and work with peasants or workers.


There are two things that Lane points to that has puzzled some, including myself. One is why Pramoedya did not write anything major for publication after he was released in 1979, except for occasional statements, like the acceptance speech at the Magsaysay Awards in 1995 that he was prevented from delivering in person in Manila by Suharto’s minions.

Pramoedya often complained of having “writer’s block” to explain why he had stopped writing. Lane theorizes that this writer’s block was a symptom of something much bigger:  the failure of the Left to interrogate itself about what happened in 1965, what led up to it, and what happened afterwards. “This was…the origin of Pramoedya’s writer’s block. Such a failure is a double failure: because Indonesia as we know it today was, in many ways, a product of the failure of the Left. Without understanding that history, contemporary Indonesia will remain mostly a mystery, beyond anybody’s effort to change it.”

Lane certainly is right that there can be no understanding of the past without an effort to come to terms with it analytically and politically. But one can also understand why Pramoedya advised younger people that “they should write their elders off as unable to make any new contributions.” Why dispense advice to the young when your generation lost the struggle? To ensure successor generations don’t make the same mistakes is certainly a noble motive but one that is hardly compelling for those who see themselves as losers. In most cases, it is the victors that are motivated to write their versions of history. As the saying goes, success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.

The other puzzle is, in many ways, more difficult to understand. This is the neglect of Pramoedya and his works in today’s Indonesia, where they should be flourishing in the absence of censorship. None of the books is taught in Indonesia’s schools, even as “in high schools in Singapore or colleges in the United States, his books are on the curriculum.” One wonders if this national amnesia might not be the collective legacy of events that people, even those who suffered in them, do not want to be reminded of because they were such a searing experience that they don’t want to happen again. Even if his books do not deal with the catastrophe of 1965, Pramoedya is a name that evokes that period. He was a tapol, a brand that still elicits uneasiness in many, with its connotations of one cut off from ordinary society, of being an alien. Even among progressive Indonesians that I know, there are few who are not uncomfortable talking about the events or personalities of 1965.

One can only attribute this hesitation to a deep trauma that remains unhealed even in today’s more open society, where the TNI, the Indonesian military, continues to cast its shadow on the country’s politics and many of those who participated in the mass killings are still alive and politically active. Here again, I am reminded of Chile, which has never had a real society-wide reckoning of the 1973 coup and its aftermath for fear that dredging up memories of that period could once again inflame a society whose class divisions remain intact—where Salvador Allende remains a forlorn figure that most of the left prefers to leave unclaimed.

No trauma, however, lasts forever or should last forever, and one can only hope the day will come when a future generation of Indonesian progressives will be able to fully confront their past and draw the lessons necessary to complete the construction of what Lane has characterized as the “Unfinished Nation.”

Final Note

In Indonesia Out of Exile, Lane portrays Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Hasjim Rachman, and Joesoef Isak as the three musketeers who valiantly defied the censors. But as in Dumas’ novel, there was a fourth musketeer, and that was Lane himself, though he understandably downplays his role.

Lane was a mid-level official at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta when he became acquainted with Pramoedya and his colleagues. Proficient in Indonesian, he began translating the novels. When he told the ambassador he had been translating Pramoedya’s books in his spare time, the latter, worried about the likely fallout if the Indonesian government were to find out that one of his subordinates had been translating the banned works, arranged for him to be sent back to Australia. The derailment of a diplomatic career was, however, a boon for Indonesia and the rest of us since it was mainly Lane’s translations that introduced Pramoedya’s work to the English-speaking world and much of the rest of the world.

Max Lane, however, is more than an accomplished translator. He is an intellectual and activist whose life has been one long deep engagement with Indonesia. That is why this book is not easy to pigeonhole in terms of its genre. It is partly social history, partly a biography of a great writer, partly an intellectual adventure story. And partly a testimonial of an Australian Marxist’s love for his adopted country.

Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).