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Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006)


Indonesian novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and critic. The Japanese occupation (1942-1944) and Indonesia's struggle for independence  provided the basic material for Pramoedya's writing. His best-known work is the Buru Quartet (1980-88), banned by the Suharto regime. The story, originally written between 1965 and 1979, is set at the turn of the 19th century and depicts the emergence of anticolonial Indonesian nationalism. Pramoedya's books have been translated into some 30 languages.

"That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there willing or unwilling, with all our soul and body. And too often it proves to be a great despot. And so, in the end, I arrived too. Whether the future is a kind or a cruel god is, of course, its own affair. Humanity too often claps with just one hand." (in This Earth of Mankind, volume 1 of Buru Quartet, 1980)

Pramoedya Anata Toer was born in the village of Blora, in East Java. His father was an activist and headmaster of the nationalist school, a figure of some social prominence, but who ruined the family by obsessive gambling. As a boy Pramoedya wanted to become an engineer. After completing elementary school course in 1939, he moved to Surabaya and graduated from the Radiovakschool (Radio Vocational School) at the end of 1941. During the Japanese Occupation, he worked as a stenographer and settled in Jakarta, where he continued his studies and was employed for a period by the Japanese news agency "Domei." In 1945 he attended lectures at the Islamic University. Later in Perburuan (1950, The Fugitive) Pramoedya returned to the last days of the Japanese occupation.

When the revolution broke out, Pramoedya joined the Indonesian armed forces in East Jakarta. He then moved back to Jakarta, where he edited the journal Sadar. As a novelist Pramoedya made his debut with Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh (1947).

Between the years 1947 and 1949 Pramoedya was imprisoned by the Dutch in various places for being ''anti-colonial.'' In the prison he read among others John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and William Saroyan's The Human Comedy. From these and other books Pramoedya drew strength to survive and write his first book, Perburuan (1950, The Fugitive). Later he wrote cathartic stories and novels that transcend even while they record tragic events. In the early 1950s he was an editor in the Modern Indonesian Literature department of the Balai Pustaka publishing house. He held the post of editor of the magazine Indonesia and of the children's magazine Kunang-kunang.

In the 1950s Pramoedya published several novels, novellas, and short stories. Perburuan, about a rebel against the Japanese and its betrayal, was smuggled out of a Dutch prison. Keluarga Gerilya (1950) was directed against the Dutch and Allied forces. It depicted the destruction of a Javanese family during the national revolution. Perburuan won the Balai Putaska literary prize and after gaining some financial security with his writings Pramoedya was able to marry.

"It is really surprising sometimes how a prohibition seems to exist solely in order to be violated. And when I disobeyed I felt that what I did was pleasurable. For children such as I at that time  oh, how many prohibitions and restrictions were heaped on our heads! Yes, it was as though the whole world was watching us, bent forbidding whatever we did and what ever we wanted. Inevitably we children felt that this world was really intended only for adults." (in 'Inem')

Pramoedya's short-story collections from this period include Subuh (1950) and Percikan Revolusi (1950), which both are set during the revolution, Cerita dari Blora (1952), dealing with provincial Javanese society, war, and the struggle for independence, and Cerita dari (1957), about postrevolutionary catastrophes in Indonesia's capital. A selection of these stories was published  in English under the title All That Is Gone (2004). The title story is a childhood memory, in which the narrator tells of his nanny, who had no children of her own  the syphilis had eaten her womb and becomes gradually aware of a rift betweeen his mother and father.  'Inem,' written in the style of social realism, was a critique of the traditional institutions of child marriage. The narrator, Gus Muk, follows the life of his neighbor, Inem, an eight year old girl, who is going to be married. Her father keeps gamecocks but everybody knows that he is a criminal, whose main occupation had been robbing people in the teak forest. Inem's mother makes a living by doing batik work. Markaban, Inem's husband, is seventeen and the son of a well-to-do man. After a year Inem leaves her husband, she tells Gus Muk's mother that Markaban often beat her, and returns to her parents house. "And thereafter, the nine-year-old divorce  since she was nothing but a burden to her family  could be beaten by anyone who wanted to: her mother, her brothers, her uncle, her neighbors, her aunts. Yet Inem never came to our house."

In the late 1950s Pramoedya moved politically to the left and largely abandoned fiction for critical essays and historical studies. In 1953 the author spent with his family a year in the Netherlands  on a cultural exchange program and wrote there the novels Korupsi (1954) and Midah - Si Manis Bergigi Emas (1954). He was appointed in 1958 a member of Lekra's Plenum, the Institute of People's Culture, an organization championing the nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution. In 1960 Pramoedya was imprisoned for defending the country's persecuted ethnic Chinese.

Between 1962 and 1965 Pramoedya was the editor of Lentera (Lantern), the weekly section of the leftist daily Bintang Timur. He was a lecturer of Indonesian language and literature at the University of Res Publika, teacher at "Dr. Abdul Rivai" Academy for Journalism, and one of the founders of the "Multatuli" Literature Academy.

During the events that led to the establishment of "New Order" Indonesia under Suharto, Pramoedya was imprisoned in October 1965 without trial by the military regime. At his arrest, he was severely beaten. For the rest of his life, Pramoedya suffered from hearing difficulties. ''Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?'' he once said. Pramoedya's personal archives, unpublished works, and research materials were taken from him and either destroyed or lost. After four years at Salemba prison in Jakarta, he was shipped to exile on the notorious snake-infected island of Buru in the Moluccas.  

The prisoners were only occasionally permitted to write letters, but not given a permission to send them. In 1973 Pramoedya was granted access to a typewriter and he began working on a series of historical novels originally narrated to his fellow prisoners. He was able to produce  in the last years of his confinement  four historical novels, which he published on his release  the Buru tetralogy, Bumi Manusia, Anak Semua Bangsa, Jejak Lamgkah, and Rumah Kaca. Pramoedya was freed in the end of 1979, but he was still persona non grata. Confined to Jakarta Pramoedya had to report to his parole officer every month. In 1992 he stopped reporting to the East Jakarta military post.

In the Buru tetralogy the protagonist is Minke, a Dutch-educated Javanese aristocrat and writer, who is familiar with Western and Javanese culture. Manke falls in love with the beautiful Indo-European Annelies. After losing her Minke becomes increasingly involved in mass movements of resistance to the colonial rule. "This parting was a turning point in my life. My youth was over, a youth beautifully full of hopes and dreams. It would never return."

Minke's model was Tirto Adi Suryo (1880-1918), a journalist and activist. The first two volumes, depicting the dawn of Indonesia's struggle against colonial exploitation, gained a huge popularity but they were banned by the military authorities. This Earth of Mankind, which started the story, was originally recited orally by the author to his fellow prisoners. The last two volumes were smuggled out of the country. In Gadis Pantai (1982, The Girl from the Coast), set on the colonial period, the protaginist is a young woman, whose character was based on the life of Pramoedya's grandmother. The heroine comes from humble origins and she doesn't have a name. At the age of 14 she is married to a nobleman, but she realizes that her place in the new family will be inferior and she is not allowed to keep her child. "The problem with The Girl From the Coast may be that the language, characterization and plotting are too well defined, as if the author's desire to communicate and the urgency of his message have overwhelmed his art." (Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times, August 11, 2002)

Pramoedya's later works include Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995-97), an autobiography, and Arus Balik (1995), a historical novel of 16th-century Indonesia. He also translated into Indonesia works from such authors as John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoi, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Maxim Gorki. In 1999 he visited the United States. Pramoedya died in Jakarta on April 20, 2006. He was married two times; first  to Arfah Iljas and then to  Maemunah Thamrin.

Pramoedya synthesized a wide variety of literary traditions, from the pioneers of the literature of Indonesian revolution (Chairil Anwar) to the Javanese storytelling, and from historical chronicles to various European and American writers. His works Pramoedya wrote in Bahasa Indonesia, a language developed form the old lingua franca Malaya and adopted by the nationalist movement in 1928.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Pramoewdya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun, ed.  Bob Hering (1995); Pramoewdya Ananta Toer by A. Teeuw (1993); Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia by Benedict Anderson (1990); Exile: Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira,  edited by Nagesh Rao  (2006).  See also: Multatuli, a 19th-century Dutch administrator who wrote against colonialism.  Note: In an article from April 2001 Pramoedya Anata Toer argued, that if the younger generation do not rise into power, it is possible that Indonesia will break up. According to the writer, President Abdurrahman Wahid, a leader without visions, has failed to bring peace in the country.

Selected works:

  • Krandji-Bekasi Djatuh, 1947
  • Perburuan, 1950 - The Fugitive (tr. Harry Aveling, 1975; Willem Samuels, 1990) / Rape of the Wayang: A Play (by Ron Verburgt, based on the novel Perburuan, tr.  Willem Samuels, 1994)  
  • Keluarga Gerilya, 1950
  • Subuh: Tjerita-Tjerita Pendek Revolusi, 1950
  • Percikan Revolusi, 1950
  • Mereka Jang Dilumpuhkan, 1951
  • Bukan Pasar malam, 1951 - A Heap of Ashes (edited and translated Harry Aveling,  1975) / Its Not an All Night Fair (tr. C.W. Watson, 2001)
  • Di Tepi Kali Bekasi, 1951
  • Dia Yang Menyerah, 1951
  • Cerita dari Blora, 1952 - A Heap of Ashes (edited and translated Harry Aveling,  1975) /  All That Is Gone (tr. Willem Samuels, 2004)
  • Gulat di Djakarta, 1953
  • Midah - Si Manis Bergigi Emas, 1954
  • Korupsi, 1954
  • Cerita dari Jakarta, 1957 (short stories) - Tales from Djakarta: Caricatures of Circumstances and Their Human Beings (tr. 1999)
  • Cerita Calon Arang, 1957
  • Suatu Peristiwa di Banten Selatan, 1958
  • Sekali Peristawa di Bengen Selatan, 1958
  • Orang-orang Baru dari Banten Selatan, 1959
  • Hoakiau di Indonesia, 1960 - The Chinese in Indonesia (tr. 2007)
  • Panggil Aku Kartini Saja I & II, 1962
  • Realisme Sosialis & Sastra Indonesia, 1963
  • Bumi Manusia, 1980 (Buru Quartet , vol. 1) - This Earth of Mankind (tr. Max Lane, 1982)
  • Anak Semua Bangsa, 1980 (Buru Quartet , vol. 2)  - Child of All Nations (tr. Max Lane, 1984)
  • Sikap dan Peran Kaum Intelektual di Dunia Ketiga, 1982
  • Tempo Doeloe, 1982 (ed.)
  • Gadis Pantai, 1982 - The Girl from the Coast (tr.  Harry Aveling, 1991; Willem Samuels, 2002)
  • Jejak Langkah, 1985 (Buru Quartet , vol. 3) - Footsteps (tr. Max Lane, 1990)
  • Sang Pemula dan karya-karya non-fiksi (jurnalistik)-fiksi (cerpen/novel) R.M. Tirto Adhi Soerjo, 1985
  • Crossing the Border: Five Indonesian Short Stories, 1986 (by Danarto and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, tr. Harry Aveling)
  • Rumah Kaca, 1988 (Buru Quartet, vol. 4) - House of Glass  (tr. Max Lane, 1992)
  • Hikayat Siti Mariah, 1987 (ed.)
  • Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat, 1995 (ed.)
  • Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu 1-2 1995-1997 - The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir, 2000 (tr.  Willem Samuels, 1999)
  • Arus Balik, 1995
  • Memoar Oei Tjoe Tat, 1995 (ed.)
  • Tales from Djakarta: Caricatures of Circumstances and their Human Beings, 1999 (introduction by Benedict R. O'G. Anderson Toer)
  • Dongeng Calon Arang, 1999 (also: Calon Arang) - The King, the Witch, and the Priest: A Twelfth Century Javanese Tale (as told by Pramoedya Ananta Toer; translated and edited by Willem Samuels, 2002)
  • Arok Dedes, 1999 - Arok of Java: A Novel of Early Indonesia (tr. Max Lane, 2007)
  • Kronik Revolusi Indonesia, 1999 (ed.)
  • Mangir, 1999
  • Larasati: Sebuah Roman Revolusi, 2000
  • Perawan remaja dalam cengkeraman militer, 2001
  • 1000 wajah Pram dalam kata dan sketsa, 2009

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