Thursday, 27 September 2007

Postcolonial Author: "Pramoedya Ananta Toer"

Pramoedya Ananta Toer [1] (February 6, 1925 – April 30, 2006) was an Indonesian author of novels, short stories, essays, polemics, and histories of his homeland and its people. A well-regarded writer in the West, Pramoedya's outspoken and often politically charged writings faced censorship in his native land during the pre-reformation era. For opposing the policies of both founding president Sukarno, as well as those of its successor, the New Order regime of Suharto, he faced extrajudicial punishment. During the many years in which he suffered imprisonment and house arrest, he became a cause célèbre for advocates of freedom of expression and human rights.

Early years

Pramoedya was born on February 6, 1925, in the town of Blora in the heartland of Java, then a part of the Dutch East Indies. He was the firstborn son in his family; his father was a teacher, who was also active in Boedi Oetomo (the first recognized national organization in Indonesia) and his mother was a rice trader. His maternal grandfather had taken the pilgramage to Mecca.[2] As it is written in his semi-autobiographical collection of short stories "Cerita Dari Blora", the name was actually Pramoedya Ananta Mastoer. But he felt that the family name Mastoer (his father's name) seemed too aristocratic. The Javanese prefix "Mas" refers to a man of the lowest rank in a noble family. Consequently he omitted "Mas" and kept Toer as his family name. He went on to the Radio Vocational School in Surabaya but had barely graduated from the school when Japan invaded Surabaya (1942).

During World War II, Pramoedya (like many Indonesian Nationalists, Sukarno and Suharto among them) at first supported the occupying forces of Imperial Japan. He believed the Japanese to be the lesser of two evils, compared to the Dutch. He worked as a typist for a Japanese newspaper in Jakarta. As the war went on, however, Indonesians were dismayed by the austerity of wartime rationing and by increasingly harsh measures taken by the Japanese military. The Nationalist forces loyal to Sukarno switched their support to the incoming Allies against Japan; all indications are that Pramoedya did as well.

On August 17, 1945, after the news of Allied victory over Japan reached Indonesia, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia's total independence from all colonialists. This touched off the Indonesian National Revolution against the forces of the British and Dutch. In this war, Pramoedya joined a paramilitary group in Karawang, Kranji (West Java) and eventually was stationed in Jakarta. During this time he wrote short stories and books, as well as propaganda for the Nationalist cause. He was eventually imprisoned by the Dutch in Jakarta in 1947 and remained there until 1949, the year the Netherlands accepted Indonesian independence. While imprisoned in Bukit Duri from 1947 to 1949 for his role in the Indonesian Revolution, he wrote his first major novel The Fugitive.

Post-Independence prominence

In the first years after the struggle for independence, Pramoedya wrote several works of fiction dealing with the problems of the newly founded nation, as well as semi-autobiographical works based on his wartime memoirs. He was soon able to live in the Netherlands as part of a cultural exchange program. In the years that followed, he took an interest in several other cultural exchanges, including trips to the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China, as well as translations of Russian writers Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy.

In Indonesia, Pramoedya built up a reputation as a literary and social critic, joining the left-wing writers' group Lekra and writing in various newspapers and literary journals. His writing style became more politically charged, as evidenced in his story Korupsi (Corruption), a critical fiction of a civil servant who falls into the trap of corruption. This created friction between him and the government of Sukarno.

From the late 1950s, Pramoedya began teaching literary history at the left-wing Universitas Res Publica. As he prepared material, he began to realise that the study of Indonesian language and literature had been distorted by the Dutch colonial authorities. He sought out materials that had been ignored by colonial educational institutions, and which had continued to be ignored after independence.

Having spent time in China, he became greatly sympathetic to the Indonesian Chinese over the persecutions they faced in postcolonial Indonesia. Most notably, he published a series of letters addressed to an imagined Chinese correspondent discussing the history of the Indonesian Chinese, called Hoakiau di Indonesia (History of the Overseas Chinese in Indonesia). He criticized the government for being too Java-centric and insensitive to the needs and desires of the other regions and peoples of Indonesia. As a result, he was arrested by the Indonesian military and jailed at Cipinang prison for nine months.

Imprisonment under Suharto

In the first years after the independence struggle, a wave of anti-communist and anti-Chinese fervor came to a head with the assassinations of several right-wing generals, allegedly by elements loyal to the Communist Party of Indonesia. After the transition to Suharto's New Order, Pramoedya's position as the head of People's Cultural Organisation, a literary wing of Indonesian Communist Party caused him to be considered a communist and enemy of the "New Order" regime. He was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned by Suharto's government and named a tapol ("political prisoner"). His books were banned from circulation, and he was imprisoned without trial, first in Nusa Kambangan off the coast of Java, and then in the penal colony of Buru in the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

He was banned from writing during his imprisonment on the island of Buru, but still managed to compose - orally - his best-known series of work to date, the Buru Quartet, a series of 4 semi-fictional novels chronicling the development of Indonesian nationalism. The English titles of the books in the quartet are This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. The main character of the series, Minke, a Javanese minor royal, was based on an Indonesian journalist active in the nationalist movement, Tirto Adhi Surjo. Pramoedya had done research for the books before his imprisonment in the Buru prison camp; when he was arrested, his library was burned and he was not permitted even to have a pencil in the prison. Doubting that he would ever be able to write the novels down himself, he narrated them to his fellow prisoners. Eventually, with the support of the other prisoners who took on extra labor to reduce his workload, Pramoedya was able to write the novels down, and the published works derive their name "Buru Quartet" from the prison where he produced them. They have been collected and published in English (translated by Max Lane) and Indonesian, as well as many other languages. Though publication was banned in Indonesia, copies were scanned by Indonesians abroad and distributed via the Internet to people inside the country.

Pramoedya's works on colonial Indonesia recognised the importance of Islam as a vehicle for popular opposition to the Dutch. On the other hand, his works rejected those who used religion to deny critical thinking, and on occasion show considerable negativity to the religiously pious which is speculated to have resulted from a low number of Hajjis in his native Blora and resentment of his Haji grandfather's divorce and abandonment of his grandmother.[2]

Release and subsequent works

Pramoedya was released from imprisonment in 1979, but remained under house arrest in Jakarta until 1992. During this time he released The Girl From the Coast, another semi-fictional novel based on his grandmother's own experience (volumes 2 and 3 of this work were destroyed along with his library in 1965). He also wrote Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995; A Mute's Soliloquy), an autobiography based on the letters that he wrote for his daughter but were not allowed to be sent, and Arus Balik (1995).

More recently, he wrote many columns and short articles criticizing the current Indonesian government. He wrote a book Perawan Remaja dalam Cengkraman Militer (Young Virgins in the Military's Grip), a documentary written in the style of a novel showcasing the plight of Javanese women who were forced to become comfort women during the Japanese occupation. They were brought to the island of Buru where they were sexually abused, and ended up staying there instead of returning to Java. Pramoedya made their acquaintance when he himself was a political prisoner on the Buru island in the 1970s.

Pramoedya was hospitalized on April 27th 2006, for complications brought on by diabetes and heart disease. He was also a heavy smoker of clove cigarettes and had endured years of abuse while in detention. He died on April 30th 2006 at the age of 81. Pramoedya earned several accolades, and was frequently discussed as Indonesia's and Southeast Asia's best candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature.


* 1988 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
* 1989 The Fund for Free Expression Award, New York, USA.
* 1992 English P.E.N Centre Award, Great Britain.
* 1992 Stichting Wertheim Award, Netherland.
* 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts.
* 1999 Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Michigan.
* 1999 Chancellor's Distinguished Honor Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
* 2000 Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres Republic of France.
* 2000 11th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize.
* 2004 Norwegian Authors' Union award for his contribution to world literature and his continuous struggle for the right to freedom of expression.
* 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll by the Prospect.

Major Works

* Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh (1947)
* Perburuan (The Fugitive) (1950)
* Keluarga Gerilya (1950)
* Bukan Pasarmalam (1951)
* Cerita dari Blora (1952)
* Gulat di Jakarta (1953)
* Korupsi (Corruption) (1954)
* Midah - Si Manis Bergigi Emas (1954)
* Cerita Calon Arang (The King, the Witch, and the Priest) (1957)
* Hoakiau di Indonesia (1960)
* Panggil Aku Kartini Saja I & II (1962)
* The Buru Quartet
o Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) (1980)
o Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations) (1980)
o Jejak Langkah (Footsteps) (1985)
o Rumah Kaca (House of Glass) (1988)
* Gadis Pantai (The Girl from the Coast) (1982)
* Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (A Mute's Soliloquy) (1995)
* Arus Balik (1995)
* Arok Dedes (1999)
* Mangir (1999)
* Larasati (2000)

Books on Pramoedya Ananta Toer

* Citra Manusia Indonesia dalam Karya Pramoedya Ananta Toer, by A. Teuw, Pustaka Jaya, Jakarta, 1990.
* Pramoedya Ananta Toer dan Sastra Realisme Sosialis, by Eka Kurniawan, Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jakarta, 2006.

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