History Today Christmas Subscription offer.

Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Pramoedya Ananta Toer

In newly independent Indonesia, nationalism, communism and Islam competed for the attention of the people. But the country’s greatest novelist saw humanity behind the ideologies. 

Image of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. ©  Yusnirsyah Sirin/Zuma/AlamyOn the evening of October 13th, 1965, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was working at home in Jakarta. Already a successful author with many books to his name, he was editing a collection of short stories by President Sokarno of Indonesia. At around 10.30pm, he was disturbed by the sound of angry voices. Peering out of the window, he saw a crowd of masked men, all carrying knives, massing outside his gate. Unless he let them in, they shouted, they would burn the house down. But Pramoedya was not easily intimidated. Grabbing a sword and a broom handle, he rushed out to confront them. He demanded that they unmask themselves. But it only made them angrier. They started jabbing at him through the gate and hurling stones at the house. At any moment, they might break in. Just then, however, a crack of gunfire was heard and a group of policemen shouldered their way through the crowd. They announced that they were there to take Pramoedya to safety. Relieved, he invited them into his house while he gathered his things. Once he was ready, they escorted him back outside. The danger seemed to be over, but as they neared the end of the road, they tied his hands behind his back and put a noose around his neck. Bundled into a truck, he was whisked away, first to a military command post and eventually into internal exile on the island of Buru, where he would remain until 1979. 

Pramoedya had fallen victim to one of the most tumultuous political upheavals in Indonesia’s history. Since 1957, President Sokarno had attempted to hold his young and fragile country together by building a government in which the opposing forces of nationalism, communism and political Islam would all be represented. By mid-1965, however, his project had begun to unravel as tensions between nationalistic army officers and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) intensified. Violence erupted. Late in the evening of September 30th, six senior generals were captured and killed in an attempted coup d’état. Although this was quickly put down, Sokarno’s regime had been mortally wounded. Major-general Suharto, commander of the army’s Strategic Reserve, unleashed a wave of bloody retribution against the PKI. With the country convulsed by anti-communist massacres, he replaced Sokarno as president. 

No communist

Why Pramoedya was caught up in the purge is, however, unclear. Looking back on the events of October 13th three decades later, he recalled that: ‘Even to this day, I still don’t know, and have never officially been informed of, the reason for my arrest and imprisonment.’ No charges were ever brought against him. When two of Pramoedya’s books were banned in 1980, the Suharto administration tried to accuse him of harbouring communist sympathies. But this was an absurd afterthought. Not even Suharto’s most rabid supporters could find a single identifiably communist sentence in any of Pramoedya’s writings. Nor could they say that he had been a member of the PKI. He had, admittedly, accepted an honorary position on the board of Lekra, a communist cultural institute, in 1958. But he had never joined the party. Besides, his ties with the nationalists were just as strong. From 1962 he even edited the literary column of Bintang, the Indonesian Nationalist Party’s newspaper. 

Pramoedya had always thought of himself as a patriotic Indonesian. His literary career, indeed, his whole life, had been devoted to helping Indonesia make the transition from Dutch colony to independent nation. At 20, he had joined a paramilitary organisation, the Badan Keamanan Rakyat, to help his country win its freedom in the aftermath of the Second World War. Later transferring to the broadcaster, the Voice of Indonesia, his earliest writings were dedicated to rallying the people to this cause. He was imprisoned by the Dutch in 1947 and, while in captivity, he kept up the struggle by penning The Fugitive (1950), his first novel. So effectively did this dramatise the quest for liberty that it was awarded a literary prize and ensured that, after independence was won on December 27th, 1949, he was catapulted to the forefront of the ‘National Awakening’. 

Thereafter, Pramoedya used his writing to draw attention to the challenges facing the infant nation, doing his utmost to defend the interests of ordinary people and to promote the unity of the social whole. At times, this led him to criticise government policy. In his short story ‘Corruption’ (1954) he used the tale of the gradual erosion of a civil servant’s integrity to illustrate the devastating effects wrought on public services by the growing culture of bribery. Similarly, in The Chinese in Indonesia (1960), he condemned state- sanctioned discrimination against Chinese Indonesians and took particular issue with the prohibition on non-native retailers in rural communities. 

That this angered the Sokarno regime was only to be expected and he was not overly surprised to be imprisoned for a short time in 1960-1. But even Sokarno had seen that he was no ideologue. Neither communist nor nationalist, he was driven only by a desire to create a better world for Indonesia’s peoples.

A House of Glass

During his captivity on Buru Island, Pramoedya vindicated himself in the best way he knew how: by telling stories. Deprived of writing materials for almost a decade, he began composing them orally, sharing a new instalment with his fellow exiles each morning. Only in 1973 was he able to commit them to paper and smuggle them out for publication. The result was the Buru Quartet. In this cycle of four historical novels Pramoedya used a dramatic retelling of Indonesia’s past to explain the origins and nature of his true motivations. 

In This Earth of Mankind (1975), set in the late 19th century, we meet Minke, an ambitious Javanese student from an aristocratic family. Like many of his background, he had been brought up to admire, even revere, European culture. But he does not enjoy the same rights as his Dutch friends. When he falls in love with the beautiful Indo-European Annelies, he comes face-to-face with this grim reality. After her European father is murdered in a Chinese brothel, Annelies’ mother, a native nyai (concubine), is threatened with the loss of everything. Minke tries to stand up for her; but he discovers that he is powerless against the colonial administration. Eventually, Annelies is taken from him and dies abroad. 

Set in the early 20th century, Child of All Nations (1975) traces the embittered Minke’s political awakening. Introduced to the rural peasantry for the first time by Annelies’ mother, he becomes aware of the sheer scale of colonial injustice. Encouraged by the foundation of the short-lived Republic of the Philippines, he begins to dream of a better future. But as he tries to improve the lot of peasants in the fields, he is obstructed not only by the lack of solidarity among the native peoples, but also by the corruption of those most sympathetic to his cause. 

Frustrated, Minke comes to believe that he might do more good by becoming a doctor. But, after a few years, the harsh realities of Dutch government once again draw him towards politics. After meeting Mei, a Chinese-Indonesian woman, he is expelled from medical school and founds a newspaper in the hope of resisting colonial exploitation with words. But as he emerges as a serious player in the quest for independence, he encounters stiffer opposition than ever before. In the ensuing violence, he loses Mei and the last of his innocence. By the end of Footsteps (1985) he has to accept that armed struggle may be necessary for Indonesia to lift itself out of suffering.

At the beginning of House of Glass (1988) Minke is banished to a remote island and a former policeman, Pangemanann, is charged with ensuring that he is no longer a political threat. Despite his responsibilities, Pangemanann cannot help admiring Minke. Reading the editor’s papers, he sympathises with the struggle for independence. Though he has risen to high office, even he can see that, in the eyes of the Dutch, he is still ‘just a native’. But Pangemanann cannot bring himself to abandon his duty. Fearful of losing his job, he tries to ignore the plight of his people. Doubt, however, continues to gnaw at him.
Yet while he is debating whether justice would be better served by maintaining order, or by standing up for his people, Minke dies.   

In many ways, it is a tragic ending, but it communicates a profound message. For Pramoedya, the struggle for Indonesia’s independence was an obligation of humanity, not of ideology. Long obstructed by corruption, its success required only that good men stood up for others. Likewise, Indonesia’s endurance demanded no more than that it should be a ‘House of Glass’, a land of political transparency in which critical debate was a right, not a privilege. And, if history taught anything, it was that those with the courage to fight for justice must never give up hope. 

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book The Ugly Renaissance is published by Arrow. 

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week