A Chat with Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Posted: July 24, 2007 in A Chat with Author, Indonesian Author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

What if the British had maintained a steadily oppressive rule over a liberty-minded North American population from the 1600s to after WW II? How would the colonists, living on plantations or forced to work at subsistence wages in factories, go about building an independence movement over those centuries, with the levers of power–economic, political, military, legal, cultural–in the hands of the British government?

photo of PramoedyaIn his exciting series of novels known as the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass), the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer dramatizes the development of intellect, will and courage required to organize a freedom movement under such conditions. For his power as a story teller, Pramoedya, as he’s known (pronounced Prah-MOU-dia), has suffered tremendously. He has seen his writings banned and notes and drafts of novels destroyed, He’s spent 14 years in prison, most of them in a forced labor camp on the island of Buru [see map], forced to eat grubs, lizards and mice or starve, and all the while watching fellow uncharged prisoners die by the hundreds. He lost much of his hearing in a beating by soldiers. And he was separated from and denied contact even by mail with his wife and young children during most of his years on Butu.

photo of Pramoedya and Prof. Florida, who led efforts to honor Pramoedya at CommencementPramoedya was on campus in May to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters at Spring Commencement. Despite his ill treatment, the wiry 74-year-old has the cheerful and self-composed aura of the similarly fated and minded Nelson Mandela. Pramoedya delivered lectures and readings, signed books (including his recently published prison memoir A Mute’s Silent Song, titled The Mute’s Soliloquy in the English edition) and granted an interview to Michigan Today with a trio of questioners, Southeast Asian specialists Profs. Nancy K. Florida (Indonesian Languages and Literature, who translated) and Ann L. Stoler (anthropology and history), and MT‘s John Woodford. Also present were Pramoedya’s wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, and his friend and editor Joesoef Isak of Hasta Mitra publishing company in Jakarta.

MT: Did you get the background for Minke, your hero who helps lead the Indonesian awakening beginning In 1898, from your father, who was a nationalist leader and educator?
Pramoedya A. Toer: When I was creating Minke’s adventures, I had students pore over newspaper stories from the period and wove episodes into the plot. But to learn about the internal politics of the Indonesian nationalist groups from our many islands and regions, I didn’t rely on my father but on the Dutch scholar Willem Wertheim. He brought out the characters who had been erased from our history.

Q: Is Minke’s nemesis, the sinister Robert Surhoff, based on a real person?
A: I got him from a newspaper article about a Eurasian gang the Dutch had organized to terrorize the people of Jakarta. The Dutch devised a racial classification system similar to the American and South African apartheid scheme. “Indo” was the name for offspring of Dutch and Javanese. The Indos were born into a complex psychological problem, and Surhoff symbolizes the psychological and social confusion felt by many of this ancestry. He felt he was a true Dutchman, but the Dutch did not see him as such, and he thinks of the natives as dirty and low. This causes him to take extreme measures in expressing his racism.

Q: Who are your favorite American authors?
A: John Steinbeck and William Saroyan. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the primer I used to teach myself to read Enghsh. I was so touched and impressed by those two writers that I’m afraid I have not been as open as I’d like to be to others.

Q: Who are other favorites?
photo of PramoedyaA: I read a lot of Zola as a youth, and before my prison exile I translated Tolstoy into Indonesian. I was impressed by his liberation of his serfs but he didn’t serve as a model for my writing. Gorky influenced me much more. He was a writer who portrayed the social fabric of his country and gives readers an insight into the distinctive character of the Russian people. The Philippine novelist Jose Rizal [executed by the Spanish in 1896 after three years of imprisonment and torture for championing freedom from colonial rule–Ed.] was also an inspiration for me.

Q: Are you working on a book now?
A: Yes, on one called The Originator, a nonfiction work on the crusading journalist on whom Minke was modeled, Tirto Adhisurjo. The Dutch exiled him to the island of Molucca. His widow’s family sent me many important documents that shed light on his life, but government security forces stole them from me and I’ve never seen them again.

Q: General Suharto’s predecessor Sukarno, lndonesia’s first leader, also imprisoned you, though briefly. Why was that?
A: That government didn’t like the way I championed the rights of our Chinese minority. I admired and studied the awakening of the Chinese nationalist movement in the early 1900s. Indonesians were inspired by the Chinese movement’s principles of social justice and internationalism as expressed in the writings of Sun Yat-sen. The Chinese characters who arise in my stories are symbolic of that influence. I try to show history being played out by what my characters say and do. I first learned of what the young Chinese who came to Indonesia were like from my mother.

Q: Now that Suharto Is out of office–what are your hopes for Indonesian-US relations?
photo of PramoedyaA: I have expressed my opinion everywhere that the United States should stop sending arms to Indonesia, that the armed forces are not a stabilizing factor. Your country–the West as a whole–is very influential throughout the world today. It was thanks to some pressure from the Carter administration that I was released in 1979. I ask everyone to help the youth of Indonesia complete the reformation of the nation. If we don’t reform our society there will be social revolution, with people attacking, looting, killing. Only effective national leadership can prevent this hopeless outcome. A social revolution without national leadership would result in Indonesia’s vanishing from the face of the Earth. Each faction would establish its own autonomous unit, and since, as Sukarno taught us, this century is the century of intervention, our resources would be up for grabs.

Q: How do you explain the deadly violence going on between ethnic groups and military and police elements in Indonesia now?
A: The so-called ethnic and communal problems you read about-it’s clear someone is behind it. Someone is doing it for the purpose of postponing the return of our natural resources to the people, the riches stolen by the New Order [Suharto’s name for his system of military rule–Ed.]

Q: [To Maimoena Thamrin, Pramoedya’s wife.] How did you and your five children make do while Pramoedya was imprisoned?
A: I sold pastries, popsicles and knickknacks from my house and fabrics at street booths. It was very difficult for the children of all of the political prisoners. They were taunted and officials deprived them of educational and job opportunities.

Q: [Back to Pramoedya.] The Buru Quartet has all of the elements for a great film. Any plans for one?
A: An American filmmaker told my editor that in this country the movie would have to be based on Minke’s fair-skinned first wife Annelise rather than Minke. Otherwise, he said, there would be too many little brown people running around for an American audience!

Q: Why did the Indonesian government ban your Quartet when its target is Dutch colonialism?
A: Well, apparently Suharto identified with the target! But it was the youth and students who were able to bring down Suharto. His fall was only formal, though; his power is still running. The root of our problems is colonialism. What is going on now is a repetition of what we experienced fighting colonialism. Indonesia is the world’s largest maritime nation [more than 200 million people living on 3,000 islands and speaking more than 200 languages–Ed.], yet an army runs it. That is an inheritance from the colonial system and a fatal mistake. It causes many problems.

Q: The hero’s guardian angel In the Quartet is Nyal Ontosoroh. the former concubine who wins her freedom and amasses a fortune. How did you happen to invent such a strong female character?

“My mother was a person of inestimable value, the flame that burns so bright it leaves no ash. Do not be surprised, therefore, that when I look back at the past I see the Indonesian revolution embodied in the form of a woman–my mother.” From The Mute’s Soliloquy, Hyperion Press, 1999.

A: When I would tell my fellow prisoners the stories that became the novels, I would say to them, “Look at her. Look at what she is doing–and she is only a woman! Certainly we men should be able to do more.” I wanted her to inspire them. photo of PramoedyaIn real life, my mother was an incredibly strong character, although physically she was weakened by tuberculosis and died at 34 when I was 17. When people ask me to say how my mother influenced me, I say that what is in my books–everything–is what I got from my mother. She used to urge me to continue my schooling after I dropped out in junior high. “You must master Dutch,” she’d say, “so you can widen your knowledge. Then you must go to Europe and other countries to learn even more. Do not stop until you have a doctoral degree.” And now, thanks to my honor from the University of Michigan, I have finally fulfilled everything she wanted.

Pramoedya’s series of four historical novels known as the Buru Quartet began as tales he made up to entertain his fellow prisoners. They liked them so much that they took over his grueling prison labor chores for six years so he could concentrate on inventing the stories he told them on work details and at night.

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