It was during the ’80s that I first came across legendary Indonesia writer and activist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The Suharto regime ruled Indonesia with a seemingly iron fist and the author’s books — which have been translated into dozens of languages — were banned in his home country. I vividly recollect reading Child of All Nations, the second of the Buru Quartet. The book drew me into the world of Javanese writer Minke and the growing anti-colonial movement in Dutch-ruled Indonesia of the 1890s. His writing was deeply realist and helped me to appreciate that the nationalism of the oppressed frequently has a revolutionary character.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, or Pram, died on 30 April this year at the age of 81. He led a full life and never ceased struggling to emancipate his country. Pram was active from his youth. He took up arms against the Dutch colonialists. In this period he was captured and charged with carrying “anti-colonial documents” and sentenced to a two-year jail term.
He was briefly incarcerated during the Sukarno years for defending the rights of the Chinese minority. During this period he was a leading figure with the People’s Cultural Institute and a prolific essayist for the left newspaper, Bintang Timur.
The bloody rise to power of Suharto’s New Order Government in 1965 was seen by Pram as the end of the first wave of the Indonesian revolution. The Suharto regime killed 2 million people during the ’60s. Pram was among 14,000 held on the infamous Buru Island, where they lived in concentration camps. While there, he helped keep up the morale of other prisoners by telling stories.
When he eventually gained access to writing materials, he wrote these stories down. These four books, known collectively as the Buru Quartet, became his most widely translated and read work.
He was released from prison in 1979 but was held under virtual house arrest until Suharto was ousted in 1998.
During the Suharto years, each new book was automatically banned on publication. The censors accused him of “exploiting class divisions.” But despite this censorship, his works were available through underground networks and read in student activist circles. This made him quite influential among young people, who sought him out for advice.
Pram believed in revolution, arguing that the present system could not be reformed. He also argued that we must learn from the past. In an interview in 2000 with the Far Eastern Economic Review, he said, “if we don’t know our history, we’ll always make the same mistakes.” Pram knew that while the revolution had stalled for 32 years under Suharto, it was not finished. He joined the youthful People’s Democratic Party to continue the struggle.
Since his death, there has been sweeping debate about his legacy in the Jakarta Post. Many writers have argued for him to be recognised as a great literary figure despite his politics. But they miss the point entirely. His work is so rich because of his politics.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a literary giant and an inspirational political figure. Those who share Pram’s vision of finishing the Indonesian revolution have declared kami akan teruskan jejak langkahmu (we will continue in your footsteps).
If you’d like to find out more, the Buru Quartet is available from Penguin books. The magazine Inside Indonesia is also planning a special issue dedicated to the life of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.