Pramoedya Ananta Toer is Indonesia's best known novelist and arguably its most acerbic social critic. Nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature and regarded as a kind of Indonesian version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he spent much of life in jail, including 14 years under Suharto. Under Suharto his books were banned and his personal library and archives were destroyed by government thugs. Pramoedya was born on February 6, 1925 and died on April 30, 2006.

Pramoedya is the author of 34 books which have been translated into 37 languages. Pramoedya wrote in the tradition of Zola and Steinbeck. He translated John Steinbeck and a like him has a plain but elegant and powerful style. His books were banned in Indonesia for three decades under Suharto but are now freely available. He told the International Herald Tribune, "I live for writing, but my books are banned. That means that my life has been confiscated."

Niniek Karmini of Associated Press wrote: Pramoedya was “an outspoken democracy advocate who overcame imprisonment and censorship to publish dozens of stories and novels about his country. “He dedicated his whole life to this country through his work,” his daughter Tatiana Ananta said. Pramoedya was jailed by Suharto for his perceived links with communism. His best-known works — the “Buru Quartet” novels about Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch — were written on scraps of paper and surreptitiously smuggled out while he was imprisoned on the remote eastern island of the same name. After he was released in 1979, he was placed under house arrest until Suharto’s ouster nearly two decades later. [Source: Niniek Karmini, Associated Press, May 1, 2006]

“He criticized successive governments over more than a half century, even in his last frail years. “I am half blind and almost totally deaf, but I won’t stop being angry because not many people are outraged enough at the state of Indonesia,” he told The AP in 2004. But he reserved his harshest judgment for Suharto, blamed for the death and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians during his 32 year reign. Though the former dictator also banned publication of his work, Pramoedya continued to win international acclaim, Indonesian author and journalist Goenawan Muhammad credited Pramoedya with putting his nation on the world map of literature and called him “an important example of how freedom of speech and creativity is needed.” Still, few young Indonesians have read his work and his ideas have been largely cast aside at home as the country struggles to revive its economy, defeat Islamic extremists responsible for a string of deadly bombings, and put down separatist rebellions. Though he welcomed Indonesia’s transition to democracy, Pramoedya said he was “sad” about the direction his country had taken, with corruption rampant and many of Suharto’s cronies eluding justice and clinging to power.

Michael J. Ybarra wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Toer published his first book in 1950. Yet it wasn't until 40 years later that his work began to appear in English in the U.S. Toer, whose family's first language was Javanese, was one of the first major authors to write in Indonesian. Even today, only seven of the 30 books he has written have been released in the U.S. [Source: Michael J. Ybarra, Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2004]

Pramoedya's Life and Death

The son of a strongly nationalist school teacher and farmer, Pramoedya was born in 1925, in Blora, a small, barren town in central Java, Pramoedya was arrested in 1947 by Dutch authorities for being "anti-colonial" and was imprisoned for two years. He was arrested again, this time by the Indonesian military, in 1960 for sticking up for the rights of persecuted Chinese. He was married twice. He was survived by his second wife, Maemunah, with whom he had five children. He had three children from his first marriage, and there were 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren at the time of his death.

John Aglionby wrote in The Guardian, “ His third name was originally Mastoer, but he dropped the Mas because it was the lowest title in the Javanese nobility and he thought it sounded too aristocratic. He did not replace it even after learning 40 years later that toer meant "shit" in Polish. Pramoedya, or Pram as he was more usually known, had just completed his education at the Radio Vocational school in Indonesia's second city, Surabaya, in 1942 when the Japanese invaded. Like many Indonesian nationalists, he initially supported the occupation - arguing that the Japanese were a lesser evil than the Dutch - and worked for the Japanese news agency Domei in Jakarta. [Source: John Aglionby, The Guardian, May 3, 2006 ***]

“His attitude changed, however, as Japanese brutality and austerity intensified, and he became increasingly nationalist. After the war, as the Dutch tried to reassert control over their former empire, Pramoedya joined the resistance movement; he was detained for the first time in 1947, the year he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive. Release came with the Dutch withdrawal in 1949 and he spent much of the 1950s travelling abroad, first in the Netherlands and then in the Soviet Union and China. As a result he became both more leftist and anti-Javanese in his newspaper and other writing. He edited a section of a leftwing newspaper and lectured at journalism school in Jakarta. ***

Under Sukarno, Pramoedya was a major figure in the literary left. For six years he was vice -chairman of a leftist cultural group with ties the Indonesian Communist Party. On how Sukarno was adored by Indonesians, Pramoedya wrote in Time: "He united his country and set it free. He liberated his people from a sense of inferiority and made them feel proud to be Indonesian." But by 1960 he had fallen out with the Sukarno government to such an extent that he was jailed for nine months.

“While Pramoedya could survive dictators and detention, he could not overcome the illnesses triggered by a lifetime of devotion to Indonesia's famous clove cigarettes,” Aglioby wrote. Pramoedya was a heavy smoker. He loved his kreteks (clove cigarettes) and continued smoking them into his 80s. He told Reuters, “If my doctor says I shouldn’t smoke. I’ll fire him. Really, why take away something so joyous in life.”

On his death Niniek Karmini of Associated Press wrote: “Pramoedya, who endured years of abuse while in detention, was hospitalized in Jakarta for complications brought on by diabetes and heart disease, said his grandson Kiki Sepitan. He asked to be released from Catholic St. Carolus Hospital so he could spend his final hours at home. The author immediately lit up a clove cigarette — he was rarely seen without one — and spoke haltingly with relatives and friends. But his condition deteriorated overnight, and he was buried at a Jakarta cemetery, hours after he passed away. [Source: Niniek Karmini, Associated Press, May 1, 2006]

Pramoedya's Arrest Under Suharto

On October 13, 1965, two weeks after an alleged abortive coup by the Indonesian Communist party, which led to the rise to power of the Suharto dictatorship, Pramoedya was kidnapped for his home and arrested in a nationwide purge of leftists. His home was ransacked by anti-Communist thugs and his pleas that his extensive library be saved were ignored. His 5,000 book library was burned, his manuscripts were seized and his house was confiscated. He was imprisoned without being charged or given a trial. An army officer moved into his house and was still there in 1998. Pramoedya was never compensated. he told an Australian newspaper, "My former house was seized and all of its contents, even the baby's nappies...Vandalism! But to destroy my manuscripts that haven’t been published, that is cannibalism."

Pramoedya wrote in Time: "During the first days of October, Armed Forces chief General Nasution made commando-like speeches on the radio, urging the public to 'destroy the Communist Party root and branch.' After these pronouncements, the murder, looting and burning of the army intensified to the point of insanity. For 13 days after the coup was launched "I watched the army hunt, murder and loot until, finally, I myself became one of the victims. People known or suspected to be communist or sympathizers were slaughtered everywhere they were found—on the steps of their houses, on the side of the road, while squatting in the lavatory. The Indonesian elites had lost their ability to resolve differences peacefully, in the political sphere, and the last word belonged to the group that possessed firearms: the army...On October 13, 1965, it was my turn to be targeted by a pack of armed, masked men. There was no official, written charges...When I was arrested in October 1965, my study was ransacked and all my papers were destroyed, including unpublished manuscripts."

Pramoedya in Prison on Buru Island

After initially being detained on the island of Nusa Kembangan, off the south Java coast, Pramoedya he was moved, along with thousands of other political prisoners, to the remote, malaria-infested island of Buru, in the eastern Moluccas. Pramoedya was in prison from 1965 to 1979. Twelve of those years were spent on Buru Island. "Everyone here has been tortured," he said. "I was beaten first by my non-comm and then by the colonel himself. I had gone into the woods one day without permission. The colonel punched me in the stomach and hit me on the head."

Under Suharto, some 12,000 political prisoners were sent to the Buru island in the Spice Island to the "Humanitarian Project" there, where dissidents, suspected communist, sympathizers, lawyers, professors, doctors and "the shining light of Indonesia's intelligencia" toiled in the hot sun. Many died from torture, gun shot wounds from guards, blows from falling trees, spear wounds from local residents, starvation, malaria, filariasis (a mosquito-born disease that produced elephantiasis) hepatitis, tuberculosis and other diseases.

Described as a tropical Siberian gulag, the Buru Island Humanitarian Center was established in 1969. It consisted of camps built around wooden barracks that housed 50 prisoners each. The prisoners grew corn and rice, felled trees, built roads, cultivated the land, and constructed buildings. Many of the prisoners were detained for more than a decade without being charged or given a trial.

Prisoners were prohibited from having reading material and those found possessing a book or a magazine risked being tortured or severely punished or even executed. On one occasion, Pramoedya said, a man found some scraps of newspaper while unwrapping something. Three day later he was found dead in a river with his hands tied behind his back.

Banned from possessing paper or a pen during his first years at Buru, Pramoedya wrote the historical novels for which he is famous in his head, offering installments each day to his fellow prisoners who helped him remember and get his facts straight. Eventually a sympathetic general allowed him to have pen and paper and, later, a typewriter. To win these favors he used money he earned from selling duck eggs.

John Aglionby wrote in The Guardian, “ ”The scale of the suffering on Buru island eventually came to light through The Mute's Soliloquy, an autobiographical work published decades later - and in English in 1999 - with numerous incidents recorded on scraps of paper that were smuggled out by a sympathetic Catholic priest. Most of the prisoners, including Pramoedya, were moved from Buru in 1979, but the writer was only released as a result of intensive lobbying by numerous foreign diplomats. He was confined to Jakarta until 1992.[Source: John Aglionby, The Guardian, May 3, 2006]

Pramoedya and Suharto

Pramoedya’s life has been defined by Suharto. Asked how he felt about the Suharto regime, Pramoedya told the New York Times, "I've experienced it all. I've been beaten, hit, tortured, humiliated. There can not be forgiveness. I can not reconcile with bandits." On Suharto's resignation, Pramoedya told the Washington Post, "I was not at all surprised, Suharto was no longer a force for determining the process of change. He was like a small stone that could be kicked around by the feet of the students." declined to leave Indonesia until after Suharto had been toppled because he feared he would be blocked from returning.

On the alleged coup that helped bring Suharto to power, Pramoedya wrote in Time: "The communists had 3 million members and supporters at that time. If they wanted to launch a coup, why didn't they just mobilize their branches in cities and towns outside Jakarta. Why was the party leadership caught completely off guard by the kidnapping?” On how Suharto firmed up his grip on power, Pramoedya wrote, Suharto "tried to legitimize his rule by claiming Sukarno had conferred power to him in a letter dated March 11, 1966—a letter which has never been produced to the public and is now said to have been 'lost'...Suharto's next step, in 1971, was to stage a general election in accordance with his taste and needs. Two years later he required all political currents to merge into just three parties, yielding a 'constitutional state' complete with recognition and support of Western countries."

When asked what justice meant to the average Indonesian, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's best known novelist, told the Washington Post, "The word “adil”, or "justice," came to Indonesia with the spread of Islam in the 14th century but to this day, the word is not a reality for the common man. It is a concept even though it is mentioned daily in relation to “hukum”, or law. Both justice and law are still a hope that has been promised but never delivered in our history, not in our ancient kingdoms, not under centuries of Dutch colonial occupation and not under Suharto's regime."

Pramoedya After Prison

Pramoedya was released from prison in 1979 and then lived under house arrest and under police surveillance in Jakarta until he was finally freed in 1998 around the time Suharto resigned. In May 2000, he was allowed to leave Indonesia for the first time: to receive the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in Paris. After that Pramoedya spent his time writing articles for the foreign press, giving lecture tours in the United States and elsewhere, working on a book about a Papuan (Papua) prison camp and accumulating material for an encyclopedia on Indonesia.

Describing Pramoedya at the age of 74 in 1999, Mishi Saran wrote in the International Herald Tribune, he "is as fragile as a bird, slightly stooped with age. Wisps of white hair fringe the back of his head, and his grin reveals a gap in his teeth." Pramoedya continued to smoke two packs of clove cigarettes into his 70s. He had difficultly hearing and communicating as the result of a wound he sufferef when was hit in the head with a rifle butt and the wound became infected.

John Aglionby wrote in The Guardian, “Indonesia's transition to democracy did not diminish his ardour for defending the downtrodden and dispossessed or castigating those in power - whom he regularly dismissed as "clowns". “ In his last years, “Pramoedya's uncompromising and contrarian views have fallen out of favour with Indonesia's younger literary circle. Despite this, even most of those who disagreed with him continued to equate him with such icons such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was showered with awards by international institutions, though despite frequent nominations he never received the Nobel prize for literature. [Source: John Aglionby, The Guardian, May 3, 2006]

A former friend told an Australian newspaper, "He is very self-centered. He is not a pleasant person. Pramoedya is like a black hole. He draws in everything; not even the light escapes. Still his literature is the greatest Indonesian literature but I find him lacking in gratitude and charity."

Pramoedya's Books

In the West, Pramoedya is known best for his novels. Among these are “The Mute's Soliloquy” (Pramoedya's autobiography of his prison experience), “Girl from the Coast” (about a 14 year-old girl forced to marry a Javanese aristocrat) and “The Fugitive”. Some of his works like a novel called “Whirlpool” were seized by the government and, it seems, lost forever.

Among his admirers was the late English writer and critic Christopher Hitchens. On Pramoedya’s short novel “The Girl From the Coast”, Hitchens wrote in vanity Fair: “This little triumph of realism is full of populist disdain for the boasts of the religious, especially in their imported Arabic form. The luckless girl of the title, forcibly married to a Muslim grandee, is given over to the teacher who “came and taught her pious legends from the distant Middle East.” Her father, an impoverished fisherman, demands to know, “Will the fish behave themselves if we learn to chant the Koran?”

In Indonesia, Pramoedya is admired for his short stories. “All That is Gone” is a collection of short stories that have been translated into English. Among these are “Circumcision”, about a boy that becomes disillusioned about the Muslim faith as he faces his ritual circumcision. “Inem” is about a an 8-year-old girl that is sold into marriage and wants out after she has realizes her bedroom responsibilities,

Buru Quartet

Pramoedya’s most famous work, the Buru Quartets, is a series of four historical novels that deals with life during oppressive Dutch rule in 19th century Indonesia. The novels are “This Earth of Mankind”, “Child of All Nations”, “Footsteps” and “House of Glass”. The books are available as Penguin paperbacks in the United States. Buru is an island in the Moluccas, where Pramoedya was a prisoner.

John Aglionby wrote in The Guardian, “If the dictatorship of General Suharto thought that 14 years' incarceration without trial would silence Pramoedya, they miscalculated badly. For it was during that time that this literary icon created the tetralogy of novels for which he is best known. Initially denied any writing materials, he composed This Earth of Mankind by repeating it over and over again to his fellow inmates. Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Broken Glass - the last two were written down following the relaxation of prison rules - completed the Buru quartet. "Is it possible," Pramoedya asked later, "to take from a man his right to speak to himself?" [Source: John Aglionby, The Guardian, May 3, 2006 ***]

“The books recount Indonesia's fight for freedom against its Dutch colonial masters and the struggle to build an independent nation through the personality of Minke, an aristocratic Javanese man who joins the nationalist movement. The level of Suharto's hatred of Pramoedya was demonstrated by the fact that he not only banned the quartet but that he also engineered the removal of the Australian diplomat, Max Lane, who had translated the first two parts into English. Such resistance proved futile: by the time Suharto fell in 1998, Pramoedya's several dozen works had been translated into more than 30 languages - despite being banned in Indonesia.” ***

Buru Quartet is about "the first stirrings of Indonesian nationalism." Describing the series, John Skow wrote in Time magazine, "The quartet is indeed a marvel but, especially in its third and forth volumes, an exceedingly slow moving and discursive marvel. The turbulent and bitterly first book, “This Earth of Mankind”, is the key to the rest, and though is customary to say of concluding novels that they can be read independently, this emphatically not true of the Buru Quartet."

The novels follow the life of Minke, an intellectual and son of a minor Javanese aristocrat, who tries to live by his traditional Javenese beliefs in the colonial world.. "The novels have been called Dicknsonian, " Skow wrote, "largely on the basis of the first one, which is jammed with plot and character and ends with a cliffhanger...But as the series continues, Minke's adventures—he becomes a journalist and publishes a successful newspaper against Dutch rule—serve almost entirely as the framework for an endless series of questing dialogues" about "the nature of colonialism and capitalism, the psychology of police power, the role of women, the techniques of political organizations, the efficacy of boycotts and much else."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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