by Sumit Mandal
New Straits Times, August 21, 1996
On Aug 17, Indonesia celebrated 51 years of independence. Though 51 is not an auspicious number, Indonesians continue to consider the meaning of independence in their daily lives.
The writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer has followed the growth of this young nation with imagination and courage. For his writings and convictions, he has been imprisoned under the Dutch, under Sukarno, and under Suharto–the three successive rulers of modern Indonesia.
Sandwiched between the National Days of Singapore and Malaysia, Aug 17 allows us a moment to reflect on Indonesia, its foremost writer, and independence.
Born to a nationalist family in Blora, Central Java, in 1925 and mostly self-taught, Pramoedya has been a public figure and prolific writer for a good part of the past five decades. However, the tragedy of 1965, the most significant event in the nation’s history, also altered the course of his life.
That year, following an attempted coup that resulted in the killing of six top generals, Indonesia was thrown into political instability and violence of unprecedented ruthlessness and magnitude. As the army assumed the reins of power, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) was blamed for the coup attempt. A legal party with a large and disciplined mass support until then, the PKI was discredited and banned after 1965.
Between 500,000 and a million alleged communists or Party supporters were killed in the months following the coup attempt. The PKI became the symbol of the economic crisis, political turmoil, and repression experienced in the waning years of President Sukarno’s rule. Although the PKI was obliterated, it has been blamed for every major political crisis in the last three decades of Suharto’s rule.
Pramoedya was among the thousands identified as PKI supporters in 1965 although he was never a member of the party. He was imprisoned without trial and spent much of the next 14 years confined to the prison island of Buru.
As intellectuals in the prison compound were denied writing materials, he composed orally and related to his fellow prisoners his epic about the awakening of Indonesian political consciousness in the early part of this century.
When finally allowed to write in 1975, he put down on paper the four-volume epic beginning with Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind). His prison diary, Nyanyi Sunyi [Seo]rang Bisu (The Silent Song of a Mute), is an evocative account of Buru and the pain of abuse and exile by one’s own State while documenting the names and lives of the many fellow prisoners who died or were killed on the island.
Since his release in 1979, he has lived in Jakarta under city arrest.
His rapid fall into official disfavor in 1965 had another consequence of importance to the nation and himself–the destruction of his personal library.
Pramoedya turned to writing historical novels and essays in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As he threw himself into research for these works, he built a collection of books, manuscripts and notes. This collection was of considerable value simply because the Japanese Occupation and the revolutionary war (1945-49) had damaged the country’s libraries and archives for good. Some of the materials in the collection were rare or irreplaceable. On the night of his arrest in 1965, his library was destroyed and his house taken over by the army.
The novels composed on Buru were published in Indonesia and circulated briefly before a ban was imposed. The most recent of these, Arus Balik (Turning of the Tide), set in the 16th century after the fall of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, was published in 1995.
Since his release, Pramoedya has become better known internationally through the numerous translations of his works–particularly the Buru quartet. However, as translations of his earlier work begin to appear, an international audience will appreciate the richness and diversity of his early fiction, particularly the short stories of the late 1940s and 1950s. These stories range from semi-biographical accounts of childhood in Blora and the revolutionary war to sharp, strange and funny caricatures of Jakarta life.
His fiction shows acute attention to language and its nuances and thereby probes deeply into the culture of modern Indonesia, facing up to aspects forgotten or shunned by other writers–like the horrible violence inflicted by Indonesians upon themselves during the revolution.
Besides fiction, Pramoedya produced essays and polemical pieces in the late 1950s and early 1960s, covering topics such as the social relevance of literature and the economic and political problems faced by postcolonial nations.
Along with many others in this era, he was imbued with the spirit of internationalism and anti- colonialism that was forged in the 1955 Bandung Conference and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. He saw in this internationalism and Sukarno’s active role in it an opportunity for Indonesia to mature as a nation, and expressed his views with unswerving conviction.
At the same time Pramoedya wrote illuminating historical essays on such topics as Kartini, the pioneering Dutch-literate woman writer and educationist of the early 20th century.
Thousands of Indonesians continue to seek and read Pramoedya’s work despite the stiff punishment for possession of his books. His readership in Malaysia and internationally is small but growing. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature for a number of years in succession, and last year he was honoured in Asia with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. The award cited the writer for “illuminating with brilliant stories the historical awakening and modern experience of the Indonesian people.”
Pramoedya’s work on the whole has been varied in style and character. Still, the Indonesian Government claims that his work is Communist-inspired and subversive. By making Pramoedya synonymous with the PKI and thereby justifying his censure in like manner as the killing and suppression of other alleged communists, the State has violently suppressed the voice of independence.
Pramoedya’s opponents claim that his critique of other writers’ styles and concerns led to their banning and imprisonment under Sukarno. That Pramoedya wielded the power to harm other writers and artists could not be farther from the truth. He sees his active and vociferous public role in the early ’60s as characteristic of those highly politicised times–polemical debates reigned and discussions were heated.
When retelling this part of Pramoedya’s life, his opponents omit the year he spent in prison under Sukarno in 1960-61 after he was detained by the army for several weeks without the knowledge of his wife Maemunah and children. This action was taken in response to his historical work Hoakiau di Indonesia (Chinese in Indonesia) that was serialized in the newspaper Bintang Timur and, because of its popularity, published in book form.
As the country faced domestic and international crises precipitated by the Cold War, the army fanned the politics of chauvinistic nationalism against Chinese Indonesians–long established culturally and historically in the archipelago. Pramoedya was alone in voicing his opposition to this xenophobia. Although the PKI was ideologically opposed to the anti-Chinese measures, it shied away from Pramoedya’s firm public stand. He argued that the Chinese were an inseparable part of the Indonesian nation.
Recounting his year in prison under Sukarno, he writes angrily about the despair he felt at the way he was treated in independent Indonesia, by his own State, not the Dutch he had fought during the revolution. Through this and other hardships forced upon him, he has expressed his feelings and views with words, crafting worlds through his stories.
Paying tribute to the power of the imagination, he writes in Nyanyi Sunyi: “What can one do, experience remains the right of the person who experiences to do what they wish with it, and there is no force that can confiscate it.”
Pramoedya never believed that the nation’s struggles were over with the attainment of formal independence at the end of 1949. With single-minded, even stubborn, insistence, he has desire a nation of compassionate human beings embracing internationalism but grounded in love for their land. His works summon back the history of the oppressed of all colours and creeds in the complex mix that has come to mean Indonesia.
For him, independence is not a date marked on a calendar but a struggle that is not over.
Sumit Mandal is Research Fellow at the Institute for Malaysian and International Studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.