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WRITER HERO:
PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER
by Lydia Ratna

Indonesia’s leading prose writer and Asia’s most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize, Pramoedya (pronounced Prah moo deeya) Ananta Toer was born amidst turbulent times in Indonesia. Pramoedya, Indonesian for "first in the fray," was born, the eldest child in his family, on February 6, 1925 in Blora, Java.

Taking ten years to complete a 7-year elementary school course, Pramoedya was nevertheless encouraged by his mother to further his education in Europe and other countries. Pramoedya also went to Radio Vakschool, where he was trained to be a Radio Operator, which he finished in entirety, however, due to Japanese occupation he never received the certificate. Eventually he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan.

Pramoedya’s mother is a prominent figure in his life. Pramoedya said that everything in his books is what he got from his mother. Strong female characters evident in Pramoedya’s fiction are based on his mother, "a person of inestimable value, the flame that burns so bright it leaves no ash." When Toer looks back at the past, he sees "the Indonesian revolution embodied in the form of a woman—[his] mother." Despite her strong character, Pramoedya's mother was weakened physically by tuberculosis and died when she was 34 years old, and Pramoedya 17.

After his mother’s death, Pramoedya and his next younger sibling left the family home and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. Pramoedya studied up to class 2 of Taman Dewasa, as well as working in the Japanese news agency Domei. He learned to type and then worked as a stenographer, and then a journalist.

The year was 1945. On August 15, Vietnam declared independence and, five days later, Indonesia followed suit. At that time Indonesia was in the forefront of the struggle against colonialist rule, which quickly spread through Africa and Asia. During these first years of independence, Pramoedya was briefly imprisoned by the Dutch and the allied army because of his political leanings.

In early 50s, he worked editor in the Modern Indonesian Literature department of the Balai Pustaka. Rather than write in his native tongue, he wrote in Bahasa Indonesia (an Indonesian national language adapted from the lingua franca Malay) because he wanted to establish it as a fully-formed modern language.

In the 1960s Suharto staged a coup, and took over the government of Indonesia. This coup was backed by the United States who didn't like Sukarno's alliance with China. Following the example of the United States, Suharto began an all-out purge of communists and anyone alleged to be communist. Suharto ordered mass executions, massive repression, and created a "New Order" military regime. In 1961, the army under the command of General A.H. Nasution arrested and sent Pramoedya to the Buru Island prison for his political ideas.

Although Pramoedya was never a member of the Communist Party, he was imprisoned for 15 years for several reasons: first because of his support for Sukarno, second because of his criticism of the pre-Suharto Army, especially it's 1959 decree stating that no Chinese merchants were allowed to conduct businesses in several rural areas. Third, he was targeted because of his articles, collected as a book under the title Hoa Kiau di Indonesia (Overseas Chinese in Indonesia). In these pamphlets, he criticized the army’s way of dealing with "the Chinese problem." The government sought "assimilation" by erasing the Chinese culture. Chinese schools were closed, Chinese books were banned, and, until two years ago, Chinese New Year celebration was banned.

During his first imprisonment Pramoedya had been allowed to visit his family and had been accorded certain rights as a prisoner. This time, however, Pramoedya and his fellow prisoners were given laborious chores. Pramoedya's papers were taken from him and either destroyed or lost. Denied pen and paper, Pramoedya recited stories to his fellow inmates at night to boost their morale. Later, when he was given pen and paper, the other prisoners shouldered his chores so that he could put his stories on paper. He smuggled out his writings, which then became the Buru Tetralogy. Six other books were confiscated by the government and lost forever.

Upon his release from Buru in 1969, he was put in a group of 40 upon the shores of Surabaya Island, a notorious Indonesian prison. The government was intending to put them into exile and forget about them. Fortunately, a friend from the church in Buru spread the word of Pramoedya’s release. Under international eyes, the government reluctantly handed them their release papers. Pramoedya’s works have been published in at least 28 languages and have won many awards. Although vastly popular outside of Indonesia, his works were banned in Indonesia.

For several years after, Pramoedya was placed in a house arrest and had to report weekly to the military. The government had taken away the best years of his life, his hearing, his papers, his house, and his writings.

Pramoedya’s historical novels contain what Indonesian history books lack: truth. Under the New Order, history is smoothed into a glorified struggle for freedom and against communism. Heavy with subjective views, history books justify Suharto’s massacre of more than a million Communists, Chinese, and political opponents. The figures were scaled down, and the victims were described as enemies of the people. The government’s official amnesia sought to erase the memory of its unpleasant history.

In 1997, college students toppled the New Order. Their cry for reform resonated through the country. Pramoedya has said that the country is on the verge of a social revolution without a leader. He has refused, like Nelson Mandela, to forgive the government that took so many things from him. He fears that if he easily forgives, history will soon be forgotten. He stresses the importance of knowing one's history so that one does not repeat the same mistake year after year.

As ethnicity, religion, and class divide the nation, Pramoedya continues his fight, not only for the right to write freely, but also for the right to read freely. Having lost most of his strength due to his old age and poor health, he does not intend to write any more novels, but writes essays. Now that his books are no longer banned, shelves upon shelves of his books can be found in every bookstore and library in Indonesia.


Written by Lydia Ratna
Photos courtesy of Alfred D. Ticoalu
Last changed on: 6/1/2004 3:08:53 PM

Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Buru Quartet From the PBS Web site

The Nobel Prize Web site

Alfred D. Ticoalu assisted in editing this story. Terima kasih banyak (thank you very much)!

 

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