Bumi Manusia / This Earth of Mankind
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. J. Didion
By Uma Anyar.
This Earth of Mankind is the first book of the ‘Buru Quartet’ by the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the renowned Indonesian writer who died just six years ago in Jakarta on April 30, 2006 at the age of 81. His heirs have generously permitted the title of his book to be the guiding theme for 2012 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
Pramoedya’s life was as remarkable and dramatic as any of his twenty- one books. At the start of This Earth of Mankind, Minke the narrator, says:
“That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there – willing or unwilling, with all our soul and body. And too often it proves to be a great despot. And so, in the end, I arrived too. Whether the future is a kind or a cruel god is, of course, its own affair. Humanity too often claps with just one hand.”
It is a provocative and Zen-like mind nugget that many readers still ponder. After his death a friend said, Pramoedya was always in search of a time that never came.
Prisons have played a major role in Pramoedya’s life and work. He had spent a total of fifteen years incarcerated for politically subversive ideas and writings. First, by the colonializing Dutch from 1947 to 1949, for his participation in the anti-colonial revolt. And again in 1965 by the right wing coup under Suharto’s “New Order” that took power and slaughtered over a million so called communists and suspected sympathizers. Pramoedya was one of these victims. He was not a card carrying communist or a member of the PKI. His position as the head of People’s Cultural Organization, a literary wing of the Indonesian Communist Party, caused him to be considered a communist and enemy of the “New Order” regime. During his arrest a guard hit him in the head with a rifle butt. The blow left him partially deaf for the rest of his life.
‘’Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?’’ he said recounting this incident.
During his long imprisonment, 1965-1979, without trial by the military regime on the snake infested tropical gulag island of Buru in the Moluccas, he was severely beaten and tortured. Even after he was released from Buru Island he was kept under house arrest in Jakarta until 1992.
During this terrible tapol “political prisoner” period Pramodeya and his fellow inmates were starved, beaten, humiliated and tortured, He watched guards shoot prisoners for sport. Many died of exhaustion disease and despair. He was stripped of everything. His papers and research destroyed. He was not even allowed to have a pencil, yet something remarkable occurred on that penal colony. The Buru Quartet arose from the most fundamental of human needs. Storytelling. Since he could not put words on paper Pramoedya spoke them. He narrated the story of This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass to his fellow inmates. Imagine one inmate, and another one, and so on, charged with remembering a portion of the tale that kept extending night after night for three thousand and one nights (eight years), like some oral spider’s web of words until it could be written down. He was an Indonesian Scheherahazade whose stories kept hope in the hearts of his fellow prisoners. Some of his friends even took his shift at hard labor in order to help him to continue to write in secret. Eventually the manuscript was smuggled out. This is one of the greatest testaments to the power of story that I have come across in a long while.
Pramoedya wrote The Fugitive while imprisoned (1947-49) by the Dutch authorities and kept his soul alive by reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Some reviewers have considered his work too polemical. But others have seen the same strategy that Steinbeck and Tolstoy employed: strong multifaceted characters that are believable, lifelike, and that we come to deeply care for.
In This Earth of Mankind, Toer exposes the evils of a society based on and obsessed with castes of race and money, and in doing so has produced one of the essential political novels of the 20th Century. These books were best sellers for 10 weeks in 1980. In 1981 the books were banned by the Suharto regime. They may have been set in the Dutch colonial period and their narrator a young Javanese man, but the repressions and political corruption were the same that most citizens were living under during Suharto’s rule. The publishers were forced to close down and one publisher went to prison. One may naively ask, why all of this mayhem and suppression over a quartet of fiction novels?
And the answer may be:
‘Just as politics cannot be separated from life, life cannot be separated from politics. People who consider themselves to be non-political are no different; they’ve already been assimilated by the dominant political culture–they just don’t feel it any more.’
In 2005 his books were allowed to be printed in Bahasa Indonesia. Max Lane has done an exceptional job of translating the Buru Quartet into English.
All of us have friends who say they don’t read fiction. They have no time for some writer’s fanciful imaginings. I would recommend Pramodeya’s novels to such a reader because if fiction can be banned and if so much human spirit and willful resilience can be put into a tetralogy of novels then perhaps we all should take ‘make believe’ more seriously.
UWRF information can be found on the website www.ubudwritersfestival.com