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Dissident in Indonesia

Visiting Pak Pram

By David Paul Ragan | HUMANITIES, March/April 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

For fourteen years, from 1965 to 1979, Pramoedya Anata Toer was imprisoned without trial by the Indonesian government, enduring the brutal conditions of a remote island penitentiary. There, denied writing materials, Prameodya orally composed This Earth of Mankind, the first installment of his Buru Quartet. He committed the stories to to his memory and told them to his fellow prisoners, who retold them from barracks to barracks. It was the saga of a young Javanese hero named Minke, who fought against the Dutch colonial oppressors.

The Quartet is complete now, with the appearance of Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. Translated into English by Australian Max Lane, the books achieve a sweep of history and ideas. In the epic story of Minke, he is educated by the Dutch but comes to realize that he must confront the injustice and prejudice of the colonial system. As a journalist, he is intent upon awakening his countrymen to its evils. The books also tell a personal story of love and loss, of jealousy and misunderstanding, and ultimately, of persecution and destruction.

The Quartet has been translated into twenty languages and has brought international recognition to Pramoedya, known throughout Indonesia as Pak Pram. There is even recurring talk of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Pak Pram's novels are banned in his own country, and he himself remains under city arrest in Jakarta.

I wanted to talk to him; to do so, it was clear I would have to travel to Jakarta.

I had spent the summer months of 1995 as a Fulbright Lecturer in Padang, West Sumatra. A teacher-scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities had enabled me to extend my stay to begin research on Joseph Conrad and post-colonialism, exploring how writers in developing societies have reacted to the literary heritage of European domination. Pak Pram was one of the figures I had chosen to study. Conrad had set many of his finest novels in the archipelago now constituting Indonesia, Almayer's Folly, Lord Jim, Victory, and The Rescue among them. Contrasts with Conrad's works are immediately noticeable when reading Pak Pram's This Earth of Mankind: narration from the Javanese rather than European point of view, intimate acquaintance with the culture and psychology of the Asian characters, a more discriminating and critical indictment of European influence. Yet tantalizing connections appear as well: female characters who incarnate the sensual pleasures of life in languid tropical climates, Dutch expatriates seduced by those pleasures who eventually degenerate into defeated relics, plots which turn on the fates of mixed-race daughters of the two. Finally, both novelists focus on the same historical period (though Pak Pram brings his characters into the twentieth century in their struggles for independence against the Dutch) and reveal the essential denial of human dignity which colonial regimes in these island cultures required. I was eager to find out if these connections were accidental, a function of historical realities, or reflections of Conrad's influence upon Pak Pram's writing.

Nelly Polhaupessy of the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation, which administers Fulbright grants, agreed to contact the novelist and request an interview.

Heated debates over Pak Pram had dominated Indonesian headlines throughout the summer: the Philippine Magsaysay Foundation presented him its 1995 award for literature, journalism, and communication arts. This prestigious honor brought protests from several Indonesian intellectuals who accused Pak Pram of having promoted book burnings and bans of his political enemies during the 1960s, while President Sukarno was in power. Pak Pram had been involved in an organization of leftist writers and artists called Lekra, which had close links to the Indonesian communist party, though he has denied having been a party member. He had, however, engaged in polemics against literary colleagues, some of them recipients of the same award. Writer Mochtar Lubis returned his medal to the Magsaysay Foundation in protest.

Despite the attacks, Pak Pram refused to apologize for his involvement with Lekra. As his supporters pointed out, he had suffered greatly for his opinions, imprisoned first by the Dutch in the 1940s, then briefly by the Sukarno regime in the early 1960s, and finally by the Suharto government on Buru Island, where for years he had been denied not only writing implements but even reading material except for certain Islamic texts.

I carefully indicated that my interest was in his work, not his political activities, and was delighted when he accepted the request for an interview. Nelly Polhaupessy would serve as translator, since Pramoedya did not feel comfortable in English and my Indonesian would be quickly exhausted. The Magsaysay award had drawn official attention to Pak Pram, and his house was under constant surveillance. A consular official at the U.S. Embassy warned me not to take papers or packages when I visited, that if questioned to say I was merely paying a social visit, and to prepare to surrender any manuscripts or books. Fortunately, I had already sent Pak Pram a list of questions and resolved not to take notes during the interview itself, relying on reconstructing his responses with Nelly's help after the session. We had difficulty locating his residence in the maze of one-way streets. But Pak Pram is very well known. When we got close and asked directions of a group of small children, they all turned and solemnly pointed in unison, as if rehearsed, to a spacious white house behind a privacy wall. Cloth sacking had been woven into the wrought-iron security gate to cut off the view from the street.

Pak Pram admitted us personally. He appeared remarkably vigorous and youthful for a man of seventy who had endured torture and years of imprisonment. He was thin, tall and athletic, his eyes restless in his leonine head. He ushered us into his living room and introduced two young guests, associates of his publisher. According to Javanese custom, he ordered drinks and urged us to smoke, as he himself did continuously throughout our conversation.

Pak Pram projects himself differently for different interviewers, to some voicing anger at his treatment by the Indonesian government, to others offering an expansive and forgiving optimism. He has complained of writer's block for the past ten years, but then told a New York Times correspondent that he is writing. He no doubt is acutely attuned to the audiences who might encounter his opinions. In the Indonesian press a few months earlier he had sounded affronted, unrepentant, even occasionally disdainful of his critics. With international visitors, he had more often assumed the role of the distinguished and impartial man of letters, confident of the authority his artistic vision and accomplishment have conferred upon him. With me, he was casual and friendly, modest, a bit reserved, often humorous.

And often astonishing. Anxious to explore his acquaintance with Joseph Conrad, I posed the question immediately. Pak Pram recalled having read a Conrad novel as a youth in central Java fifty years ago. He hesitated a moment, searching for the title, but only for a moment. It had been Almayer's Folly, and he proceeded to outline the narrative, which has several affinities with This Earth of Mankind. He disclaimed much direct influence from Conrad, though, citing the more prominent roles played in his development by Steinbeck, Gorky, and Zola. These writers had taught him to erase the distinction between art and social realities. Mostly, he praised the influence of the Dutch writer Multatuli (1820-1887), who had first exposed colonial domination in Java. For one hundred years, the Javanese had suffered, Pak Pram explained, but they had not realized the extent of their suffering until Multatuli had made them aware.

The "obligation to be human": this is the theme Pak Pram asserted is at the core of all his books and of his life. His attitudes toward the subjects he has written about and the trials he has endured congregate around this notion. He prided himself on being part of the revolution which created Indonesia but bemoaned that he had lost so many productive years of independence to persecution and imprisonment. Though his novels primarily attack the exploitation of European colonialism, in conversation he indicted the excesses of the Cold War and of western commercialism as most directly responsible for his personal tribulations. He asserted, though, that "suffering is the same" regardless of its causes. When he was arrested in the mid-1960s, rioters looted his house and burned all his books and research notes. He joked that the birth of his son had precipitated the crisis and added that the infant's diapers were among the articles confiscated. The irreplaceable loss was the fifteen unpublished manuscripts destroyed, yet remarkably he expressed no bitterness or regret. His voice became fierce only when he detailed the conditions which give rise to his countrymen's contemporary plight: the evils of what he called the New Order -- pollution, environmental destruction, poverty. Neo-colonialism, the domination of international markets, oppresses people as forcefully as the earlier brand: greed leads to exploitation. For these influences Pak Pram blamed his own generation of revolutionaries, who accomplished the expulsion of the Dutch and then "became senile."

Only briefly did Pak Pram touch on the controversy concerning the Magsaysay award. Regarding his critics, he joked "maling teriak maling": the thief screams thief. He expressed no resentment toward his critics, only a slight condescension. He remained expansive and sensitive to his guests, encouraging Nelly and me to drink and to smoke. I finally accepted one of his clove cigarettes, and he smiled. When he apologized for any offence his criticisms of America during the Cold War may have caused me, I informed him that an agency of the American government was funding my research into his work. He howled with delight and slapped me warmly on the shoulder, appreciating what he clearly took to be a delicious irony. I expressed respect for his writing, congratulations on his award, and hope that his reputation would continue to grow as he deserved. For once he responded in English with a quiet, modest smile: "Thank you very much."

Throughout our visit Pramoedya had been warm and open, the pressures of his work and his political jeopardy seemingly distant from his thoughts. When we departed, he accompanied Nelly and me to the gate, offering directions on how to find a taxi. When Pak Pram appeared the children fell silent and I recalled that he is a watched prisoner -- an outsider in his own country.

Indonesia's ban on Pak Pram's books has been in effect since 1981. Possession of them constitutes a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment. The censors claim that the Buru Quartet contains Marxist-Leninist ideas so artfully concealed in Minke's story that the reader may be unaware of how he is being swayed. A more rational explanation is that in Minke's resistance to the repression of Dutch colonialism, today's Indonesian may recognize a modern analogy -- the struggle to think independently, to grow spiritually as well as economically, and to alert the larger world to heroic individual resistance.

About the Author

David Paul Ragan is chair of the English department at Hammond School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Funding Information

He was a 1995-96 NEH Teacher-Scholar recipient.