Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the preeminent novelist of Indonesia and is frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize. Born on February 1, 1925, on the island of Java, Pramoedya was brought up to be an Indonesian nationalist. From 1947 to 1949, he was imprisoned by the Dutch for possessing anti-colonial materials. A supporter of Indonesia’s first president, the nationalist and nonaligned leader Sukarno, Pramoedya was a marked man when General Suharto seized power in September 1965. On the evening of October 13, 1965, Pramoedya was at home editing a collection of Sukarno’s short stories when the military came for him. He spent most of the Suharto era behind bars without trial, including fourteen years at the Buru Island Prison Colony. For the first few years there, he was held with sixteen other prisoners in isolation from the other inmates.
During Suharto’s thirty-three-year reign, Pramoedya’s works were banned in Indonesia. Today he is most famous for his Buru Quartet, which he wrote from 1969 to 1979 while imprisoned there. The quartet consists of This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass (all republished in English by Penguin). The hero of the anti-colonial quartet is a journalist named Minke, who gradually becomes a leading voice for Indonesian independence. Minke narrates the first three installments of the quartet. But in the last one, a new narrator takes over, Minke’s captor—Jacques Pangemanann, who arrested him for publishing an attack on the Dutch rulers. While guarding Minke, Pangemanann comes to admire him and sympathize with the nationalist movement though he still treats him with cruelty.
Toward the end of the quartet, Pangemanann and a couple of police officers present Minke with a release form to sign. It demands that he not get involved in politics or organizations. Minke spurns the request:
“What do you gentlemen mean by politics? And by organization? And what do you mean by ‘involved’? Do you mean that I have to go and live by myself on top of a mountain? Everything is political! Everything needs organization. Do you gentlemen think that the illiterate farmers who spend their lives hoeing the ground are not involved in politics? The moment they surrender a part of their little crop to the village authorities as tax, they are carrying out a political act because they are acknowledging and accepting the authority of the government. Or do you mean by politics just those things that make the government unhappy? While those things that make the government happy are not political? And tell me, who is it that can free themselves from involvement in organization? As soon as you have more than two people together, you already have organization. . . . Even those who become hermits, who take themselves away into the middle of the forest or the ocean, still take with them something of the influence of their fellow human beings. And while there are those who rule and those who are ruled, those who exercise power and those who are the objects of that exercise of power, people will be involved in politics. While people live in society, no matter how small that society, people will be organizing.”
Pangemanann releases Minke anyway but heaps further humiliations upon him. A few months later, Minke dies in obscurity.
This year, Pramoedya has come out with a new book, The Mute’s Soliloquy: A Memoir (Hyperion). In it, he provides sketches of what life was like in prison.
“For the first few months, torture was the prisoners’ constant diet,” he writes. “I saw prisoners whose hands and legs were bound tightly being thrown out of trucks. I witnessed how one young man, who was being interrogated beside me, had pencils placed between his fingers, at their base, between the middle and lower knuckles. Every time the interrogator asked the boy a question, he’d crush the young man’s fingers together, causing him to scream and moan in pain.”
One surprise in the book is that Suharto wrote a letter to Pramoedya at Buru, and Pramoedya responded in a polite but jousting way. Both letters are reprinted in the text.
The longer Pramoedya stayed in prison, the more he seemed to doubt whether he would be able to reach anyone with his writings. “I recall someone saying, ‘Let him holler; he’ll soon wear himself out.’ Now what I hear is, ‘Let him be. It won’t be long before he dies anyway.’ I have lost my voice. Were I able to sing, would anyone hear this mute’s soliloquy?”
Part of the memoir is addressed to his children, and much of it consists of autobiographical entries. But above all, the book continues his quest to gain true independence and freedom for Indonesia. Like the Nobel Prize-winners Naguib Mahfouz and Wole Soyinka, Pramoedya has felt the crush of disappointment after colonialism yielded not to democracy but to corruption and repression. Nonetheless, he has not given up.
“There was a time when the people of Indonesia wanted, demanded, and fought for national freedom,” he writes. “Now that’s been won, personal freedom is trammeled. I’ve often heard people say, ‘Your country is beautiful, a virtual paradise.’ When will the people of Indonesia be as beautiful as their land, with a civilization and culture that contributes to the great beauty of humankind and no longer smothers and strangles the mind?”
I spoke with Pramoedya on May 21 in Madison, where he was a guest of the University of Wisconsin. I was told that he rises early, keeping to the same schedule he had in prison, so we met at 6:30 a.m. for coffee at the Madison Inn, where he was staying. He came downstairs with his wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, and with his longtime editor, Yusuf Isak, an Indonesian journalist who had also served time in prison under Suharto. Dressed casually and wearing a University of Wisconsin cap, Pramoedya got his wife a bagel, sat down, and offered me a clove Djarum cigarette, the first of many over the next hour. Speaking quietly in Indonesian, he was careful not to aggrandize his prison experience. And he showed an almost blasé attitude toward his Buru Quartet, laughing when he appeared not to recognize his own words. When we were through with the interview, he asked for a tour of The Progressive magazine, which I was more than happy to give.
Q: In This Earth of Mankind, one of your characters says, “Without a love of literature, you’ll remain just a lot of clever animals.” Where did your love of literature come from?
Pramoedya Ananta Toer: I couldn’t do anything else, apart from writing.
Q: Ever since you were a boy?
Pramoedya: At first I had no inclination to write. But I failed in trying to do other jobs, so I decided to become a writer.
Q: How did you manage to write your quartet while in prison?
Pramoedya: Before I got permission, I had to do it behind their backs. For a long time, I was not permitted to write, so I had to do it orally. From 1971 until mid-1973, we were not allowed to socialize with the others. During mass executions of political prisoners, in the isolation cell I told the stories to my friends. During official ceremonies, my fellow isolated friends told the stories to other friends who were not being isolated, and that’s how they were spread.
Q: How did you convey such a long and involved story orally?
Pramoedya: Only the general outlines were orally transmitted. The details had to be written down later, when paper was available.
Q: Tell me about your time in prison and the treatment you received.
Pramoedya: Practically everyone has their own scars due to torture.
Q: What conclusion did you draw from the sadism of the guards about human beings in general?
Pramoedya: I saw how low culture and civilization could go. In Indonesia, the guards torture people in order to feel mighty and feared. They are happy if people are scared of them.
Q: Your latest work, The Mute’s Soliloquy, is a collection of your writings and reflections in the Buru prison. It’s not a novel at all. What were you intending to do with this?
Pramoedya: The book was for my children so that they would know they once had a father. Because on Buru, you have to be prepared to be executed at any time. I knew that the quartet would be smuggled out; it was intended to be read by the public. But this one was not; it was private.
Q: You write in The Mute’s Soliloquy that your imprisonment was “a consequence of nation-building.” What did you mean by that?
Pramoedya: The army imprisoned me because I was actively involved in the process of nation-building. I write my books to make the nation as one. I write using the Indonesian language because that language is a bond that unites us. I don’t use my mother tongue, the Javanese language. Indonesia is comprised of many ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. It has to be built into one nation.
Q: In a sense, your anti-colonial quartet is a chronicle of nation-building, isn’t it?
Pramoedya: The spirit is anti-colonial because I was socialized from childhood to be anti-colonial.
Q: Your dad was a nationalist?
Pramoedya: Yes, a non-cooperator. There were cooperators and non-cooperators. It has to be emphasized here: He was a non-cooperator.
Q: Did he encourage you to become a writer?
Pramoedya: My father practically never spoke with his children.
Q: So how did you pick up his anti-colonial attitude?
Pramoedya: By example.
Q: What about your mother?
Pramoedya: Since childhood I was taught by my mother to be a free person. Not ordering others around, and also not being ordered around by others. That was how my mother socialized us. My mind has been free since childhood. I create freedom for myself.
Q: Minke, the hero of your quartet, is a journalist, and you, for a time, were a journalist, too. Did you become a journalist as a way to fight for Indonesian independence?
Pramoedya: No, when I was a teenager, I had to find a job. And journalism was the one open to me.
Q: But you soon began to realize the power of the word?
Pramoedya: Yes, the power of the word. Even though no one admits it, writers are leaders in their communities. And Indonesia, especially, needs writers who can reach the people evenly, regardless of class or station.
Q: But you have a character in your quartet warn Minke “to be a writer, and not a speechmaker.” Are you making the point that speechifying gets in the way of art?
Pramoedya: I chose to write, and not to make speeches, though I did make some speeches before I was imprisoned. But writing is still writing. And it depends on the quality of the writing itself whether someone is creating art or not.
Q: In Child of All Nations, Minke’s mentor also says, “A good author, Mr. Minke, should be able to provide his readers with some joy, not a false joy, but some faith that life is beautiful.” What did you mean by that?
Pramoedya: I don’t know; I never reread my own writing.
Q: Why is that?
Pramoedya: If I reread it, I’ll keep rewriting it, and it’ll never be finished.
Q: But were you advising yourself to provide joy in your own writing?
Pramoedya: No, no. This is about Minke; it is different for myself.
Q: But surely as a writer, you must think it’s important to provide some joy, some faith?
Pramoedya: I don’t write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.
Q: Do you think writers who try to give joy are spreading false hope?
Pramoedya: I don’t have the right to judge those who write to give joy, but it’s a struggle to give conscience and not joy.
Q: I’ve got to ask you the obvious question about your quartet: Why did you remove Minke as the narrator of your fourth installment, House of Glass, just as he enters confinement?
Pramoedya: Because, practically, Minke’s life story has already finished. The fourth book is about how power defeats Minke—colonial power. His life doesn’t continue. If there is a continuation, then the continuation is with the history of independence. And that process of continuation is in the hands of others.
Q: Near the end of House of Glass, Minke’s guard writes up a release form for him to sign, which says that Minke forswears future involvement in politics and organizing. Minke rejects the offer with an eloquent speech. Is this scene at all autobiographical?
Pramoedya: With me, I did sign it. But in the letter of release it mentioned that it was not legally proven that I was involved in the Indonesian Communist Party.
Q: Your quartet centered on the quest for independence. But since 1945, Indonesian independence cannot have turned out as you imagined. What happened?
Pramoedya: I had idealism when I was young, but in reality the interference from abroad has been too much.
Q: From the West?
Pramoedya: Yes, and from multinational corporations. Eisenhower wanted to overthrow Sukarno; there is a document about it. Sukarno wanted to turn Indonesia into an independent country, not one ordered around by any superpower. But the United States wanted Indonesia to become the playing field for multinationals. Sukarno didn’t want that. He was loved by the people, and that was why it wasn’t that easy to murder him. He survived seven assassination attempts. So the United States cooperated with a wing of the army that was favoring the West and the multinationals. Great Britain played the most important role in overthrowing Sukarno, but the United States was giving weapons and providing a list of people’s names who had to be murdered. The list was from the U.S. embassy.
Q: You write that we’re in “The Age of Capital” or “The Age of the Triumph of Capital.” How long is it going to last, do you think?
Pramoedya: Now is the absolute victory of the multinationals. Now, in reality, the whole of the Third World hopes for the aid of capital. Even the still-existing communist countries have started to accommodate capitalism.
Q: But what’s their alternative?
Pramoedya: There is an alternative. That’s what Sukarno taught. Do not invite capitalism, but if you want to develop, it’s OK to borrow money. I’m against capitalism but not capital.
Q: Are you optimistic about democracy in Indonesia?
Pramoedya: I am optimistic. Why? Because Indonesia has the young generation, who are still in the process of forming their own identities. They are activists. They are more educated than their parents, and their hearts are pure.
Q: In one of your prison notes in The Mute’s Soliloquy, you wrote that you wanted to live long enough to see the end of Suharto’s New Order. Were you surprised when he was forced out on May 21, 1998?
Pramoedya: When Suharto stepped down, many reporters came to me, wanting to write about my happiness at his fall. I said, “This is just a comedy.” He’s using other hands and other faces. He transferred the presidency to Habibie. How is it possible that a president can appoint a president?
Q: Do you support Sukarno’s daughter Megawati, the leader of the main opposition party?
Pramoedya: I have many problems with her. How could she have played a role as a member of Suharto’s parliament after he killed two million of her father’s supporters? And as a member of parliament, she never raised the issue of those massacres, she never raised the issue of people who were robbed of their rights, such as myself. Never. She was among Suharto’s yes-men.
Q: Minke, in This Earth of Mankind, says, “Maybe one day I could become a great writer like Hugo.” Now you are like an Indonesian Hugo. Are you comfortable in that role?
Pramoedya: I feel I am in the place that I have chosen for myself my whole life. I feel it’s more appropriate for me to be where I am today than to be a member of parliament or a minister or president.
Q: You’re often mentioned as someone who is likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Is that important to you?
Pramoedya: Every award for me is important because it means a slap against militarism and fascism in Indonesia.
Matthew Rothschild is the Editor of The Progressive magazine. Translation was provided by Katie Greene and Francisia Seda.