Pramoedya Ananta Toer (6 February 1925-30 April 2006), is an Indonesia author of novels, short stories, and essays which his works spans during colonial period of Indonesian struggle for independence, as well as during the post-colonial authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and a successful military dictatorship of Suharto. The Dutch East Indies government imprisoned him from 1947 to 1949, and Suharto regime from 1965 to 1979. His works banned during the military regime, including the Buru Tetralogy, which he best known for-“This Earth of Mankind”, “Child of All Nations”, “Footsteps” and “House of Glass”. Translated into more than 20 languages, and was nominated several times for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Pramoedya was born in the village of Blora, East Java. His father was a figure of some social prominence, an activist and headmaster of the nationalist school, but ruined the family by obsessive gambling. His mother is a prominent figure in his life. Pramoedya said that everything in his books is what he gets from his mother. A strong female character is the evident in his works are based on his mother. When he looks back at the past, he sees “the Indonesian revolution embodied in the form of a woman-(his) mother”. He took ten years to complete ten years a 7 year elementary school course, while his mother encourage him to study abroad afterwards.
He completed his education at Radio Vocation School in Surabaya, although he never received the certificate, due to the Japanese occupation in 1942. Eventually, he received an honorary doctorate from University of Michigan far later in 1999. During the Japanese occupation, he worked as a stenographer for Japanese news agency ‘Domei’ where he developed his writing. Like many Indonesians nationalists, he initially supported the occupation. However, the Japanese brutality and austerity become intensified, causing changing in his attitude, then when he became increasingly a nationalist. After WWII and Indonesian independence in 1945, as the Dutch tried to reiterate control over their former empire, Pramoedya joined the resistance of movement, and later he was detained for the first time in 1947 in various places, for being ‘anti-colonialist’. Here, during two years in a Dutch camp prison, he wrote his first published novel, “Perburuan” (1950, The Fugitive), which depicts the rebellion of anti-Japanese occupation in his home in java. Then, he was released with the Dutch withdrawal in 1949 and spent much of the 1950s travelling abroad, Netherlands, USSR and China.
He continues wrote novels and novellas throughout the 1950s that emphasised on the corrosive effects of colonialism on human relations. He became the editor of the weekly of a leftist newspaper and a teacher at the academy of journalism in Jakarta. 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.
1966, an alleged abortive coup broke out, where military lead by General Suharto took over the government of Indonesia, backed by the United States who opposed Sukarno alliance to the left-wing. Following United States, Suharto began ordered mass executions, massive repression and created a ‘New Order’ military regime. Two weeks after the coup, Pramoedya was detained for his affiliations to the Communist Party without trial by the military regime. After initially being detained on the island of Nusakambangan off the south Java coast, Pramoedya and thousands inmates moved to the remote, malaria-infested island of Buru, Indonesia’s eastern island, where the political prisoners received laborious chores. He was severely beaten at his arrest, along with other prisoners, many of them died. For the rest of his life, he suffered from hearing and seeing difficulties. His pleas for his extensive library to be saved went unheeded, his books were burned and his house confiscated.
“Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself”. Pramoedya once remarked during his long imprisonment.
He denied pen and paper; so to prove he could be silence. However, he had stories in his mind and recited stories to his fellow inmates over and over again at night to boost their morale. With the help of other prisoners who were many artists and writers to continue and spread the story among prisoners. “We know the story by heart” said one of the ex-political prisoners. In 1973, he received access to a typewriter sent by Jean Paul Sartre, however he never received it, since the officers replace it with a broken typewriters which he had to fix it himself. Here, when he composed his famous manuscript of the Buru Tetralogy was written on scraps of paper, which later he had to smuggle out from Buru through out the help of a German Priest.
Under International eyes, and foreign diplomats lobbying, some political prisoners were released, including Pramoedya in 1979. Pramoedya books was translated for the first time into English by an Australian Diplomat, Max Lane, posted in early 1980s when Suharto at his peak of his power, and led him to withdrawal. Pramoedya’s writing a synthesized from a wide range variety of literary traditions, from the form of Javanese storytelling and the pioneers’ revolution of Indonesian literature (Chairil Anwar), to the historical chronicles from various European and American writers.
“His focus was always on the large landscape, the historical social and political forces that came together to create Indonesia” said John McGlynn, the directors of publications at the Lontar Foundation and a translator of some of his works.
After the regime fall in 1998, a reform resonated throughout the country. Pramoedya said that the country is on the verge of social revolution without a leader. As Nelson Mandela, he has refused to forgive the government who has taken so many things from him. He is afraid that if he easily forgives, history soon will be forgotten. He emphasised the importance of knowing one’s history so that one does not repeat the same mistake over and over again.
“I am half blind and almost totally deaf, but I won’t stop being angry because not many people are outraged enough at the state of Indonesia” he told the AP in 2004
In the last decade of his life, his writing output diminished, however he never lost his touch for his bitter critic of Indonesia’s leadership, even after the fall of the regime. He said, “After Sukarno, there have only been clowns who had no capability to lead the country”. He wants an inclusive government that encourages people from parts of the spreading Indonesian archipelago, outside the main island of Java. Now his books are longer banned, shelves after shelves can be found in bookstore and library in Indonesia.