Dissident in Indonesia: Visiting Pak Pram

By Ragan, David Paul | Humanities, March/April 1998 | Go to article overview

Dissident in Indonesia: Visiting Pak Pram


Ragan, David Paul, Humanities


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, Pramoedya 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 teacherscholar 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. …

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