The Extraordinary Life and Writing of Indonesia’s Tolstoy

Jamie James is the author of "Andrew and Joey: A Novel" and lives in Indonesia.

Seven years ago, I made one of the great discoveries in my life as a reader when a friend pressed into my hands a copy of “This Earth of Mankind,” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the first volume of what has come to be called the Buru Quartet. Pramoedya is one of those rare writers whose stature the reader perceives at once, from afar, like a tower. The Buru books, set amid the emergence of modern Indonesia, struck me then as one of the most ambitious undertakings in postwar world literature, and time has only heightened my admiration for this great literary artist. The Buru novels are Tolstoyan in humanism and scope, and reminiscent of Conrad in their philosophical profundity and exquisite tonal articulacy; they are also gripping narratives (the first two volumes, anyway; their impact diminishes in the later volumes). Yet as great as these dramas are, they are overshadowed by the author’s own life story.

A survivor of the Japanese occupation during World War II, a soldier in the Indonesian Revolution, a political prisoner of the Suharto regime for 14 years, Pramoedya is one of the 20th century’s great voices of conscience. Pram, as he is affectionately known in Indonesia, wrote most of his best books in durance. His first novel, “The Fugitive,” a dark morality tale about an Indonesian patriot who is betrayed by his lover’s father, was written while he was imprisoned by Dutch colonial authorities for possession of nationalist documents. Written when Pramoedya was just 22 years old, “The Fugitive” was one of the first accomplished works of literature written in modern Indonesian.

This new translation of “The Girl From the Coast,” a novel written and first published (in serial form in a newspaper) in 1965, is a major contribution to the growing body of Pramoedya’s works in English. It was written while Pramoedya was at the height of his creative powers, a commanding intellectual figure in the twilight years of the regime of Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding ruler. Set on the north coast of Java at the end of the 19th century, the novel is a sort of pre-autobiography, telling the story of Pramoedya’s grandmother. A nameless 14-year-old girl is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with a rich aristocrat, known as the Bendoro. A simple fisherman’s daughter, she overnight becomes the lady of her husband’s household. After she adjusts to her new life, she becomes pregnant, only to discover that she is a “practice wife” who will be not only discarded by the Bendoro but separated from the child she is carrying.


It is a classic tragedy, enacted with tremendous, restrained gravity, in Willem Samuels’ polished, lucid translation. Pramoedya achieves his most devastating effects by discreet, elliptical indirection, a defining Javanese trait. The book’s first moment of drama comes soon after the girl’s arrival in the city, when the Bendoro’s representative comes to claim her for his employer. He asks her parents whether she has begun to menstruate, the sole requirement for a girl to be married in feudal Java. Her mother asks her, and when it’s clear that the child doesn’t know what she’s talking about, the mother takes her aside:

“The girl’s mother whispered something, but all the girl could do was shake her head and stare. The mother frowned and shook her head as well. She then turned and looked at her husband, giving him a despondent stare. She left her daughter and went to her husband: ‘Just tell him yes,’ she said.” Thus was the 14-year-old prepubescent virgin prepared for her wedding night.

What gives the novel much of its power, what makes it typically Pramoedyan, is that while it pulses with an angry moral indignation that flirts with melodrama--and sometimes crosses the line, as when the Bendoro strikes the girl with his cane when she tries to kidnap her own baby--Pramoedya’s moral universe is complex and ambiguous. Through most of their false marriage, the Bendoro treats the girl kindly; it is her own family who betrayed her.

Today, Pramoedya enjoys the status of an icon in Indonesia, especially among the nation’s younger generation, who treat him as he deserves, as a national treasure. Yet at the time he wrote “The Girl From the Coast,” he was a contentious, controversial firebrand. He was a member of Lekra, the Institute for People’s Culture, which was closely affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party (like Sukarno, he toyed with communism but never committed to it). Pramoedya became one of Indonesia’s most powerful writers, frequently contributing to Lentera (the Lantern), the culture page of Bintang Timur, an influential left-wing newspaper sponsored by Sukarno’s party. Although he was a stout supporter of “the Great Leader of the Revolution,” Pramoedya was always an independent thinker: Indeed, he served a short prison sentence in 1960 for criticizing the government’s treatment of the Chinese minority.

Pramoedya made enemies while he was the editor of Lentera. In 1963, a group of dissident writers published a manifesto opposing the Sukarno government; Pram and other left-wing intellectuals attacked them for being unwitting tools of the army, warning that a bloodbath would result if the military took power, a prediction that proved to be deadly accurate. When an obscure general named Suharto seized control of the government two years later, bringing down the Sukarno regime, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered, their hacked-up corpses littering fields and waterways. In the months and years that followed, about 1.5 million people were arrested and detained. Pramoedya was one of them, sent to a penal colony in the Moluccas, on the island of Buru, giving his most famous books their byname.

He chronicled his experiences at Buru in “The Mute’s Soliloquy,” a memoir first published in an English translation, also by Samuels, in 1999. It is one of the most remarkable documents in modern world literature, a rambling collection of miscellaneous reminiscences, some of the most moving written in the form of letters, never sent, to his children. It was at Buru that he composed under conditions of almost unimaginable adversity “This Earth of Mankind” and its successor, “Child of All Nations.” I say “composed” rather than “wrote” because Pramoedya was denied the use of pen and paper, and created his novel orally, by telling the story to his fellow prisoners, who helped him to remember the text, in a manner reminiscent of the bookish outlaws in “Fahrenheit 451.”

Even after he was finally released from Buru, in 1979, Pramoedya was persecuted by the Suharto government: He was not permitted to travel outside Jakarta, and his books were banned. And his old enemies from his Lentera days, now in official favor, railed away at him. In 1995, when Pramoedya won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, the top literary honor in Asia, his most outspoken opponent, the novelist and journalist Mochtar Lubis, protested by returning the Magsaysay medal he himself had previously won. Pram, of course, wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremonies in Manila, so his wife, Maemunah Thamrin, went in his place.

Since the decline and fall of the Suharto regime, there has been a gradual process of reconciliation going on in Indonesia. One of the signatories of the now-famous 1963 manifesto Goenawan Mohamad, the former editor of the influential newsweekly magazine Tempo (which was banned by the Suharto regime in the late ‘90s) has refused to join Lubis in condemning Pramoedya, calling it “morally and politically unacceptable.” Lubis, for his part, now suffers from Alzheimer’s and will never have the opportunity to reconsider his attacks on Pramoedya.

As one might expect, Pramoedya’s name is perennially bandied about by handicappers of the Nobel Prize. It is one of the paradoxes of contemporary intellectual life that the literature prize grows in influence in literary circles even as the committee appears to give less weight to artistic criteria than to political ones. One might have thought that Pramoedya, a victim of political persecution as well as a writer of undoubted greatness, would capture their attention, but thus far the Swedes have ignored Southeast Asia. Pramoedya doesn’t help himself by being honest, as always, when he admits in interviews with foreign journalists that he is flattered at being considered for the prize, rather than playing the game of those who actively campaign for it behind the scenes while publicly feigning indifference.

Yet in Indonesian literary circles, Pram’s preeminence is now unquestioned. His works are being reissued in Indonesian by Hasta Mitra Publishing House under the supervision of his longtime editor and champion, Joesoef Isak, with funding from an American foundation. The U.S. Library of Congress has archived and documented his entire collection of manuscripts for safekeeping, a rare honor.

Last year, when then-President Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, was weighing whether to succumb to political pressure and resign from office, he made the pilgrimage to Pramoedya’s home, in the countryside near Jakarta, to seek his advice. In his memoirs, Gus Dur’s widely respected spokesman, Wimar Witoelar, described the visit as a tribute to a “cultural icon who had suffered so much with such elegance, emerging now to take his rightful place as a defining symbol of Indonesia’s resilience.”