It was Sunday morning when I heard the news of Pramoedya’s death here in Banda Aceh, a city still struggling to recover from the effects of war and a tsunami. I was eating my usual plain omelette breakfast and listening to the familiar strains of Kylie Minogue’s happy/sad song, Please Stay. The news filled me with sorrow, disappointment and loneliness. I’d left all my Pramoedya books behind in Jakarta, loading myself up with other books I needed for work, so now I had nothing to bring him close to me. Nothing but my memories...
A visit to Pramoedya’s home
I first met Pramoedya in 1993, turning up at his house with a friend without any appointment, but knowing that the time to visit was before or after his afternoon nap. He met us on the veranda, invited us in and asked us to put our names in the guest book. It was only a year since he had moved from the status of house arrest to city arrest, and he was still obliged to report once a week to the East Jakarta Military Command.
After a little while, he called his wife, Maemunah Thamrin. She was a reserved-looking woman, who looked younger than her years - as if she was in her 40s - with thick eyebrows, a well-formed nose and soft eyes. Maybe this is what his character Annelies Mellema would have looked like later in life, I thought to myself. He introduced her, and said, ‘Bu, what can we give these young people to eat?’ She was clearly embarrassed, because there wasn’t much to offer us. But when she appeared again with a few bits of cabbage leaf in gravy and some fried tempe, we ate with enthusiasm.
My friend and I were twenty-somethings back in 1993, and we were used to rebelling against anything and everything we regarded as wrong, including our own parents and the Indonesian state. We formed organisations, talked tactics, and lived very simply, for the sake of future generations. But sometimes, after a night of meetings, I would fall asleep thinking, ‘If Indonesia really were handed over to us, what would I do? I don’t want to be a government official, or anything like that.’ A friend had helped me find an answer: I would open a kindergarten and train little kids to develop their minds and their courage, so they wouldn’t have slave mentalities when they grew up.
‘Young people must have courage,’ the man in front of me suddenly said through clouds of cigarette smoke. He began to lay into Suharto and the New Order, the regime that had kept him in prison for 14 of his 68 years. Throughout that time he had been subjected to the whim of guards, arbiters of life and death, who thought they were God.
He began to lay into Suharto and the New Order, the regime that had kept him in prison for 14 of his 68 years.
‘Nasution (the late five star general who survived the attack on the Army leadership on the night of 30 September 1965) killed a friend of mine’, he said with a tremble in his voice. ‘It was back during the revolution against the Dutch, when we were defending the area of Lemah Abang in Bekasi, outside Jakarta. Nasution and Suharto were both in the Dutch Colonial Army.’ I remember at the time I felt confused: weren’t Nasution, Suharto and Pram’s friend all Indonesians? Why would Indonesians have been killing each other?
Indonesians against Indonesians
I found the answer to that question here in Aceh, one day in May 2006, when I went to visit the house of the famous hero of the struggle in the Aceh War, Cut Nyak Dhien. Cut Nyak Dhien was a fierce female warrior. She fought the Dutch, and even though she was blinded, she wouldn’t give up. But finally the Dutch captured her and exiled her to Sumedang in West Java, breaking the chain that held the resistance in Aceh together. Her house had been destroyed by the Dutch in 1893, and only rebuilt a century later by the New Order government, when Fuad Hassan was Minister of Education and Culture. When the tsunami hit, and turned villages into sea, 800 or so people sought shelter amid the strong timbers of this house. The water came, but here it was just a flood, covering the floor to a depth of three centimetres.
There is a reproduction of an old photograph on the wall of the house, just inside the front door. It shows a Dutch regiment after an attack on a village in West Aceh in 1886 that was intended to capture Teuku Umar, the husband of Cut Nyak Dhien. There, in the faces of these soldiers, I saw the answer to my question: they were Javanese, every one of them, sent to enforce Dutch rule over Aceh! Pramoedya himself explained it in an interview, just before he died: ‘To defeat Aceh, the Dutch used Javanese mercenaries, paid killers - and this goes on, right up to today!’ Suharto himself - president of Indonesia for 32 years - began his military career as a soldier in the Dutch colonial army.
Learning to love Indonesia
Pramoedya was a constant critic of the Indonesian state, accusing it of being corrupt, vile and militaristic, and he was a Javanese who waged a war against Javanism and its respect for hierarchy. But he still taught me to love Indonesia. His writing made me want to do something noble for other people and other nations, and to have courage in the depths of my heart - even though I find that the most difficult thing of all.
I could only have the books for a short time, and I was told I had to read them alone, in a room where no-one else could see me.
One day in 1988, a friend from Padjadjaran University in Bandung lent me the novels that made up the Buru quartet. At this time, reading Pramoedya was a dangerous occupation. The Suharto government had declared these books to be subversive, and a young activist in Yogyakarta had been sent to prison for selling them outside a sports stadium. I could only have the books for a short time, and I was told I had to read them alone, in a room where no-one else could see me. As soon as I started reading, I found that I couldn’t stop. I was transfixed by the detailed physical descriptions, the convincing historical background and the lively critical thinking. Two characters in particular stood out: Nyai Ontosoroh and Minke, the fictional RM Tirto Adhi Soerjo.
Ontosoroh is the character who maybe best represents Pramoedya’s main ideas: she is an ordinary person who suffers oppression but never gives in. From a simple illiterate village girl whose own father sells her into a temporary marriage with a Dutchman, she becomes a modern woman, skilled in running a business and a household. She fights against colonial law that sees her as nothing more than a native, and a concubine.
Why Minke? Because he really is the complete human being. He’s a rebel, he’s courageous, a bit flamboyant, politically-aware and smart, but not always strong, and certainly not without his flaws.
But there’s another character who really impresses me too, and that’s Ang San Mei, the Chinese woman who is the second of the three women Minke marries. Mei is one of the young generation in China who is fighting for reform. She is forced to disguise herself as a teacher of English and flee to Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies because of the repressive conditions in her homeland. She is the one who gives Minke his first lesson in the importance of organisation as a modern form of resistance against the colonial government.
The Nobel Prize
Max Lane, who translated the Buru quartet into English, told me last year that he had heard that Bumi Manusia, the first novel in the series, had now been translated into Swedish. ‘This may be a good sign. One of the technical requirements for the Nobel Prize is that the books be translated into English, Swedish and French,’ he said. But he added, ‘In the history of the Nobel Prize, it’s very rare for the award to go to someone on the ‘left’. There’s Neruda, but he’s only one tiny exception.’
Eating breakfast in Banda Aceh that Sunday morning, I felt so very sad and alone... ii
Linda Christanty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a journalist and writer based in Jakarta. She is currently head of the news office of the Pantau Foundation in Aceh.