May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Hidden treasures

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Preserving the literary past

Duncan Graham

On the outskirts of the sprawling industrial port of Surabaya is a little library of national significance.

The rented suburban house is far from grand, but it is solidly stocked with books old and new, ancient magazines and musty newspapers.

Perhaps too well stocked. The walls are packed from corner to corner, floor to ceiling, their vast presence bested only by the overwhelming smell of decaying acid-based paper. The house has no air conditioning, so the plastic covers carefully applied by volunteer cataloguers glue the books into bundles in the perpetual heat of East Java’s capital. If more than a van full of students arrives to browse or borrow the place is as packed as a bemo in rush hour. Study? The challenge is to breathe.

Yayasan Medayu Agung Surabaya houses some precious documents that have been lovingly preserved. Among them is a set of five beautifully presented volumes cataloguing and illustrating President Sukarno’s huge art collection, now dispersed. The limited edition was published almost 40 years ago in Indonesian and Chinese. It features work by both Indonesian and European artists, with the emphasis on beautiful women.

There are at least 5,000 titles in the library, mainly written in Indonesian. Some go back to early last century. Many have come from personal collections donated by well-wishers.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Among the gems in the library are some original manuscripts by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Pramoedya is Indonesia’s most internationally famous living writer. Nationally, he is the country’s most controversial.

When Suharto came to power, Pramoedya’s extensive library and writings were seized and his books banned. He spent four years in a Jakarta jail and ten years in exile on Buru, a small island in the Moluccas, along with 13,000 other prisoners. Throughout those terrible years he wrote whenever possible.

The result included the Buru Quartet, which was translated into English and published in the 1980s. The four volumes received international acclaim and calls for the author to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for literature.

Pramoedya’s books are no longer banned in Indonesia. They have been reprinted with fresh modern covers and can now be found in bookshops across the archipelago. Pramoedya now lives in a large new house bought with his overseas royalties at Bojonggede outside Jakarta. His last book, The Mute’s Soliloquy has been followed by lectures and tours overseas, where he has been heralded as a literary hero.

University students who are only now learning about their history are openly encouraged by their lecturers to visit the Surabaya library. Here they study the legend’s works and hear his story.

Oei Hiem Hwie

The custodian of the collection is Oei Hiem Hwie, who once worked with Adam Malik, a former vice president of Indonesia. Pak Oei is very clear about the purpose of the Medayu Agung Foundation: ‘Yayasan Medayu Agung is run by a board of academics and entrepreneurs. It was set up to help educate the nation, especially young people’.

Pak Oei explained that medayu is derived from two old Javanese words. Meda means intellect, while yu is derived from mayu, which means to do good.

Pak Oei was also a political prisoner on Buru. During his imprisonment, he helped to smuggle Pramoedya’s manuscripts to publishers.

Some of the pages of the manuscripts were handwritten on both sides of thin and almost transparent paper, which were compressed under a concrete block. Others were typewritten on paper cut from old cement bags. The ribbon ink was made from dyes distilled from plants growing on Buru, and the pages were bound with glue made from cassava. The pages were sewn into the lid of woven bamboo food baskets taken off Buru when Pak Oei was released.

Pak Oei’s collection includes the original manuscript of Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) and Ensiklopedi Citrawi Indonesia, an unpublished two-volume encyclopedia which contains charts and sketches by Pramoedya.

For Pak Oei, Pramoedya’s manuscripts, and the extraordinary story of their creation, are a precious part of Indonesia’s heritage which should be preserved for the next generation. Max Lane, Pramoedya’s original translator, is seeking a better home for the Pramoedya manuscripts. Pak Oei believes the manuscripts should remain in the country to help Indonesians fill the gaps in their past. The limited funding and resources of Yayasan Medayu Agung, however, mean that such a repository is more likely to be in the US, the Netherlands or Australia where scholars earn PhDs studying the Indonesian writer. Wherever the manuscripts are eventually housed, future generations of Indonesians owe a debt of gratitude to Pak Oei for his efforts to conserve a significant part of Indonesia’s literary past.

Duncan Graham (wordstars@ is an Australian journalist living in Surabaya.

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