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

He wept for Indonesia

Hilmar Farid

It was one year ago. ‘Everything I’ve done has been for Indonesia. Everything. But look at how it’s turned out. Why does it have to be this way?’ Pram was lying stretched out in the front room of his house in Utan Kayu, a sick old man. I was seeing him cry for the first time. I said nothing, and just kept on massaging his foot.

The author of nearly 20 novels and hundreds of short stories and essays, Pram was the writer who did most to introduce Indonesia to the world. Many of his books are translated into major world languages, and some have appeared in other languages as well, both in Europe and in Asia. For some years he’s been named as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, and he has been honoured by several American universities. The front room of his house is crammed with awards and recognitions of his work. But only one, or possibly two, of them have come from Indonesia.

Indeed, in his own country Pram’s reputation was defamed, and for many years he was treated like a pariah. Whether deliberately or simply from negligence, right up to the end of the 1990s the Jakarta telephone directory listed him in the travel section of the yellow pages, as Pramoedya Ananta Tour. Intelligence officers used to hang around outside his house, antagonising his guests. Even now, his name doesn’t appear in the literature curriculum in high schools, and it’s only a few independent-minded teachers who are willing to discuss his work and his ideas with their students.

But it wasn’t the lack of appreciation and acknowledgement that was making him cry that day. In the last few years, the pressures on him slackened off and he did start to get some recognition in Indonesia. He was given official awards, complete with plaques and ceremonies, right down to lavish birthday parties. He even had followers who called themselves ‘Pramists’, making him the first Indonesian since Sukarno to be awarded this honour.

So it wasn’t his personal circumstances that were upsetting him. He wept for Indonesia, the Indonesia he loved. Pram devoted his whole productive life to studying, thinking and writing about Indonesia. After the war that confirmed Indonesia’s existence as a legal and political entity, he took up his pen to help make Indonesia a social reality as well. From 1956 he began to study his country’s history, becoming a regular visitor to the National Museum Library in Jakarta, and touring Indonesia in search of people to interview. For three years he wrote little, as though saving his energy and marshalling his thoughts for a major project.

Understanding history

He published his first book of history, Hoakiau di Indonesia, in 1960. Its lively discussion of the Chinese blood that coursed through the body of Indonesia landed him one year in prison, but after his release it also led to an offer to teach at Res Publika University. Here his efforts to understand Indonesia received a significant boost, because the job brought him into contact with a large number of students whose help he enlisted in a massive history-writing project. Every semester, he sent his students to the National Museum Library to research historical sources. This enabled him to amass an extraordinary personal library, made up of around 5000 books, as well as copies of old newspapers and magazines, recordings of interviews and other archival and documentary materials.

He struck out against writers and cultural figures who did not agree with him, dismissing them as ‘agents of imperialism’

During that period he began a systematic compilation of the story of Indonesia. Of course not everyone agreed with his ideas, or the vision on which he wanted to build Indonesia. This was the source of the ‘polemics’ that caused such an uproar at the time. From 1962, he used Lentera, the cultural column of the newspaper Bintang Timur, as his main mouthpiece. He struck out against writers and cultural figures who did not agree with him, dismissing them as ‘agents of imperialism’. He even faced accusations that he had ‘murdered’ several important figures in Indonesian literature. ‘Murdered’ with his pen, that is.

But if we take a look at Lentera as a whole, it is clear that Pram’s biting criticism and sharp-edged polemics were part of a broader project of historical and social critique.

Every week he wrote at least 40 closely-typed pages for Lentera, as well as turning out additional pages on Indonesian history. He published a four-volume work called Panggil Aku Kartini Saja (Just Call Me Kartini) about Indonesia’s pioneer of female emancipation, and studies on the origins of modern Indonesian literature and the development of the Indonesian language. In all this writing, he was working through his understanding of what Indonesia was, giving birth to a number of important propositions about the origins of his country.

The expression used in the polemics and attacks of this time was sometimes harsh, even vulgar. Pram said it was because this was a really tense period, when it was a case of ‘strike, or be struck yourself’. As the affair of 1965 showed, he wasn’t wrong about this. From that time on, his life underwent a drastic change. Some of his pre-1965 research, such as an anthology of ‘pre-Indonesian’ literature, two further volumes on Kartini, and a collection of short stories by Sukarno, remained unpublished. All this creative work came to a sudden stop when the forces that produced the ‘New Order’ attacked and destroyed his house in the middle of October 1965.

History through literature

Imprisoned on the island of Buru in eastern Indonesia, he went on with his gigantic undertaking. He wanted to go on writing history, ‘but as I was afraid I’d be accused of falsifying history, I turned to the novel’. It turned out to be a good choice. Through the first three novels in the ‘Buru quartet’, he was able to show that ‘Indonesia’ arose out of a desire to combat the injustices that were rooted in western colonialism and the feudal traditions of the east. He portrayed the Indonesian nation as a political project that grew out of colonial society, something that needed to be defended and nurtured if it was to develop. In the final novel in the series, he showed why the ‘history of Indonesia’ that we are familiar with now turned out to be different from the story he had told in the novels which preceded it.

Pram believed that defending Indonesia began with reclaiming knowledge of the past. For too long that knowledge had been in the control of colonial authorities and their followers in independent Indonesia. For him, it was a project of decolonising our thinking, which meant not only writing about history but making historical material available in the Indonesian language. That’s the reason he published examples of ‘pre-Indonesian’ literature, so Indonesians would be able to read it for themselves. It also meant bringing to light historical figures who had been sidelined by colonial power, such as RM Tirto Adhi Soerjo, and showing neglected sides of well-known figures like RA Kartini.

That’s what makes it a tragedy to think that he himself suffered the same marginalisation and injustice that his fictional characters experienced. It was a tragedy for him personally, but it was also a tragedy for Indonesia, proving that the New Order was nothing more than an extension of the colonial state. And he saw no significant change after Suharto fell from power. The house and the manuscripts that were plundered in 1965 and never returned to him were proof till his dying day that the same arrogant power was still firmly in place. Yet he never gave in to it.

That’s how Pram was, constantly trying to understand Indonesia in his own way. While many scholars feel they can’t say anything without first digesting the theories and thinking of others, Pram’s way was to find the facts for himself, and work on them until they enabled him to come out with new facts. ‘Writers have to delve back to find facts that then stay in the forefront of their own minds. With these facts in mind, and with their own words, they make new realities that belong in the present,’ he once said. ‘I don’t understand theory.’ I think he was being honest.

And now he’s gone. Farewell, Bung! The torch you lit in the dark of night is ready to be taken up by another generation.

Hilmar Farid ( is a writer and historian based in Jakarta. An earlier version of this article appeared in Indonesian in Tempo magazine on 21 May 2006.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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