Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Recording Indonesia

Published: Jul 14, 2007

Keith Foulcher

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in Jakarta on 30 April 2006 at the age of 81, perhaps came closer than any other Indonesian writer has ever done to being the ‘conscience’ of his nation. A controversial figure whose international reputation was sometimes resented by other prominent writers and intellectuals in Indonesia, Pramoedya was above all else a fighter, relentless in his attacks on injustice, inherited or corruptly-won privilege, and what he regarded as blind ignorance. He was a committed nationalist who was passionately devoted to the revolutionary ideals of Sukarno’s Indonesia and a Javanese who was at war with what he saw as modern Indonesia’s tendency to glorify ‘feudal’ Javanese values. He was also a writer who had no patience with those who failed to share his commitment to raising awareness of social and political issues through creative and artistic endeavours.

Writing from prison

Pramoedya first attracted attention as a writer in the heady days following the birth of the unitary Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1950. At this time he was in his mid 20s, the eldest son of a nationalist-minded family that had been plunged into poverty and disintegration by the effects of war and revolution. He had left his native town of Blora, in north central Java, during the depredations of the Japanese Occupation, finding his first job with a Japanese-sponsored news agency in Jakarta. In 1945, following the outbreak of the revolution against the return of Dutch colonial power, he worked for some time as a press officer with the nationalist resistance. However in mid 1947 he was detained by Dutch soldiers, and ended up spending the rest of the revolutionary period in prison. It was here, during his first experience of being deprived of his liberty, that Pramoedya became a writer. He produced a series of short novels and stories about the experience of Indonesians engaged in the fight for independence, as well as his own life experiences from the 1930s until the early days of Indonesian independence.

Some of the stories Pramoedya wrote in a Dutch prison turned out to be prize winners. Perburuan (The Fugitive), a novel set during the Japanese Occupation and smuggled out of prison, won the annual prize for novels awarded by Balai Pustaka, the Indonesian government printer. Later, Cerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora), based on his own upbringing and the upheavals faced by his family following the outbreak of war, won an award from the National Culture Council for 1952-1953. Meanwhile, Pramoedya was joining in the debates about modern Indonesian literature and culture that were starting to appear in the new Republic’s newspapers and magazines. These exchanges of opinion expressed the views of the young men and women who, like Pramoedya, belonged to the last generation of Indonesians to be educated by the Dutch. They were multi-lingual and internationally-oriented, but they were also fiercely nationalist idealists, firmly committed to building a new tradition of modern Indonesian culture that would soon take its place on the international stage.

In many ways, Pramoedya’s voice at this time was typical of his generation. His writing had a distinctive, unmistakable style, but he shared the general preoccupation with the sufferings and heroism of ordinary Indonesians in their fight for national independence and social justice. As far as it is possible to judge, he also shared much of the cultural outlooks of the non-communist writers and intellectuals of the time. For example, in 1952, he wrote disparagingly of the subjection of literature to political interests in Mao’s China; some time later, as the literary historian Tony Day has shown, he also wrote about the difficulty Indonesian writers faced writing in the ‘artificial language’ that was modern Indonesian, in contrast to the level of intimacy that was possible in the ‘language of family’ that was Javanese, and other regional languages. However while many others of his generation held on to views like this for the rest of their lives, Pramoedya’s thinking was soon to undergo major, and far-reaching, change.

New directions

A significant catalyst for that change was a visit Pramoedya made to China in October 1956, as guest of the Chinese government. In contrast to his earlier visit to the Netherlands, where he appears to have reacted negatively to a series of personal disappointments and perceived slights, Pramoedya was deeply impressed with the sense of purpose and the achievements of nation-building that he witnessed in China. Just a few months later, he was one of the leaders of a delegation of artists and writers who were received at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta to express their support for Sukarno’s recently announced ‘Konsepsi Presiden’ (Presidential Conception). This was the document which declared Sukarno’s intention to turn Indonesia away from a western-style democracy to a ‘distinctively Indonesian’ system of government that was to be called ‘Guided Democracy’. In the words of the statement Pramoedya read out at the palace, this new concept opened up an official framework for the development of ‘a culture with a [distinctively] Indonesian character’.

In that same year, 1957, Pramoedya published another collection of short stories, Cerita dari Jakarta (now available in English translation as ‘Tales from Jakarta’). Much darker in tone than his earlier published collections (even though many of the Jakarta stories were also written during the period of national revolution), these ‘tales’ are full of a biting irony that is rare in Indonesian literature. In their characters and storylines, Pramoedya bitterly exposes the psychology behind a faltering sense of national identity, and the underbelly of a society rife with injustice and exploitation. Just before the appearance of this collection, he had published the evocatively-titled Sunyi Senyap di Siang Hidup (Silence at Life’s Noon), a more personal reflection on the spiritual and material poverty of life as a writer in independent Indonesia, and the inner torment that comes from a lack of purpose and sense of direction. Clearly, in Pramoedya’s development, the time had come for a new direction. China, and Sukarno’s ‘Konsepsi’, had pointed the way to a new role for Pramoedya, and he was quick to respond.

Productivity and repression

By the end of 1959, Pramoedya was aligning himself and his work with the People’s Cultural Institute (LEKRA), a mass organisation of cultural workers, artists and writers which had links to the Indonesian Communist Party. LEKRA was an organisation dedicated to building a new Indonesian culture that was in tune with Indonesian realities, a culture that would develop a sense of national identity, self-reliance and resistance to neo-imperialist domination by the United States and the rest of the western capitalist world. Pramoedya became a major spokesperson for these ideals. In the next few years, he enjoyed a period of enormous personal productivity, marked by research, writing, and active political engagement. With the aid of students he was teaching at the time, he undertook a large-scale research project on the origins of the Indonesian nation, and on this basis he began to re-write the conventional history of Indonesian nationalism and the modern forms of cultural expression it had given rise to. More than any other Indonesian intellectual of the time, he questioned the notion of ‘ethnic purity’ that was one of the founding myths of Indonesian nationalism. In its place, Pramoedya drew attention to the role of Eurasians, and Chinese Indonesians, in the birth of the idea of Indonesia and the development of its national culture.

Meanwhile, as the political lines sharpened, and Indonesian society began to slide into a dangerous polarisation between ‘left’ and ‘right’, Pramoedya became more and more closely associated with the radical nationalist wing of the cultural political struggle. For a very brief time, no more than the two years between 1963 and 1965, the left wing forces enjoyed a period of de facto hegemony in this struggle, even as they fought among themselves over questions of ideology and political direction. In this climate, great tensions surfaced, and many of those on the ‘right’, who saw their beliefs and activities subjected to humiliation and repression, developed lasting resentments towards people like Pramoedya whom they held responsible for their experiences at this time. Many never forgot nor forgave the injustices they believed they had suffered, even after the tables were turned on a scale and with a level of violence, cruelty and terror that was unimaginable before the coup and counter-coup of September-October 1965.

He left behind a body of writing that ‘engages his reader in a constant conversation...a shared sense of experiencing "Indonesia"’.

Pramoedya was a victim of this period of national trauma, losing the next 14 years of his life to bare survival in prisons and prison colonies of Suharto’s New Order. This chapter in Pramoedya’s life, as well as the chapters that followed, is now relatively well-known, because of the international pressure which eventually came to expose the condition of Indonesia’s political prisoners, and Pramoedya’s case in particular. Later, Pramoedya’s international exposure was further heightened by the translation of parts of the massive outpouring of novels and memoirs he conceived and wrote in prison, and published after his ‘return to society’ (if not ‘release’) in 1979. Once more, Pramoedya was one of his country’s most famous writers and intellectuals, ironically - as he himself recognised - because of the public support his writing and his situation attracted in the US and its western allies. These countries were among his old foes, and in the late twentieth century they were still, in his view, the source of many of Indonesia’s problems. But the support of their people protected him from further repression at the hands of his enemies in Indonesia, and enabled him to reach out, through his books and ideas, to a young generation of Indonesians eager for an alternative to the sterilities of the Suharto regime and its culture.

What the events of the last decades of Pramoedya’s life showed was that literature can survive a hostile political climate, and acts of human solidarity can overcome a culture of cruelty and oppression. In the end, Pramoedya outlived most of his generation in Indonesia, both friend and foe, and finally came to see his books, and his reputation, rehabilitated on the international stage. He left behind a body of writing that, in the words of Goenawan Mohamad, another writer and intellectual of Javanese origin, ‘engages his reader in a constant conversation...a shared sense of experiencing "Indonesia"’. This is the special quality of his work, and it defines the nature of his achievement as a writer. His novels, stories and essays are a conversation with his readers about Indonesia. They represent a huge and colourful slice of human experience, captured in the imagination of a great story-teller and now accessible to all who share Pramoedya’s passion for Indonesia and its people. It may be some time before Indonesia sees his like again.

Keith Foulcher ( is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

1925 ... Born in Blora, north central Java on 6 February.

1942 ... Moves to Jakarta, begins work in Domei, the Japanese Occupation press agency.

1945 ... Joins People’s Security Brigade on the outbreak of Revolution.

1947 ... Begins work with the Voice of Free Indonesia radio. This organisation publishes his first novel, Kranji-Bekasi Jatuh (The Fall of Kranji and Bekasi). Captured and imprisoned by Dutch marines.

1950 ... Released from prison and wins first literary prize for his novel Perburuan (The Fugitive).

1953 ... Visits the Netherlands as guest of the Dutch Foundation for Cultural Cooperation (Sticusa).

1956 ... Visits China as guest of the Chinese government.

1959 ... Elected to the central secretariat of LEKRA, the Institute of People’s Culture, linked to the Indonesian Communist Party.

1960 ... Imprisoned after the publication of Hoakiau di Indonesia (The Chinese in Indonesia).

1965 ... Arrested in Jakarta following the attempted coup and counter-coup of 30 September – 1 October. Imprisoned for 14 years, from August 1969 on the island of Buru in eastern Indonesia.

1975 ... Publication in Australia of A Heap of Ashes, a collection of Pramoedya’s stories translated by Harry Aveling, which draws attention to his plight.

1979 ... Released (under surveillance) with the last of Indonesia’s political prisoners to be returned from Buru.

1980 ... Hasta Mitra, a publishing company set up by former political prisoners, publishes Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), the first in a series of four historical novels that come to be known as the ‘Buru Quartet’. The novel is banned the following month. Other novels in the series later suffer the same fate.

1982 ... This Earth of Mankind (translated by Max Lane) published by Penguin Books. Results in a surge in Pramoedya’s international readership and reputation. Translations of other novels in the series follow.

1995 ... Prison memoirs, Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu, published. Sections translated by William Samuels published in 1999 as The Mute’s Soliloquy. A new series of historical novels begins, with the publication of Arus Balik (Turning of the Tide). Receives the Magsaysay Award for Literature and Journalism from the Philippines, to great controversy in Indonesia.

1999 ... Visits the United States and Europe. Receives an honorary degree from the University of Michigan and numerous other expressions of honour.

2000 ... Awarded the Grand Prize in the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize competition, Japan’s highest literary honour. Illness prevents Pramoedya from travelling to Japan to accept the award in person.

2006 ... Dies in Jakarta on 30 April.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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