May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Writing to the world

Published: Jul 14, 2007

Chris GoGwilt

With the death of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, world literature mourns one of its greatest writers. Within Indonesia and internationally, obituaries, memorials, and reflections have already awarded him the posthumous recognition as a writer of world literature that was denied him during his lifetime, in the form of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It will take much longer, however, to come to terms with the full significance of Pramoedya’s achievements, from the early stories about the period of the Indonesian independence struggle up to the monumental historical novels that emerged from the period of his internment on Buru Island under Suharto’s New Order. Encompassing both the formation and the dismantling of Third World revolutionary nationalism, Pramoedya’s personal, literary, and historical experience registers the seismic shock-effects of twentieth century decolonisation.

Ever since I first discovered Pramoedya - incongruously reading Max Lane’s translation of House of Glass on a bus in Edinburgh one cold Scottish summer in the early 1990s - I have been trying to understand what enables his work to speak so directly to readers outside Indonesia. Something about his style of storytelling seems revolutionary in an all-round sense, connecting directly with the world outside Indonesia even as it addresses a readership inside Indonesia. Again and again his stories seem to turn on a reversal in personal perspective, sometimes quite small in scale, that has the ability to transform the reader’s sense of the world.

Writing history

The novels known as the ‘Buru Quartet’ extend this reversal of perspective from the level of autobiographical experience (on which most of Pramoedya’s early work was based) to the scale of historical experience. They do so in a double sense, reversing European colonial perspectives on the origins of Third World liberation struggles, and reversing the official New Order amnesia about the repression of those struggles in Indonesian history. This novel-cycle has rightly earned Pramoedya international recognition. As the most comprehensive account of the early history of Indonesian nationalism, it constitutes one of the great classics of decolonisation in world literature. At the same time, it challenges Western conceptions of world literature, most of which still remain cocooned within a provincial nineteenth century European ideal of middle-class world citizenship. Minke, the hero of Pramoedya’s novels, is himself fondly attached to just such a cosmopolitan ideal, although it undergoes a revolutionary transformation in the quartet. As this occurs, Pramoedya challenges the claims of European enlightenment ideas, particularly as embodied in the American and French revolutions. The novels trace the effects of these ideas as they shape, and are in turn transformed by, the struggle against colonialism in the inaugural stages of decolonisation.

The significance of the Buru Quartet only fully emerges within the context of the much broader project Pramoedya once described as the effort to write to ‘the roots’ of Indonesian nationalism. Two other major historical novels that he wrote on Buru, both now published in Indonesia but neither yet translated into English, provide a glimpse of this broader project. Arus Balik, published in 1995, goes back to the beginning of the early modern period of globalised trade and geopolitical intrigue in the Indonesian archipelago in the sixteenth century.

This novel narrates an earlier moment of historical reversal than that of decolonisation: the ‘turning of the tide’ (as one might translate Arus Balik) against the maritime empire of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, with the consolidation of Islam and the first arrival of the Portuguese. Although the novel offers a crowded canvas, with colourful epic scope, it is also a powerful critique of globalisation. That comes in part from reversing the usual picture of Europe’s age of discovery. Arus Balik re-imagines, from an Indonesian perspective, the moment before the consolidation of the modern world system. Yet the novel’s critique of globalisation also involves a reversal of perspective on complacent Javanese evocations of the fallen greatness of the Majapahit empire. Arus Balik presents an entirely international vision of the pre-history of twentieth century Indonesia. It is also entirely secular, in its grasp of the cross-currents of Islamic and Christian cultural, economic, and political influences within sixteenth century Indonesia.

Indonesia and world history

In the preface to his next-published historical novel, Arok Dedes, Pramoedya introduces its thirteenth century historical setting through a set of global and historical comparisons. Here we find another example of the reversal of perspective characteristic of Pramoedya’s all-round revolutionary style of storytelling. On the one hand, he describes the English Magna Carta as the measure for human rights: ‘In that year 1215 AD or 1137 Saka, no Magna Carta lit up this earth of Java.’ On the other hand, he frames the story to come - the story of Arok’s legendary toppling of the caste-system of Javanese-Hindu feudal enslavement - in terms of the effort to reestablish ‘a greater, more extensive Magna Carta that had once prevailed, during the reign of Sri Erlangga of Kahuripan’ (1020-1042). In this way, Pramoedya first holds up an English model of human rights against feudal Javanism before then moving to an older feudal model of Javanese human rights.

This global-historical reversal of perspective on the history of human rights turns on a question of mutual misrecognition: ‘The English did not know of the Javanese, the Javanese did not know of the English’ - or rather, perhaps still more simply, with an emphasis on the languages, English and Javanese: ‘English did not know Javanese, Javanese did not know English.’ The formulation exemplifies, I think, that all-roundExile: Pramoedya Ananta Toer in conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira): ‘What can I say about the world? We hardly know anything about the world here, and the world knows nothing about Indonesia.’ revolutionary reversal of perspective at the heart of all Pramoedya’s work. It articulates, in condensed form, the experience of a long misrecognised history of interdependence between Indonesia and the world. That experience already informs the very early work, written from Dutch imprisonment before the world had given formal recognition to the newly declared republic of Indonesia. And it survives throughout the final decades of his life, following his release from Buru, when he stopped writing altogether but never ceased to reflect on the official distortions of history imposed in Indonesia under the New Order. It is an experience, at once entirely Indonesian and entirely international, forged from the historical distortions of perspective that continue to bind Indonesia to the outside world. As Pramoedya said in a set of conversations published inside Indonesia two months before he died, and two weeks after his death in English translation.

Decolonising language

What I’ve been calling Pramoedya’s all-round revolutionary reversal of perspective is the way he challenges his readers to see both sides of this double bind of mutual ignorance linking Indonesia and the world. place ‘all-round’ in italics, because it is a word Pramoedya himself uses in Indonesian, when he reflects on his mother in the prison notes from Buru, translated into English as The Mute’s Soliloquy.

Pramoedya recalls his mother exhorting him to be ‘a person with “all-round” talents … not someone’s slave, but not a slave driver, either’. For an English reader the word appears somewhat strange. Its associations with colonial ideas of education, entitlement, and privilege (the Oxford English Dictionary connects the word to an English public school spirit of cricketing) seem out of place for ‘the wife of a fervent nationalist’, as Pramoedya describes his mother. To him, she was someone who ‘rejected all colonial characteristics in thought, feeling, and deeds’. To understand the sense of this ‘strange word’, as Pramoedya describes it, English readers need to adjust their sense of linguistic perspective to imagine, first what it might have meant for Pramoedya’s mother, and then what it meant, passed down along with a number of other ‘little words and sayings, spoken and written, part of the soul of my childhood’ until they became ‘the concepts that today I keep in the foreground’. What Pramoedya registers here is the process by which the Javanese of his mother’s tongue translates this English word into what will become (as it now is) an Indonesian word with specifically Indonesian connotations.

English readers might yet come to recognize how fully English contains within itself its own reversal of colonial perspective. In words such as all-round, English itself bears the weight of a revolutionary Indonesian experience of decolonisation. In the smallest of such linguistic effects, Pramoedya’s writing - rooted in personal experience, spoken and written, and transmuted into historical experience - harbours the seeds of a revolutionary reversal of all-round perspective.

Chris GoGwilt ( ) is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fordham University, New York, USA.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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