Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2018

This Earth of Mankind (The Buru Quartet #1), by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane #BookReview

 

Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1950s (Wikipedia Commons*)

I swore I would never join another book-group … but when I was invited to join a newly-forming Indonesian book group, I didn’t hesitate.  My enthusiasm was partly because I want to discover more contemporary Indonesian authors, and partly because the first book they chose was This Earth of Mankind by Indonesia’s most prominent author and contender for the Nobel Prize, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006).  I have previously read and admired his Girl from the Coast and have been meaning to read his most famous work for ages.

This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) is the first in the Buru Quartet, so called because it was conceived on the island of Buru— where Pramoedya was imprisoned without trial in 1965 when the military dictatorship of President Suharto cracked down on anyone they thought had communist sympathies.  (See Wikipedia for more information about the anti-Communist massacres in 1965-6).  Pramoedya had been researching the history of Indonesia for what was to be a series of historical novels about the beginnings of national consciousness in Indonesia in the period 1890-1920, but when he was arrested all his books and materials were burned.  Undeterred by the prohibition on books and writing materials in the prison, Pramoedya narrated his novels to his fellow-prisoners, but it was not until 1975 that he was finally able to commit his works to paper. This Earth of Mankind was finally published in 1979 in Jakarta, and thanks to a young Australian Embassy staffer called Max Lane, it was translated into English in 1982.  (Lane was promptly recalled to Australia because of Indonesian displeasure at his role in disseminating the novel, and you can read why he thinks everyone should read this book here).

Queen Wilhemina (1901) (Wikipedia Commons*)

The novel traces the coming-of-age of Minke, a Javanese teenager of aristocratic descent.  He is the only ‘Native’ Javanese at his prestigious high school, distinct and not fully accepted by the other students who are either ‘Indos’ (of Eurasian descent) or members of the ruling Dutch Colonial Society.  In the Translator’s Acknowledgement, Lane explains the significance of these strata in society and the capital letters which denote them in the text.  In the Dutch East Indies of this period, (beginning in 1898 when Minke is besotted with the young, pretty (and of course unattainable) Dutch Queen Wilhemina), society is stratified by race and caste, and languages are used to exclude and include.  Natives were forbidden to use Dutch, the elite language of colonial power, so it shocks people when Minke uses it because he’s learned it at school, and it enrages the authorities when it is spoken by a self-educated concubine fighting for the rights of her child.  But rigid class distinctions within the Javanese society were also observed: by the use of three different levels of Javanese, based on the status of the speaker and the listener.  Understanding these distinctions and the frequent references to languages spoken and forms of address is important to understanding the significance of these codes being breached.  (A glossary at the back of the book is provided).  (It’s possible, perhaps, that these egalitarian breaches of hierarchical etiquette were part of the reason why the work was judged pro-Communist).

There are numerous other indications of this stratified society.  Apart from the choice of language and the ability to speak it, race and caste are denoted by access to transport.  Natives walk.  Nyai— only able to break out of her lowly status and confer privileges just like a Dutch colonialist because she turfed out her useless husband— provides Minke with a carriage, and because her daughter can ride a horse, Minke learns to do it too.  Housing styles and furniture are different in the homes of the elites, and Minke’s friend Jean Marais has a thriving business getting locals to reproduce European designs.  Minke often feels uncomfortable and out of place because he doesn’t know social rules such as the use of cutlery, but he’s also discomfited when he recognises that the social rules are being deliberately used to humiliate him, (as when his fair-weather friend Robert Suurhof places him in a situation where as a Native Minke could expect to be completely ignored).  And the position of women and girls in mixed-race relationships is invidious.  Concubines are held in contempt by everyone, whether the woman chose her fate or not.   Jean, the daughter of the Frenchman Jean Marais and an Achenese woman, must be sheltered from public scorn about her origins; and her mother wanted to be killed because she felt sullied by the touch of a European.  Nyai’s daughter has no friends at all.

Minke gets over his infatuation with Queen Wilhemina when he sees Annalies, the beautiful Eurasian daughter of Herman Mellema, a Dutch plantation owner and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh.  Annalies is not as unattainable because the self-educated and entrepreneurial Nyai has taken over the business from her incompetent husband— and her own experience as a child traded to him without her consent predisposes her to prefer the young Minke as a suitor for her child.  But as Indonesian readers familiar with their country’s history would know, their love is doomed.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It is doomed because the legal status of Annalies is unclear.  The children of concubines were not Dutch citizens and had none of their rights and privileges unless the father formally recognised them.  And if he did, the mother lost all rights to her child.  When the legitimate son of Mellema turns up with plans to take back his inheritance, you can predict which offspring the Dutch legal system is going to privilege.

But the novel is about much more than a fraught love story.  Minke, by virtue of his outstanding achievements at school, is recognised as a potential leader.  His teacher Magda Peters has long and earnest conversations to make him understand how the Javanese elites have acquiesced in the theft of their country and how they are craven in their roles as petty regional administrators.  There is extensive correspondence between Minke and the La Croix sisters who try to groom him as the leader who will inspire Indonesian nationalism.  They want him to throw off the shackles of colonial government and the demands of capitalism.  Minke (like Pramoedya himself) is more interested in a career as a writer than as a politician, but the content and style of his early published pieces are identified by his school as inflammatory, and (using his relationship with Nyai and her daughter as a pretext) his teachers expel him from school three months before he is due to graduate (and they send Magda Peters packing too).

Signs of the emerging modern era are everywhere in the novel.  Minke’s place in an elite school is a sign of fractures in the rigid colonial divides, while Nyai’s successful management of a Dutch business and the way she has taught herself to read, write and manage accounts in Dutch is another example of people breaking out of their expected place in society.  (Minke receiving a stamped letter addressed to him is also significant, because Natives don’t get letters since they are illiterate). There is an emphasis on science and modern civilisation in the school curriculum, and Minke marvels at stories of ice manufacture.  He hears stories of Japanese trying to modernise by sending their youth to study in England and America, but he is shocked when he sees Native women working in the Mellema business, and wonders what they are wearing underneath their western-style calico shirts.

This Earth of Mankind is an historical novel, but not in the style of the commercial genres popular today.  It is written with a political purpose, and its style reflects its origins in Indonesian storytelling.  As Max Lane says at the beginning of the book:

…this is not a book of revenge or hatred.  Its spirit is not that of a simple denunciation.  Pramoedya Ananta Toer set out to recreate the past through the telling of a story and the evocation of an atmosphere.  He has actually brought to life in the first person the real ego of his main character, a new historical personality in the process of being forged by history itself. It is Minke, his psyche, his predicament, that is able to bring such a huge kaleidoscope of characters and stories together.  The figure of Minke himself is announcing the coming of something that would envelop everybody, that would leave no part of society free of turmoil: a revolutionary future, the awakening of a people. (p.12)

I plan to read the next in the quartet,  Child of All Nations, before long.

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed this book too.

This cover art for the quartet is by Gail Belenson and the artist is Stephen Daigle.

*Photo attributions:
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, by Ministry of Education (Kempen) – Jassin, H.B. Kesusasteraan Indonesia Modern dalam Kritik dan Essay. Gunung Agung: Jakarta. 1955. Page in title., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32118819
Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands By Unknown – https://den-haag.j-production.nl/queen%20wilhelmina.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72320283

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: This Earth of Mankind, The Buru Quartet #1; (Bumi Manusia, Tetralogi Buru #1)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Afterword by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1982, first published in Indonesian 1979
ISBN: 9780140256352
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: This Earth of Mankind (Buru Quartet)


Responses

  1. Ah, an Indonesian bookgroup. Good one. I think you mentioned it before now I read this. A Bookshop here called the Asia Book Room has a reading group that a friend of mine was in but I just can’t fit in another group as tempted as I am. She loved the group (but unfortunately died of a rare cancer

    It’s a great book isn’t it. I’d love to find time to read more of the quartet. And the covers are gorgeous. I think I have another, probably the second, (too lazy to go check and my TBR is not listed) but not the whole set.

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    • It’s fascinating to me because I’d studied Indonesian Independence when I was doing a degree in Asian Studies – so I knew that “national consciousness arose in the period 1890-1920”, but reading the story fleshes it out and makes it real. It reminded me in a way of feminism in the 1970s, when we were finding out what it meant *at the same time as* living in a world that didn’t recognise what was happening or was trying to suppress it. Those men who smiled patronising smiles and tried to diminish us when we made some small act of assertion or were in some place that they did not expect us to be. The difficulty of challenging long held assumptions about what we were capable of. You can see the same things happening in this book.

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  2. Fascinating that the novel had to start out orally, had a life in other people’s heads until it was able to be taken down on paper. I wonder in what way the Suharto elite, the new ruling class, read it to construe it as an attack on them – I hope it was! And then there’s that whole thing about society looking down on ‘concubines’ but not on the men who use them (Milly’s great-great grandmother was recorded as the second wife or concubine of a Chinese merchant in Australia in the C19th. We’re rather proud of her.)

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    • It just shows you that the compulsion to tell a story just can’t be constrained, doesn’t it?
      Pramoedya is unusually good at depicting women – not just how they were exploited but also their thoughts and feelings about it. It’s especially impressive when you remember the long years in prison in all-male company.

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