Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2019

Child of All Nations, (1979, The Buru Quartet #2) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane

#2 Child of All Nations

Child of all Nations  (Anak Semua Bangsa) is the second in the Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, so called because it was conceived on the island of Buru— where he was imprisoned without trial in 1965 when the military dictatorship of President Suharto cracked down on anyone suspected of communist sympathies.  Access to books and writing materials were prohibited in the prison, but Pramoedya narrated his novels to his fellow-prisoners, and was finally able to write them down in 1975. Child of All Nations was finally first published in 1979 in Jakarta, and was translated (along with the rest of the Quartet) into English in 1982 by a courageous Australian staffer called Max Lane, (who was promptly recalled because of Indonesian displeasure at having these novels disseminated to the international community, you can read his story here).

Impressive as Max Lane’s mammoth contribution was, IMO it’s high time there was a new less clunky translation. In the 2012 interview at Asymptote about whether he was able to retain the literary qualities of the original, Lane says that his focus was on retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the original, and that he expected he reader to do some work of interpretation and digestion of language.  

Thus I kept quite a few terms in Indonesian, leaving them in italics. I do notice that in later editions the publisher has removed the italics for many words. Why make familiar something which should not be familiar? Late 19th century Java in the Netherlands Indies should not appear so familiar to a later 20th century reader. In many cases, however, the examples are mainly minor in reality.

I am not suggesting for a moment that this approach was wrong, and I like what he says about his translation work as the translation of ideology and perspective, not just text.  No, for me, it is what he concedes about issues also in sentence structure and tenses that deserves a new translation, and I don’t say that as a grammarian, but merely as a reader who expects language to flow whether in translation or not.  For example:

He was afraid.  And his body could not carry his longing to be away from this frightening place.  There was only one thing that proved he was still alive: the never-subsiding shout in his heart—live, live, I must live, live live!

and on the same page:

Paiman wanted very much to ask for help, but even his tongue would not work for him. (p.122)

The book also merits an update on the publisher’s introduction, which retains its long out-of-date information from 1996 i.e. that Pramoedya (who lived out his last years in Australia and died in 2006) is currently under city arrest in Jakarta where his books are banned.  It’s now over 20 years since the Fall of Suharto and Indonesia is a functioning democracy, not a dictatorship.  A writer of Pramoedya’s stature, Indonesia’s most prominent author and contender for the Nobel Prize, deserves better…

Child of All Nations continues the story of Minke’s political awakening in Indonesia’s colonial era as depicted in This Earth of Mankind, and this book is one where I think it’s best to read its predecessor in the series first.  There is a large cast of characters, most of whom featured in Book #1, and it might be hard to follow events if you haven’t read This Earth of Mankind first. (See my review here).


It’s a complicated plot, and quite confusing even up to the dénouement, which reveals the betrayals (intended and otherwise) which brought Minke and Nyai before the court towards the end of the novel.  But essentially, it’s the story of his coming-of-age.  The story begins with the death of Minke’s wife Annaliese, expelled from her homeland to the Netherlands where she dies of a broken heart.  From the letters of his friend Panji Darman, Minke learns that the reason she was expelled had nothing to do with concern for her welfare after the death of her father, the Dutch businessman Herman Mellema, and everything to do with her rival for the inheritance of the family’s wealth. As the novel progresses, he also learns that for all his fine education that distances him from his own people, he will never be accepted by the likes of his Dutch classmate Robert Suurhof, and that his excellent results at this prestigious Dutch school will never confer equal rights under the colonial regime.  His marriage to Annaliese was not even acknowledged by Dutch law, and she was not acknowledged as Mellema’s daughter until they were able to use it to get her out of the way.

All the events of the novel lead to Minke’s development as a writer, but it isn’t easy for him.  He suffers an internal struggle to the relinquish the prestigious European ways he has acquired. He is proud of the status conferred by his education in a Dutch school, and his achievement is signalled by his fluency in Dutch, and his European mannerisms and clothing, especially the wearing of shoes.  But urged on by Kommer, an effusive Eurasian editor of a Malay-language newspaper, and by Nyai who shares all that she has learned from her bitter experiences as the concubine sold by her parents to Herman Mellema, he realises that his external European habits and the use of the oppressor’s language alienates him from the people he could be helping.   Almost everyone he has encountered (in both Books #1 & #2) recognises his potential as a leader in the struggle to assert the voices of the people exploited by the colonial regime, but Child of All Nations shows him that he is surrounded by Dutch, Eurasian and Native people who benefit from the existing situation and who want to sabotage any attempts at change.

The episode with the farmer Tulangan shows Minke that he is both naïve and foolhardy, and that Natives whose confidences he seeks are right to distrust him.  When at Kommer’s urging Minke goes out into the countryside to make contact with his own people, he meets this farmer who is mounting a last-ditch attempt to save his ancestral small-holding.  Tulangan has already had to surrender most of his land to colonial sugar interests and is being squeezed out of the rest by having access to water rights denied.  Minke overcomes the family’s suspicions about his ambivalent status and learns to respect the back-breaking work done by the peasant class, and he is shocked by their material poverty. True to traditions of hospitality, they share everything they have although they don’t have enough to eat themselves. However…

Naïvely, Minke writes Tulangan’s story (in Dutch) and submits it to Martin Nijman, editor of the powerful Dutch newspaper Soerabaiaasch Niuews (Surabaya News), which is the mouthpiece of the sugar industry and its colonial infrastructure of power.  This brings prompt retribution when the article is butchered by Nijman to present Tulangan as a rebel.  Tulangan, badly injured in a brutal attack, flees for protection to Minke, who is himself now being recognised as a trouble-maker.  Nyai is able to arrange refuge for Tulangan’s terrified wife and children but the episode only serves to confirm that Minke is out of his depth.  It also shows that Nyai can only help while she retains control of her wealth, and there is a conspiracy to take it from her.

Not only that. Nyai has a crisis of conscience when she realises that her wealth has also been gained at the expense of exploited farmers like Tulangan.

At the end of the novel, Minke has learned not to trust anyone.  He seems virtually friendless, and powerless against a legal system in which he has no rights.  But when Engineer Maurits Mellema comes to take possession of his inheritance, their real friends and Nyai demonstrate the power of words that speak the truth.   In an elaborate ‘handover’ ceremony, Mellema is confronted by forces he had not expected. Kommer is there to tell Mellema that his betrayals will be reported in the Malay newspaper so that everyone will know, and the French painter Jean Marais — representing a European with integrity — is there to tell him that he will paint a portrait titled L’ingénieur Mellema, Le Vampire Hollandais.  This painting won’t be exhibited in the Indies, but in Europe, to shame him.  Nyai’s right-hand man and protector of the family challenges Mellema to a sword-fight man-to-man, Minke confronts him with his knowledge about Mellema’s role in Annaliese’s death in the Netherlands, and Nyai taunts him to take her grandson Rono away with him — because he’ll need to kill the infant since (as the illegitimate child of her now-dead son Robert Mellema), Rono is also entitled to the inheritance.

But it is the accusations of the Eurasian child, little Maysoroh, which brings the entire village out to witness Mellema’s humiliation.  Annaliese had been kind to Jean Marais’ Acehnese wife, and Maysoroh loved her.  When she finally manages to make sense of the tangle of languages that she hears, Maysoroh bursts into tears, expressing all the sorrow of a colonised people who are legally powerless but have truth on their side and a passion to express it.  Shamed into aborting his arrogant plans, Mellema leaves, saying only that he is postponing the handover so nothing in really resolved. He leaves behind a suitcase of Annaliese’s clothes, which finally reduces the stoical Nyai to tears.

#3 Footsteps

I assume I will find out whether Nyai and Minke are dispossessed by Mellema in Book #3, Footsteps!

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

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: Child of All Nations, The Buru Quartet #2; (Anak Semua Bangsa, Tetralogi Buru #2)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1984, first published in Indonesian 1979
ISBN: 9780140256338
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Child of All Nations (Buru Quartet)


  1. The entire Buru Quartet sounds intriguing and seems like it is worth the read.

    Stories of people persecuted for their politics, real or imagined, are all too common in this world.

    I have been thinking more and more about translation lately. From the reader’s perspective, it is so important.


    • We had a really good discussion about this book at my book group. One thing I didn’t pick up in my review on was the extent to which all the characters are stock types rather in the way of Dickens. (Though, I hasten to say, it’s not comic in the way that Dickens can be).


  2. I don’t suppose I will get to the novel, important though it is – and though I believe Australians should take a much greater and more friendly interest in their next door neighbour – but I enjoyed your commentary about the translation. It’s an ongoing issue, what should be translated, the words or the sense, think King James Bible or the Rubyiat which are great English literature, but how faithful are they to the words of their originals? I can see that Lane would have both been in a hurry, and looking for ways to convey some of the out of dateness of the original Indonesian. It all adds up to how much of the original do we get with any translation?


    • Well, my view (as someone who can read both French and Indonesian) is that we cannot possibly learn enough languages to read all the books that are worthwhile. So unless we are willing to have some compromises with translation, we are going to deny ourselves a lot of the world’s great literature and an insight into other cultures as well.


  3. […] Indonesia’s ‘awakening’ that Toer wrote while in prison on the island of Buru.  (See my review of Book 2 for the background to this, and also for my thoughts about the translation and introduction which […]


  4. […] and your friends are: Child(ren) of All Nations, by Pramoedya Ananta […]


  5. […] Indonesia’s ‘awakening’ that Toer wrote while in prison on the island of Buru.  (See my review of Book 2 for the background to this).  The quartet is an early example of historical fiction as activism, […]


  6. […] l’Indonésie que Toer a écrit alors qu’il était en prison sur l’île de Buru. (Voir ma critique du tome 2 pour le contexte, et aussi pour mes réflexions sur la traduction et l’introduction qui […]


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