Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2019

Footsteps, (1985, The Buru Quartet #3) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane

#3 Footsteps

Footsteps (Jejak Langkah) is the third in the Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, the series of four novels tracing 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 apply equally to this volume). Footsteps is a more ‘political’ novel, and belongs in that distinctive category of historical fiction as activism, that is, it’s written by authors redressing the hidden stories and silences of colonised peoples in well-researched fiction.  Toer had spent years researching the life of Tirto Adi Suryo, who was the inspiration for this quartet, but Toer’s papers were all destroyed when he was arrested and held without trial for fourteen years.

Notwithstanding that setback, Toer created this novel from memory, telling the story of a man honoured in 2006 as a National Hero of Indonesia. Toer’s central character Minke appears to be a reasonably authentic recreation of Tirto’s life, (though the Wikipedia entry in English includes nothing about his personal life, which in the quartet so far, includes three wives.)  As Max Lane explains in the Introduction, Tirto was editor of the first Native-owned newspaper and co-founder of the first magazine for women; he initiated a legal advisory service; he co-founded a modern political organisation devoted to developing what would become Indonesian nationalism; and he was a pioneer of indigenous literature in a language of the nation yet to be born. 

NB: My use of terms to describe different ethnic groups and social divisions are those that are used in the book.  ‘Indonesians’ would be anachronistic in the era of the Dutch East Indies, and Toer uses terms like Native, Indo, Indisch, and regional descriptors such as Javanese, Moluccan and Balinese to indicate racial differences while also indicating social differences with terms of address in different languages, like Mas, Gusti Kanjeng, Haji, Sinyo, Meneer, Mevrouw, Ndoro, Teukoe and Princess. 

Books 1 & 2 — This Earth of Mankind (see here) and Child of All Nations (see here) trace the influences on Minke, born into the aristocatic priyani caste and expected to surrender to work as a salaried administrator like his father.  But these characters show him a different path to take:

  • Annalies, his first Indo (Eurasian) wife, who died after ‘repatriation to the Netherlands, because her citizenship was reverted there in order to prevent her inheriting Javanese assets from her Dutch father;
  • Nyai Ontosoroh, Annalies’ mother and concubine to a failed Dutch businessman, whose self-taught efforts rescued the business and whose courage and understanding of the modern colonial world alerted Minke to much injustice; (See The Girl from the Coast for Toer’s representation of what concubinage was like);
  • Jean Marais, a French veteran of the war in Aceh who taught Minke to connect with his own people rather than the Dutch at his elite school;
  • Khouw Ah Soe, an activist for the progress of Chinese people in Java, who was killed by assassins from a Chinese secret society;
  • Thoenodongso, a peasant who led an uprising against the colonial sugar barons;
  • Magda Peters, his Dutch teacher at the elite HBS school, who recognised Minke as a future leader (and got herself sent back to Holland because of it); and
  • Herbert de la Croix, a liberal Dutch administrator and his two daughters, who return to Holland in disillusionment.

So, Footsteps starts in 1901 with Minke at the medical school for Natives. This school was a belated initiative by the Dutch in the wake of international embarrassment about their colonial regime, but its graduates are condemned to serve only as badly-paid doctors attempting to lift the life expectancy of Natives from a shocking 40 years.  Minke makes few friends, but is visited by Ter Haar, a liberal Dutch journalist who improves his status at the school by engineering invitations to the Harmoni Club, where he meets Van Kollewijn, a liberal MP espousing the Ethical Policy aimed at improving the welfare of the NativesGeneral van Heutsz, the man who led the slaughter against the Acehnese; and Marie Van Zeggelen, an author who wrote books supportive of Native freedom including a biography of Kartini, (a pioneer of girls’ education who is referenced in Footsteps as ‘the girl from Jepara). These contacts with powerful people enable Minke to flout school rules with impunity, but he ends up abandoning his course to take up journalism.

Footsteps isn’t a book that flows smoothly; Toer was at pains to make various political points, and so there are jerky sequences of events and occasionally awkward conversations that are included as activism rather than as part of a credible plot. His Native characters are generally more convincing than the stereotypes he uses to convey opinions held by colonials or ethnic identities not from the Indies.  Two topics discussed in an unlikely conversation between a very young Minke and these powerful people are raised at the ironically-named Harmoni club:

  • Van Kollewjin talks about Holland owing a moral and financial debt to the Indies because exports under the Culture (Forced Cultivation) System saved Holland from bankruptcy, paid for Holland’s infrastructure development and provided it with capital for expansion.
  • Marie Van Zeggelen tackles General Van Heutsz over his use of the word ‘unify’ instead of ‘expand’ to describe the conquest of Aceh.  He talks of ‘pockets’ of ‘political enclaves’ ‘destabilising the Indies’ and how they must be brought to ‘acknowledge the sovereignty of Her Majesty’.  Ter Haar and Van Zeggelen argue that they are independent states, and that the aim of these operations is conquest not unification.  They ask what his plans are for East Papua and Southeast Papua, while sarcastically noting that West Papua is a heavy burden for the Indies.

Questions of (and activism in support of) recompense for Holland’s moral and financial debt, and the territorial integrity of Papua and Aceh under Indonesian sovereignty remain pertinent today. The book also references Bali’s heroic struggle to resist Dutch conquest, with Klungkung finally falling in 1908.

In between starting his own newspaper, political organisation and a career as a writer, Minke marries twice more in this novel.  His second wife is a covert activist for Chinese progress, and is, truth be told, merely a symbol for yet another influence on his life.  (He marries his third wife, just as quickly, and for similar symbolic reasons, showing him that violence is ultimately going to be necessary).  While his mother’s ‘wisdom’ (and some excruciatingly tiresome dialogue) is all about her wish for him to be proud of and grateful for his Javanese heritage, and thus marry a nice Javanese beauty, Minke’s marriage to Mei enables Toer to refer to the inspiring news of Japan and China (i.e. Asian countries) fighting off predatory European colonists for the first time.

Mei and the activists who work for this outcome in the Indies are both role models and rivals, because one of the issues that has to be tackled is defining what the Indies encompass.  Java, then as now, was dominant, and hidebound by social stratification — even its language structures were socially divisive.  Not everyone who shares Minke’s ideology shares his expansive geographical and social view of the racially mixed group that he calls ‘Indisch’.  His first organisation is limited to the aristocratic priyani, and it fails because they are basically collaborators in the colonial project. His second attempt at forming a more broad-based organisation suffers embezzlement, and far flung branches breach the membership rules.  Even the esteemed ‘girl from Jepara’ isn’t completely onside: she wants to start by focussing on the customs of their own people, while Minke thinks that they can work towards the ultimate goal of independence at the same time.  He thinks she lacks the courage to do more.

Minke’s decision to impose Malay as the language of his newspaper and his political organisation is always being contested:

‘Why should the Javanese be subordinated to Malay?’

‘You have to be practical, Mas.  In these times whatever is impractical will be pushed aside.  Javanese is not practical.  All the levels it contains are just pretentious ways of allowing people to emphasise their status.  Malay is simpler.  The organisation doesn’t need statements as to everyone’s status.  In any case, all members are equal.  No one is lesser or greater than another.’

[In the Introduction, Max Lane repeats his assertion that the Indonesian authorities’ claim that Toer was surreptitiously spreading Marxist-Leninist teachings’ was spurious.  Not quite, IMO.  It seems pretty harmless to me, but still, there are a couple of rants against capitalism, and the insistence that all are equal could be read as a socialist ideal as well. On page 342, there is also a rant about advertising in the modern era and how it blackmails people into buying new things that they don’t really need because it threatens them with losing out in some way or another.]

‘But Javanese has a richer literature.  It has a greatness because of that which Malay does not have.’

‘You are not mistaken,  When the Javanese held sway over all the islands of Nusantara, the language of diplomacy was also Javanese.  But that time has passed.  The times have changed and so have the demands of the times.  During the time that the foreigners have controlled the islands, it has not been Javanese that has been the language of diplomacy, but Malay.  Our organisation is not a Javanese organisation, but an Indies organisation.’ (p.377)

Minke goes on to dismiss the claim that Javanese should be used because they are the majority, and makes the valid point that it’s much easier for Javanese to learn Malay than for Malays to learn Javanese which is a very complex language.  ‘And what harm is there if we Javanese let go of the greatness and richness of the past, a past that is no longer in accord with the needs of our age? For the unity of the Indies!’  [I bet these same arguments surface any time the subject of Indigenous Australian languages come up in our own time.]

Toer also has Minke dismiss the epics celebrated in wayang all over the Indies:  he talks about the problem of trying to lead a people who live in a world of ideas rusted over by Javanism.  

… I had to become a teacher who taught that it was not blood or ancestry that determined whether a person would be successful or not.  Rather it was a question of the education he received from those around him and a question of his own determination.  Success was not a gift from the gods, but a result of hard work and study.

This wrong view about blood and ancestry had such strong roots in the literature of Java.  The Mahabharata and Bharatayuddha provided nothing to grab hold of for those who wanted to enter the modern era.  These great epics had become obstacles to the people’s advancement.  These centuries-old teachings had lost touch with real life.  They did not teach how rice was planted, or houses built, or how it was that people must sell what they produce.  They taught only about fighting, and how good it was to become a lover of the gods, and thus further and further away from being human.  (p.373)

Minke recognises that when people admire this rust…

There is no other way than to approach things as politely as possible, peeling off one layer this year, and one layer the next.  For how many years would it have to go on?  I didn’t know. (p.376)

In other words, he was in favour of gradual change through education, not revolution.  Nothing Marxist about that…

Footsteps is like a companion novel to Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) (1887) by José Rizal (translated by Harold Augenbraum) which was instrumental in forging a Filipino identity which led to independence.  The difference is that Footsteps is an historical novel, telling a story which was suppressed first by the Dutch and then by Indonesians themselves.  We need, I think, a new word to define historical novels like this, which as Fred Khumalo says, bring ‘hidden history’ into the public domain.

My Indonesian book group will be reading Book 4, The Glass House in due course.

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: Footsteps, The Buru Quartet #3; (Jejak Langkah, Tetralogi Buru #3)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1996 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1990, first published in Indonesian 1985)
ISBN: 9780140256345

Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Footsteps (Buru Quartet)


  1. This review and Nathan Hobby’s recent essay on KS Prichard in Kalgoorlie point out the difficulties of combining political activism and literature, and the sacrifices that the latter must make in service of the former. Perhaps Act.Lit. is another genre. Did Javanese end up being adopted as Indonesian? What do you think of the new site for the capital – more evidence of Javanese expansionism?


    • That was a great essay, I thought. I can’t wait for Nathan to get a publisher for the bio of KSP.

      It was Malay that was adopted as the national language because it was the trading language spoken throughout the archipelago. Thanks to the simplicity of this language including its regular spelling Indonesia achieved mass literacy by the time of its 50th anniversary of independence. But because Singapore and Malaysia ended up not joining a political union with Indonesia, there are now differences in vocab between what are now called Malaysian and Indonesian, rather than Malay. There are also differences between Bahasa Pasar (“market language, in a simplified form) and the formal Indonesian spoken by middle-class Indonesians.

      I don’t know what to make of the new site except that there have been widespread floods in Jakarta ever since whenever, and I can only assume that global warming will make it very much worse. Starting again somewhere new might give them the opportunity to plan infrastructure much better than the present chaos.

      But whether they also move the slums remains to be seen…


  2. I came across this author for the first time when I read his introduction to the NYRB edition of Max Havelaar. It’s understandable that he lapsed into polemic in his fiction, given his personal and political experience


    • Indeed yes!
      We just decided at book group today that we are going to read Max Havelaar for our next meeting. We all felt that it would have been good to have read it before reading this one, so it’s a ‘catch-up’ title.


  3. […] fiction in the category that I call ‘hidden history’, (here and here and here and here) I’ve referred readers to Fred Khumalo’s article about how contemporary historical fiction […]


  4. […] Footsteps, (1985), third in the Buru Quartet written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is also a coming-of-age story.  Written from Toer’s imprisonment under the dictator Suharto, it tells the story of Minke who starts his adult life at a medical school.  Like everything else in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony, the school is segregated by colour and class, but Minke meets a liberal Dutch journalist who set him on the path towards activist journalism. […]


  5. […] Book #3: Footsteps […]


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