Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2021

House of Glass, (1988, The Buru Quartet #4) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane

#4 House of Glass

House of Glass (Rumah Kaca) is the last of 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).  The quartet is an early example of historical fiction as activism, that is, it was written by an author redressing the hidden stories and silences of colonised peoples in well-researched fiction.

House of Glass is the next phase of Toer’s novelised life of Tirto Adi Suryo, pioneer of Indonesia’s national awakening and of Indonesian journalism.  In Books 1-3 Minke is both the symbol of nationalism and the challenge to Dutch colonialism which emerged in the early 20th century but did not come to fruition until after World War Two.   Toer shows how educating the cleverest of the Native Indonesians led to the development of European ideas about freedom and equality, the irony being that those same Europeans did not bestow freedom and equality on the people they colonised.  Indeed, to forbid things is a colonial hobby that gives a pleasure of its own.  It makes you feel more important and more powerful. It becomes the norm within six months in the colony, away from European democratic ideas.

By the end of Book 3, Minke has launched journalism that brought him to the attention of the Dutch authorities and now in Book 4, he is in exile.

So, with the hero of the first three novels offstage, House of Glass puts aside his story which is instead narrated through the reflections of the Native* Indonesian policeman Pangemanann, whose job it was to monitor and suppress the emerging independence movement.  The ‘house of glass’ of the title refers to Pangemanann’s surveillance of the key activists who follow in Minke’s footsteps.  Pangemanann is a conflicted soul: educated in France, he has risen to high office and enjoys the status he has acquired, but he admires Minke and his ambitions for an independent Indonesia.  Nevertheless, to maintain his own position, he must corrupt his personal values and work with the Dutch authorities to sabotage the movement.  He delegates authority to beat up opposition figures; he spreads divisive rumours; he incites race riots; he tortures detainees; and — while he doesn’t get his own hands dirty — he is involved in murder too.

While the point of this is to show that the independence movement withered for decades because it was sabotaged from within by the very Native Indonesians that Tirto Adi Suryo was keen to unite, this doesn’t make for a very engaging novel.  Truth be told, I made heavy weather of it and resorted to reading a chapter a day to get it finished.  I didn’t abandon it despite the temptation because it was Book 4 of a significant quartet and I wanted to complete it.

Pangemanann enjoys dissecting the divisions within society which fracture the independence movement. He notes that Minke believes in ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ and he was on the side of the impoverished masses but he’s also dismissive of them because they have no clear philosophy.  Pangemanann also identifies the compelling problem of there being no common language.  The dominant Javanese try to assert the primacy of Javanese culture and language, whereas he recognises that for the movement to succeed across the archipelago, Malay is the language that will be understood by all and can thus unify the disparate ethnicities.

While Minke’s inheritors, Marko, Sandiman and Wardi argue about whether education for Natives is wise or not, Pangemanann has a grasp of the bigger picture.  He knows that the more European companies are set up, the greater the need for educated Natives.  But he worries about these ‘hybrids’ because they are ‘dangerous elements.’ Eastern brutality and viciousness could fuse with Western rational thinking, and suddenly we could have a frightening new devil.  His constant battles with his boss enable Toer to depict this quisling’s cunning public face sneering at the independence organisations as irrelevant, while at the same time also showing his private ruminations about how influential they are.

With World War One preoccupying the Dutch government, the colony could not expect any military reinforcements in the event of trouble, but Pangemanann sinks the proposal to expand the local defence forces.  He argues publicly that:

the increase in political activity in the Indies was a direct result of the government’s own Ethical Policy and therefore there was no case for the government to arbitrarily decide to eliminate this activity. It would be more appropriate for the government to hold out its hand so as to offer guidance, rather than attempt to destroy this activity. (p.219)

But his real reason is that he won’t stand for being dislodged from his position as an expert.

As was the case with Toer himself, the activists of this novel who are imprisoned use the time to influence the other prisoners.

The thing was that the nationalists came to think of jail as some kind of stopping-off station where they could expect to be visiting and leaving on a regular basis. They begin to look upon time spent in jail as no longer a humiliation but, on the contrary, a place where national dignity could be restored. (p.224)

It is easy to rein in the activities of the educator Siti Soendari.  Dismissed as ‘just a girl’ by the Dutch authorities, she was perceived as unladylike by the priyayi (the Javanese aristocracy); she was feared because she was too assertive by some educated Natives; as a woman, she was thought not to have her own ideas because she had merely been influenced by others.  But Pangemanann recognises that she is an important social phenomenon.  So he pressures her father to make her ‘behave’ and to marry her off. Her father had no choice but to comply because he was only a middle-ranking official and needed his official position.

While Pangemanann’s activities all focus on individuals, organisations and the offstage Minke, the real protagonist that he faced was the unstoppable forces of nationalism.  And while he succeeds in bringing down all his opponents, at the very end of the book his surrender to Minke’s mother shows that the struggle would not die.

*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 the book 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, Meneer, Mevrouw, and Princess. 

My reviews of the rest of the quartet are here:

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: House of Glass, The Buru Quartet #4; (Rumah Kaca, Tetralogi Buru #4)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1997 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1992, first published in Indonesian 1988)
ISBN: 9780140256796

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


  1. I still have the first of these on my wish list as a result of your post on the first in the quartet. I will read these one day…


    • Oh my, that’s a reminder to me about how long it’s taken for me to read the whole lot!
      (I used to think that motherhood guilt was a drain, but it’s nothing compared to #ReadingGuilt!)


  2. A seminar I took in Dutch colonial art really sparked my interest in this part of the world (a couple of years ago I reviewed Maria Dermout’s “Ten Thousand Things,” which gives a Dutch perspective on the islands). To my shame, I’ve had “This Earth of Mankind” sitting on the shelf, unread for several years now, as well as Toer’s “The Fugitive.” Your excellent review reminds me that I need to speed up my reading!


    • *chuckle* It’s so hard to read everything we want to!
      For a Dutch perspective I’ve also read Hella Haasse (see recommended to me by the excellent Iris on Books who is no longer blogging. She has (according to Iris) a somewhat nostalgic view of the colonial era, but she’s still worth reading too.


      • Many thanks for the link. I’ve just finished reading your fabulous review of “The Tea Lords.” What a fascinating discussion on the historical fiction genre! As a very young adult, I was a voracious reader of the historical epic. These days, not so much. Although I do still read historical fiction on occasion, I’m much pickier about it these days, primarily for the problems you discussed so well in your review.
        Haasse’s perspective on colonial Indonesia reminded me very much of the traditional way in the U.S. of writing about the ante-bellum south. “Gone with the Wind,” anyone?
        As I read your review of Tea Lords, I also remembered that I a copy of “Max Havelaar.” It’s probably unnecessary for me to add that I haven’t, of course, read it yet!


        • *chuckle* Before lockdown last year when I was going regularly to my Indonesian bookgroup, I was always embarrassed that everyone else but me had read these classics of IndoLit. It’s a bit like living in Europe and not having read the famous classics from your nearest neighbour, except that most Australians — even the keenest of readers — have never read any Indonesian book. I don’t have tickets on myself but I would be one of a very small minority who can speak the language, know something of their history and have read some of their literature.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. When I think of all the Literatures I should read, but haven’t and probably won’t, Indonesian is certainly in there – our nearest large neighbour after all. I’m glad you are doing some of my keeping up for me.
    One question: Why is/was Malay widely understood?


    • Arabs traded with Indonesia from the 7th century onwards and by the 10th century there were Greeks, Turks, Tamils and Persians in the marketplace as well. Malay developed as a trading language right around the archipelago: it was rudimentary, with a very simple grammar but it was understood everywhere. Once the nationalists decided that it was a common language that could unite people who thought of themselves as Javanese, or Sumatrans, or Balinese or whatever, then the language developed into what it is today, slightly different in Malaysia but still intelligible in both countries.


  4. Sounds fascinating!


    • It’s almost like a manual for what not to do if you’re an activist!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good on you for finishing this quartet Lisa. I have still only read the first one, which I did enjoy – both for the political insight into Indonesia and for the writing and story.


    • I’m ready to read something more contemporary now, that’s for sure!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I can relate to that chapter-a-day technique; sometimes it’s a lot to take in, especially when the creative elements occasionally take a back seat to the instructive ones. There are several of his books (including the volumes in this quartet) available through the public library here, so I’ve tagged a couple of them (a shorter novel, a fable-type tale, and a memoir): thank you! I have read The Tea Lords and agree, that’s an interesting volume.


    • The memoir would be interesting, he had such a difficult life…


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