of the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in Jakarta on April
30, is an enormous loss to world literature. He was a leading
intellectual of the Indonesian left and a brilliant writer of
fiction, always in pursuit of a time that never came. Sometimes
he would think he had glimpsed the future and this immediately
became magnified and was reflected in his fiction. His passion
for radical politics was never hidden. Author of the 'Buru Quartet',
he spent 15 years in prison - first under the Dutch, then under
Menjerah", "She Who Gave Up", a short story published in a 1952
collection (Tjerita Dari Blora, "Stories from Blora"), he wrote:
times too the rage for politics roared along like a tidal wave,
out of control. Each person felt as though she, he could not be
truly alive without being political, without debating political
questions. In truth, it was as though they could stay alive even
without rice. Even schoolteachers, who had all along lived "neutrally",
were infected by the rage for politics - and, so far as they were
able, they influenced their pupils with the politics to which
they had attached themselves. Each struggled to claim new members
for his party. And schools proved to be fertile battlefields for
their struggles. Politics! Politics! No different from rice under
the Japanese Occupation.'
the largest Muslim country in the world, once contained the largest
Communist Party outside the actual world of Communism. In 1965,
the military seized the country and bathed it in blood: at least
a million people, mainly Communists and their sympathisers, were
massacred. [The CIA station supplied the killers with its own
lists of Communists and leftists. AC/JSC ] In Bali and elsewhere,
the pro-West military leaders worked with Islamist vigilantes
to make sure that few were left alive. Twenty years later a writer
from a younger generation, Pripit Rochijat Kartawidjaja, recalled
the hellish night:
the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs
torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn't
sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon,
bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri
region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were
stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist
Party] banner grandly flew... Once the purge of Communist elements
got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction.
The reason: most clients - and prostitutes - were too frightened,
for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot
of male Communist genitals - like bananas hung out for sale.'
in 1925 in Blora in central Java, was the country's most distinguished
novelist and, significantly, published in the United States. His
life was spared. The generals dared not execute him, but hoped
that the conditions in which he was kept would take care of the
all the while the regime sent in
preachers and Islamist journalists to
inspect the minds of the inmates and
urge them to become Believers:
'I have no doubt that this year,
just as in previous years, at the
beginning of the fasting month
my mates and I will be treated to a
lecture by a religious official specially
brought in from the free world,
on the importance of fasting and
controlling one's hunger and desires.
Imagine the humour of that!'
after the military coup in Jakarta in 1965, he was sent to Buru
island, a tropical gulag where many died of exhaustion, hard labour
or starvation. Toer survived. He would later recall how every
night, for three thousand and one nights (eight years), he fought
against cruelty, disease and creeping insanity by telling stories
to his fellow prisoners. It kept hope alive for him and them.
As they listened, the prisoners momentarily forgot where they
were or who had sentenced them.
12 years altogether on Buru. It was not his first prison journey
and this led him to compare present-day conditions with the colonial
past. There was no room for doubt. Conditions were qualitatively
worse than they had been almost two decades ago when he was a
prisoner from 1947 to 1949 at the forced labor camp of Bukitduri.
Then he had been actively engaged in the revolutionary struggle
against the Dutch after the Second World War.
unlike their post-colonial mimics, had not deprived him of writing
implements and this was where he wrote his first novel, Perburuan
(1950), translated as The Fugitive (1975 and 1990), a 170-page
masterpiece superior in composition and content to the fiction
of Albert Camus with which Western critics sometimes compared
Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995: The Mute's Soliloquy, 1999) - an affecting
account of his life in prison - Toer describes, in spare, contained
prose, the institutionalized brutality of Suharto's New Order.
The old cargo vessel on which he and 800 prisoners are being transported
to Buru island reminds him of the coolies on Captain Bontekoe's
ship, the kidnapped Chinese on Michener's ship bound for Hawaii...
the four million Africans loaded on to British and American ships
for transport across the Atlantic.
moments during the colonial period, the threatened, insecure Dutch
administrators, aware of the Javanese obsession with cleanliness,
used to hurl excrement at the natives, to humiliate and debase
them. The New Order prison ship went one better. The prisoners'
hold was adjacent to the latrine and during stormy weather the
two locations became inseparable. The prisoners were regularly
mistreated and starved so that only the fittest would survive.
Toer describes a desperate menu:
a diet of gutter rats, the mouldy outgrowth on papaya trees and
banana plants, and leeches, skewered on palm-leaf ribs prior to
eating. Even J.P., one of our most well-educated prisoners, found
himself reduced to eating cicak, though he always broke off the
lizard's toe pads first. He'd become quite an expert at catching
them. After amputating the lizard's toes, he would squeeze the
unfortunate creature between his thumb and forefinger, shove it
to the back of his throat, and swallow it whole. The man's will
to defend himself against hunger was a victory in itself."
as politics cannot be separated
from life, life cannot be separated from
politics. People who consider themselves
to be non-political are no different;
they've already been assimilated by the
dominant political culture - they just
don't feel it any more.'
And all the
while the regime sent in preachers and Islamist journalists to
inspect the minds of the inmates and urge them to become Believers:
no doubt that this year, just as in previous years, at the beginning
of the fasting month my mates and I will be treated to a lecture
by a religious official specially brought in from the free world,
on the importance of fasting and controlling one's hunger and
desires. Imagine the humour of that!'
years in his country's prisons, a campaign by Amnesty and other
groups in the West helped, in 1979, to secure Toer's release,
but it was conditional: until 1992 he was confined to house arrest
in Jakarta and forced to report regularly to the police. But his
time was his own and he could write again.
he had tried out on the political prisoners during desperate times
became a much-acclaimed quartet of novels known as "Minke's Story"
or the "Buru Quartet". The first of these, Bumi Manusia (translated
as This Earth Of Mankind, 1982), was published in 1980 and topped
the best-seller list for 10 months. The second, too, Anak Semua
Bangsa (1980: A Child Of All Nations, 1984), became a best-seller.
Thus thousands of Indonesian citizens chose to welcome "Pram",
their most celebrated dissident, back to literary life.
- part realist, part historical (the succeeding volumes were translated
as Footsteps, 1990, and House Of Glass, 1992) - were set in the
colonial period. The inspiration was provided by the legendary
figure of Tirto Adi Surya, the father of Indonesian nationalist
journalism. The scale and depth of the work was such that, for
most Indonesian readers forced by the political climate to stifle
their own thoughts, the effect was dramatic. Toer was writing
about the past, but much of what he wrote resonated with the present.
Were Suharto and the New Order a continuation of the colonial
regime? In 1981 the books were banned. The publishers were forced
to close down. One of them was imprisoned for three months.
Ananta Toer been a Soviet dissident he would have received the
Nobel Prize, but his status as a literary master is secure and,
unlike some Latin American contemporaries, he remained unapologetic
throughout his life:
as politics cannot be separated from life, life cannot be separated
from politics. People who consider themselves to be non-political
are no different; they've already been assimilated by the dominant
political culture - they just don't feel it any more.'
Tariq Ali's latest book is Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad,
Terror, London (Verso). He is also the author of the recently
published Street Fighting Years (new edition) and, with David
Barsamian,Speaking of Empires & Resistance. He can be
reached at [email protected]
here to order Tariq Ali books.
Other articles by Tariq Ali:
Iraq's Destiny Still Rests Between God, Blood And Oil
A Despised Leader Suffers His First Loss
Pakistan Will Never Forget This Horror
The Logic Of Colonial Rule
A Viler Barbarism
The Price Of Occupation
The New Ultra-Imperialism Of The World
"They Think God Runs The IMF"
Imperial Delusions: "Domocracy Promotion" And Resistance
The New Model Of Imperialism: Saddam On Parade
The Importance Of Hugo Chavez: Why He Crushed The Oligarchs
Getting Away With Murder
The War Is Not Going Well For Bush