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These stories were so rich and human that many prisoners have since attributed their survival to them. (Pramoedya himself has called the Buru novels "my lullaby for my fellow prisoners, to calm their fears, they who were suffering so much torture.") In turn, they did his work and gave him their food to enable his creation. When his captors finally allowed him to write in 1973, "It was like a dam breaking." He wrote continuously to capture the stories from memory. Tragically, only five of these books were smuggled out; six others were destroyed by prison guards. In 1979, Pramoedya was released from prison but remains under city arrest to this day; almost all of his 30 books are banned in Indonesia.
PART OF WHAT MAKES THE QUARTET A UNIQUE 20th-century document is that it is constructed around a woman hero. At a luncheon held for him by Larry Siems of the Los Angeles PEN Freedom To Write Committee, Pramoedya explained that he had two purposes in telling the life story of Nyai, a native woman from the most reviled level of Indonesian society who manages to run a business empire while fiercely opposing injustice. She is a monument to Pramoedya's mother, whom he never tires of praising, and is expressly meant as a model of resistance. "Nyai was born after 11 prisoners were killed," he said, "and everyone was demoralized. She came because we needed her. Look, I would say, she is only a woman, and considered the lowest of the low, but she is so passionate that she can stand by herself against colonialism. If she can fight injustice, how much more can we? In Indonesia," he added, "it is women who were the major enemies of oppression. They have always fought the hardest."
On the promenade outside Midnight Special, I asked to take a picture of Pramoedya with his editor, Joesoef, who has been jailed numerous times for publishing his friend's work. They stood stiffly, Indonesian clove cigarettes ablaze. When I asked Joesoef if this was how he would pose at home, he smiled, put his arm around Pramoedya's shoulders and gripped them firmly. Then they were off on the next leg of their low-maintenance tour, in the Camry with bad shocks.
THE MUTE'S SOLILOQUY: A MemoirBy PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER | Hyperion Press 352 pages | $27.50 hardcover