Photo by Wendy BelcherOne government official who disagreed with the way we prisoners were being treated once advised me “to deal with life as you would fly a kite: When the wind is strong, give it more string; when there is no wind, pull the string in. If not,” he said emphatically, “you're all going to die.”
–Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir
AT BOOKEXPO LAST MONTH, ÜBERAUTHOR Salman Rushdie arrived at his invitation-only reading in a gleaming Mercedes-Benz, phalanxed by half a dozen security guards with digital cameras and accompanied by the head of his American publishing company. He performed from his new novel about rock & roll superstars, announced that his friends U2 were setting the book's lyrics to music, and then went on to party with the playmates at Hugh Hefner's mansion.
Two weeks later, Southeast Asia's leading contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, on a book tour largely at the expense of friends, arrived at Midnight Special bookstore in a 13-year-old Toyota Camry with bad shocks. Nearing 75, Pramoedya (prah-MODE-yuh) had no security guards, despite having simply walked away from city arrest in Jakarta and having written books that will get any bookseller offering them in Indonesia incarcerated. His entourage consisted of his Indonesian editor (and “tireless companion”), Joesoef Isak; his wife of 44 years, Maimoenah Thamrin; a young Indonesian translator, Ayu Ratih, and her husband, John Roosa, a history instructor from Caltech.
In the backroom at Midnight Special, packed with a largely American audience, Roosa read from The Mute's Soliloquy: A Memoir, Pramoedya's new book chronicling his 14 years as a political prisoner on Indonesia's infamous Buru Island. Specifically, he read part of the letter Pramoedya wrote to his eldest daughter the week he was shipped to Buru. Roosa could not read the last moving lines of farewell and, after a moment's struggle, gave up and introduced the discussion period. Pramoedya answered a dozen questions as shouted by his translator. (Blows in prison have left him largely deaf in both ears.) He has lived through countless interrogations, and the press of beginners' questions caused him only to tilt his large head politely, fold his beautiful hands and smile. He was brief on the topic of how to survive 10 years of forced labor, but lengthy on how to improve race relations with the Chinese. Halfway through, he announced with a laugh that his aging prostate demanded a visit to the bathroom, whereupon an audience member volunteered the required quarter.
AS JAMIE JAMES POINTED OUT IN HIS 1996 New Yorker piece on the author, “No major literary figure alive has suffered more for his work and beliefs than has Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Perhaps the greatest injustice of all is that he remains literature's best-kept secret. No matter that he's been translated into 30 languages, that half a million copies of his work circulate in Indonesia despite the ban, and that he has won Asia's most important literary prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Without a doubt, Pramoedya's This Earth of Mankind is one of the best novels on colonialism ever written and his Buru Quartet a defining work of this century. Yet few Americans have heard of the author or his amazing cycle.
Born in 1925, Pramoedya was the eldest child of a nationalist headmaster and a well-read, feminist mother who loved to tell stories and died while he was still a teenager. Pramoedya leapt into anti-colonial politics at a young age, for which the Dutch incarcerated him in 1947, not long after his first short story was published. While in prison, Pramoedya wrote his first novel, The Fugitive, in one week, squatting at his bunk during the day, lying under it at night with a lantern. Based upon wayang, the shadow-puppet plays of classical Javanese culture, the novel was smuggled out of prison by a Dutch visitor and subsequently published in Indonesia in 1950 to acclaim. With the success of the revolution in 1949, Pramoedya was released, and he quickly emerged as one of Indonesia's leading writers. He spent the next 15 years of the Sukarno government editing intellectual journals, chairing political writing associations and serving as a lecturer of literature at the university in Jakarta. He even endured a short prison sentence in 1960 for publishing a work on the plight of the Chinese minority.
Then, in 1965, the U.S.-supported, right-wing Suharto overthrew Sukarno and declared war against all Indonesian communists, eventually killing hundreds of thousands and jailing an estimated 1.5 million people. Even though the then-41-year-old Pramoedya had never embraced communism, espousing instead a leftist populism, he was arrested in his home, and his many half-finished manuscripts, research notes and books were burned while he watched with a noose around his neck. After spending four years in Jakarta jails without being charged, he and 12,000 other prisoners were sent to Buru, a virtually uninhabited island 2,000 miles away that would be Pramoedya's home for 10 years.
After an initial period of receiving “three shoe-wax tins of food per day,” prisoners were expected to feed and house themselves. They first subsisted on mold, leeches and lizards before cultivating thousands of acres of land and building hundreds of miles of roads. None of the men weighed over 100 pounds, and most died of starvation and pestilence. In these conditions, where constant hunger was “a hapless and miserable friend” and the only easy task was “finding space for one's grave,” Pramoedya began his masterpiece, which spans 20 years, 1,500 pages and hundreds of characters, and is about one man's evolution from idealizing European culture to embracing his Indonesian identity. Denied paper and pen in prison, Pramoedya composed oral stories for the 18 prisoners in his isolated camp, who would whisper the latest installment to other prisoners during their only daily contact, in the showers.
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 Memoir By PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER | Hyperion Press 352 pages | $27.50 hardcover