Wawanacara Majalah Tiimes dengan Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Fotografer: Tara Sosrowardoyo.

Jailed and then censored, Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer never quit calling for political change.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer was perhaps the only writer in Indonesia who got the joke. Last month the Jakarta Arts Council announced the results of nationwide writing competitions: the 94 entries were so uniformly bad that the judges had refused to award anyone the first prize. (Second prize went to a composition entitled Stomach-ache Opera.

The daily Indonesian observer summed up the sorry debacble: “Indonesia has never produced world famous writers, and looks set to retain that status.”

Pramoedya, of course, just happen to be world famous, author of four important novels known as the Buru Quartet and some 26 other books that have been translated into 2 languages, winner of several international awards and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Jailed And Banned

His memoirs are due to be published in the U.S later this year. But don’t mention any of that ini polite circles In Jakarta, where Pramoedya is officially regarded as a subversive leftist.

His books are all banned in his home country. Jailed for nearly two years by the Dutch as a dangerous nationalist, he spent an additional 14 years in prison after independence. Released in 1979, he is still kept under police surveillance and forbidden from traveling overseas.

Editors have been warned againts even using Pramoedya’s name ini magazines or newspaper. He is effectifly a non-person in Indonesia.

“I am happy to talk to foreigners,” he says as he leads the way into his house on a narrow street ini Jakarta. “Because I can not talk to anyone here.” And his 73-year-old face breaks into a mischievous smile.

Life is spiced with many little ironies in Indonesia these days, sign that President Suharto’s hallowed New Order, under which the country has been governed for three decades, is looking perilously old, verging on the smile.

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Wry smiles, for example, greeted the straight-faced announcement by Suharto’s daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, known as Tutut, that nepotism played no role in the government. She said this less than a week after she had been appointed to the cabinet post of minister of social affairs by her father.

For Pramoedya, however, such ironies go deep, right into the heart of the cultural anorexia that has afflicted the Indonesian archipelago, so rich in unrealized artistic potential.

“For all these years there has been a contradiction between the truth and the lies of the New Order,” says Pramoedya, lighting up another of a series of clove cigarettes. “Because of this contradiction people have  lost themselves, have become followers without personality. How can you create good literature  – something with individual integrity – under such a system? It has created a cultural ceiling, and no one  can raise above this ceiling, because thinking it self has been limited.”

In a 1991 essay entitled “My Apologies”, Pramoedya devised on Orwellian – Sounding formula to describe the manipulation of truth by the government: “What is stated  as ‘X’ is minus x.”

Today he says the system is finally coming apart: “It is a power that rots from the middle, a moral collapse. Even without the economic crisis ultimately it would have been like this: it just might have taken a little longer. I hope I will live to see the end of it.”

Pramoedya’s word may not be reported in Indonesia, but his views echothose of many in academia, business and even the military who sense that the entire structure government creaking. But precisely because of the tight control over political and intellectual dissent that has been maintened over the last 32 years, open discussion on how to bring change to the country is almost non-existent.

Blocking this change, Pramoedya says, is one man, and his antiquated notion of power under which ‘x’ ean become minus ‘x’ at the wave of a hand, Soeharto is a Javanese,” he says. “He hasn’t yet become an Indonesian. You can study the concept of power ini Javanese culture: once you become No. 1 you can do no wrong because you have been anointed  from above.”

Born in the village of Blora near Surabaya, Pramoedya himself was brought up speaking Javanese, a complex language with manay levels of politeness. But at 17  the young writer went to Jakarta and started using the Malay language that nationalist were promoting as universal tongue to unify all Indonesians.

“In Javanese I felt I was being lied to constantly: by the cultural atmosphere, the wayang (puppet theater based on indian mythology), stories that made no sense, everything.” 

Before he left home he remembers his father calling in a dukun,  or magical healer, to expel  a Muslim spirit  from the premises. “To do that,” he recalls, “they buried pieces of pork at each corner of the house – things like that. I preferred to go over to the rationale side.

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Javanese poets, he says, just consolidated the culture of tepo sliro. – knowing one’s place ini a feudal hierarchy of power. Swithching to Malay  – or bahasa Indonesia as it as called in Indonesia  – “was for me a liberation. I think Indonesia needs to be freed from Javanese. There is nothing wrong with the actual people of Java, but spare us the ‘Javanese-ism.’ There is a romanticizing of Javanese mysticism. Let’s be rationale instead.”

Pramoedya’s own literary journey away from traditional Javanese literature toward a more modern, liberating world view  – is not without its ironies. In his search for the rationale he acquired a political agenda on top of his writing.

Although he did not join the Communist Party, which became powerful under Soekarno’s rule up to 1965, he was closely linked with left-wing politics, and in 1962 he wrote a series about artist for the literary supplement Lentera under the rubric, “Those who are to be cut down  and those who are to be encouraged.”

Even today other Indonesian writers such as Mochtar Lubis point out how intolerant Pramoedya himself one was of writing that he dismissed as bourgeois and anti-revolutinary.  

Foto Pramoedya Ananta Toer Pada Majalah TIMES, 20 April 1998. Fotografer: Tara Sosrowardoyo. Sumber: Majalah Times.

Buru Island and Minke

After the  1965 coup and the bloody crackdown on suspected communist that the followed, Pramoedya found himself in the infamous Buru island prison camp, where he had plenty of time to rethink his ideas about the dignity of the individual and to compose his masterpiece, the buru Quartet.

It is the colorful and compelling tale of the coming of age of Javanese journalist minke  and, at the same time, of the nation of Indonesia, struggling for freedom from its Dutch colonizers. Although the novels are banned in Indonesia, photocopies circulate covertly, while in neighboring Malaysia they have been required reading in high school and university literature courses.

“There are lots of ironies in this part  of the world”, says Krishen Jit a Kuala Lumpur theater director and critic who is currently producing a musical based on the first book of the Buru Quartet, This Earth of Mankid. “This kind of material is very potent. His writing just comes at you, almost attacks you. I was stunned by the language.”

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Pramoedya no longer writes – his time these days is taken up mostly with  his grandchildren – but he says he is modestly optimistic about the future. “We have to raise the cultural ceiling. Otherwise any political system will end up like this.

The ceiling should be raised by philosophers, artists, writers. You cannot have any real debate in the system we have now. The New Order is a power that has refused to grow up. It must be thrown out and replaced with new people.

 Pramoedya himself is proud just to have survived. “Nothing the New Order has done to me has succeedd. They banned my books with the intention of destroying my life, but it didn’t work. I’m still alive. Every banning that I have, had under the new order I view as a medal of honor.”


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