The first volume of the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer's epic quartet of novels set in the Dutch East Indies in the early 20th century, This Earth of Mankind, appeared in an English translation in 1982. It was followed two years later by Child of All Nations. The narrator, Minke, an aspiring writer and budding nationalist, tells of love, work and disappointment in the contrasting milieux of Javanese tradition and Dutch colonial hegemony, with a warmth and intimacy that seem to derive from personal experience.
Toer had produced the quartet in captivity on a prison island, accused of corrupting young minds with Marxist-Leninist propaganda. He had, in fact, fallen foul of every regime - colonial, nationalist and military - since he began his career in his early twenties. By this time out of prison, he was under house arrest, and his books were banned in his native Indonesia. At a time when "dissident" writing had a particular cachet, Toer should have been recognised as the great world writer he is. But although critical reception was generally favourable, his works remained buried treasures.
Toer's ambitions were abundantly evident in the quartet's concluding volumes, Footsteps and House of Glass. The quartet is modelled on the life and times of the Indonesian journalist and nationalist Tirto Adi Suryo, a generation before the author's own era. Toer's background was far more humble than Tirto's: he was born in 1925, his father a radical schoolteacher, his mother the daughter of a religious authority.
Unlike the Europeanised writers of an earlier generation, he was educated in local, anticolonial schools. He also, at an early age, wrote works of fiction that displayed his versatility and would have guaranteed his reputation. Best among these is The Fugitive (1950), a bleak tale of a soldier returning from the war to search for his fiancée.
Toer uses the techniques of the indigenous shadow-play to explore the terrible effects of the Japanese occupation on the national psyche, through a drama of doomed love, treachery and collaboration. Translated in 1990 by Willem Samuels, the novel reminds European readers that in Asia, too, much was at stake during the Second World War, with oppressed countries struggling for independence and nationhood.
Today, "Pram" is a free man. Several other works are available in translation. The Pramoedya Signature Series, published from Jakarta, describes itself as "an ever-expanding collection of Pramoedya's earlier work translated into English". On a visit to Jakarta a year ago, I was surprised to see the series exhibited as the work of "Indonesia's most celebrated writer" among postcards and tourist bric-a-brac.
Among the works now available in English are two volumes of short fiction, Tales from Jakarta and All That Is Gone. Some of the stories of these volumes were written almost concurrently, but whereas the former is set in the capital of the new nation, the latter takes place almost entirely in Toer's hometown, Blora.
The Jakarta tales are buoyant and dynamic in spite of grim settings, but the Blora stories (competently translated by Samuels) are marked by the pessimism of a young mind traumatised by war, conflict and political deception. Toer was only in his mid-twenties when the collection was published, and perhaps 19 when he wrote the first of the stories.
An autobiographical narrative emerges from the haze of lyrical description and reminiscent musing in the first group of stories. In the title story, the narrator recounts the absences of his teacher father and the melancholy fortitude of his mother. The small, sleepy town is painted with an impressionist's dreamily accurate brush. In "Inem", the author turns to another abiding preoccupation, women and arranged matches. A childhood playmate is married at the age of about eight to an older boy. When she attempts to escape her life of physical abuse, the narrator's pious mother witholds succour or refuge.
Hypocritical religious, or rather traditional, observances are satirised in "Circumcision", one of the weakest stories, in which a group of boys prepare for the eponymous ceremony of initiation. "Twilight Born" returns to the parents: the father is increasingly inspired by the Indian Nationalist movement and Gandhi's non-violent resistance, but gradually seems to surrender his will as homespun cloth, a symbol of anticolonial protest, ceases to sell. A new child is born to the family as "a time of twilight had come, and we knew that before the sun would rise darkness would first descend".
Darkness literally descends on Kirno in "Independence Day". Blinded during the war, he rejects his importunate family and his sweetheart to hide himself in a home for invalids. The rawness of the situation is alleviated by Toer's adroit dialogue, and the perspective of Kirno's little sister Tini, who attempts to sing away his pain. The volume's overwhelming sense of darkness is most marked in "Acceptance", the story of a family with conflicting political leanings that lead to tragic consequences.
But despair is leavened with irony in this haunting, evocative volume's concluding story, "The Rewards of Marriage". The novelist-narrator attempts to complete a story about marriage, adultery and opportunism, and toys with alternative endings. "You must be willing to tell stories about the loss of hope. People must be made to feel the suffering of others." But a happy ending, perhaps, would please readers more. It's the feast of the end of Ramadan, and he has bills to pay.
Aamer Hussein's 'Turquoise' is published by Saqi
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