Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Author of the 'Buru Quartet' who spent 15 years in prison - first under the Dutch, then under Suharto


Pramoedya Ananta Mastoer (Pramoedya Ananta Toer), writer: born Blora, Indonesia 6 February 1925; twice married (nine children); died Jakarta 30 April 2006.

The death of the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer 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.

In "Diajang menjerah", "She Who Gave Up", a short story published in a 1952 collection (Tjerita dari Blora, "Stories from Blora"), he wrote:

In such 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.

Indonesia, 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. 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:

Usually 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.

Toer, born 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 problem.

Arrested 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.

He spent 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 labour camp of Bukitduri. Then he had been actively engaged in the revolutionary struggle against the Dutch after the Second World War.

The Dutch, 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 it.

In Nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu (1995: The Mute's Soliloquy, 1999) - an affecting account of his life in prison - Toer describes, in spare, contained prose, the institutionalised 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.

In extreme 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:

Imagine 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.

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:

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 15 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.

The allegories 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.

The novels - 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.

Had Pramoedya 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 unrepentant throughout his life:

Just 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

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone