Umer Rashid indulges in a book composed entirely in its author’s mind before being committed to paper
Political repression and social discrimination often tend to stimulate human creativity – so it’s no surprise that some of the world’s greatest works of literature were compiled in oppressive political milieu. Nothing exemplifies it better than the literary genius of Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), popularly known as “Pram” in his native Indonesia.
Frequently discussed as South East Asia’s best candidate for a Nobel Prize, Pram actively participated in Indonesia’s war of independence (1945-1949) against Dutch colonial rule that led to his imprisonment for two years (1947-1949), during which he wrote his first major novel The Fugitive. In post-independence Indonesia, his radical views earned him the wrath of Suharto’s regime that took power in 1965 in the wake of a bloody military coup that claimed more than half a million lives. Pram was arrested and sent to the island of Buru where he served fourteen years of imprisonment without trial. Forbidden to write during imprisonment, Pram mentally composed and verbally narrated his stories to the fellow inmates in daily installments. This narrative was eventually published in a series of four novels known as the Buru Quartet. This Earth of Mankind is the first of this quartet.
The plot centres on the experiences of an ambitious young boy, Minke, who is fortunate to be the only native Javanese to attend an elite Dutch school, thanks to his noble Javanese lineage. Minke is fascinated by the values of Enlightenment and European achievements such as the printer and telegraph. He looks askance at the superstitions and primitive customs of his fellow Javanese, writing in Dutch newspapers and being chastised by his mother for refusing to write in his native language.
On the other hand, Minke is deeply repulsed by the condescending attitude of the Dutch colonists and the institutionalized discrimination that classifies the people as pure (European), mixed-blood and native in the descending order of social hierarchy. His world turns upside down when he meets Nyai Ontosoroh, a native concubine of a Dutch man, and falls in love with her beautiful Indo-European daughter, Annelies.
This Earth of Mankind is an engrossing and engaging account of love, brutality and political awakening. Through the eyes of Minke, the reader learns to appreciate the beauty and cultural diversity of Indonesia, and gets insight into the injustices of Dutch colonial rule. Pram is indeed a superb story-teller and after going through this work, I am increasingly tempted to get my hands on the other three novels of the Buru Quarter.