Pramoedya and History

September 15, 2001

pramoedya-1This review of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Tales from Djakarta (2000) appeared in an edited form as “Indonesian History: Painful Memory of Coming-to-Terms” in The Straits Times (15 September 2001).

Pramoedya Ananta Toer will be Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Seventy-six this year and, for more than five decades, a supreme writer at the epicentre of Indonesia’s turbulent modernity, he remains one of the few most authentic and recognizable voices in Southeast Asian literature.

So why is the mention of this recurring top runner for the Nobel Prize still drawing blank looks from usually literate Singaporeans? As if affluence and stability — certainly not natural curiosity — have enabled us to culturally vault over immediate geography, Pramoedya’s writings continue to fall prey to the blind-spots of an eager but cautious readership.

Politics aside — Pramoedya having been jailed as a Leftist under the successive rules of the Dutch, Sukarno and Suharto — the question normally posed to anyone claiming to be anything must also be raised here. If Pramoedya is an artist, exactly how good is his craft? Not “good” if the word is an end-all: it is resplendent, variously jewelled, and concocts history better than history itself, his past half-beating in the Indonesia just an airport away.

I would personally like to hear anyone who makes Pramoedya’s politics an issue tell better stories than his, and this is the point: Pramoedya is a story-teller par excellence, the Homer and Tolstoy for a radius of two thousand kilometres, the region’s own Günter Grass. In him history and culture converge — as do the oral and the written art — like the opposite of light passing through a prism.

Now, the charge that writers like Pramoedya “colour” or “exploit” history is a very problematic one; it assumes that there really are some other ways to write. History by itself is no one’s and exists only when a person decides to be conscious of it and to own it. No one can own what he or she does not act as if in the presence of.

Which explains why Pramoedya’s infamous Buru Quartet — orally-composed while on the prison island of Buru, and available in translation at your regular good bookshops by the way — was banned for some twenty years in Indonesia. Although this series of four novels traces the life of a pre-independence revolutionary and offers characters far too complex to be allusive, yet Pramoedya’s own possession of history somehow makes the work an unrooted demon about the present.

For, in realizing history, the writer has inadvertently uncovered the continuity of time as opposed to its rupture always celebrated by politics and modernity. Elsewhere, he states more concisely and with terrifying insight that, despite an age-old ethical culture, “the centrality of Indonesian thinking is influenced by a violent solution to problems”.

It is therefore to the credit of publishers like Equinox that this wisdom — the recognition that Indonesia still lives on the excess of the twentieth century — is understood and daringly acted on. Equinox has recently started to re-issue English translations of Pramoedya’s much earlier works, beginning with thirteen short stories collected as Tales from Djakarta, penned during a relatively short period from the nationalism after the Japanese Occupation to the birth of elite rule.

Even here, Pramoedya has not documented history as intrigue but as a painful coming-to-terms and, if his sardonic voice is not obvious enough, the frequent plunging conclusions will bring the waterhole to the ass. These stories are on the verge of becoming myths for a culture of conflict: the suffering portrayed is still as real and unnecessarily farcical, the blood of despair as senselessly let, and the insidious self-interest as raw and disturbing.

A very thorough and thoughtful translation soon takes second place to the unrelenting march of Pramoedya’s basic humane message and the clarity of his sense of place. If this volume can rise above the intricacy of interpretation and the time of its own writing, it is mostly because the tales themselves are framed not by words but by feelings and thoughts — ordinary ones — that write.

How they emerge the young Pramoedya has the clearest of ideas and, with typical austerity, sums it up in a single moment in a story about an aspiring artist. His alter ego here copies words from George Washington’s diary verbatim into his own — “Shut your mouth and use your ears as much as possible” — but quickly appends, “Could it be that I should use my ears a little less? These ears are making me lose all sense of self!”

With just one act and one thought, Pramoedya powerfully captures the ironic double-bind of a persisting colonial mentality and a sense of self-deferring independence characteristic of our region, a state from which creativity and authenticity must ethically break free. And curiously, in this light, it is as if the tales on the whole were already prophetic feats of escape in the name of the very things that would soon put him back in prison.

Gwee Li Sui

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