John McGlynn

Click here to read 'In Twilight Born,' a short story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
For the larger part of his writing career, Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (1925–2006) was considered by literary critics, both Indonesian and foreign, to be one of the most—if not the most—important writer this country has produced. His fame and the significant role he played in the development of modern Indonesian literature may be traced to several factors: the length of his writing career; the large body of work he produced; and the socially illuminating quality of many of his best works. Yet another factor that served to enhance the popular appeal of this author was his imprisonment as a political prisoner, first by the Dutch colonial army during the Indonesian revolution (1947-1949); then, for a briefer time, under Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno (1960-61); and lastly, for more than fourteen years under the Soeharto regime (1965-1979). 

Indonesians are generally referred to by their first name and not their last (if they indeed have one) and a number of Pramoedya’s longer works are available in English translation: the novels The Fugitive and The Girl from the Coast; This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and Glass House, the four novels which together comprise “The Buru Quartet”; and a lengthy memoir titled The Mute’s Soliloquy. Until the publication of All that is Gone in 2003, however, (from which the short story “In Twilight Born” is taken) the English-language reading public had never before had a chance to read a single-volume, single-translator rendering of a collection of the author’s early short stories, for which the author first gained fame in his home country. Of the author’s early short-prose works, most all literary critics agree that Stories from Blora (Cerita dari Blora) best represent the author’s early literary output. The original version of “In Twilight Born” first appeared in that collection.

Born on February 6, 1925, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was the first of his parent’s nine children. His father was a man of many talents — teacher, activist, composer, and writer, among others — but it was in his role as educator that he exercised the greatest influence on his son’s life. His steely academic focus became the model for his son to imitate. In that respect, he might be credited with instilling in Pramoedya the discipline required to produce the more than several dozen titles he produced during the course of his career, particularly those that he wrote as a prisoner in the 1970s under the adverse conditions of Buru Island penal colony.

However strong his father’s influence, one may conclude from the author’s autobiographical stories—such as those that appear in Stories from Blora - it was his mother who gave direction to the author’s life. It was she whose nightly bedtime tales filled him with the desire to create a better world, even if it was only in his imagination; she who urged him to become an independent person and to carve a niche for himself in the world; she who found for him the necessary funds to continue his education. As Pramoedya often said, throughout his life his mother served as the standard by which he judged others. It was she who provided the “soul” so evident in his work.

At the age of seventeen, following the completion of courses in radio engineering at a vocational school in Surabaya and the death of his mother from complications of tuberculosis and childbirth, Pramoedya moved to Japanese-Occupied Jakarta. There he enrolled as a junior high school student at Taman Siswa, a nationalist-oriented educational institution, and found work at the Japanese news service, Domei. During this period (1942-1945) he began to develop his writing skills, first at a technical level — becoming a speed typist, proficient stenographer, interviewer, and archivist — and then at a more creative level, by writing feature articles and stories and editing his school magazine.

The military defeat of the Japanese and the proclamation of Indonesian independence in August 1945 was soon followed by the arrival of Allied Forces in Indonesia and then the return of the Dutch occupation army. Pramoedya was one of the hundreds of thousands of young Indonesians who jumped at the opportunity to serve his long-claimed but newly-born nation and defend it against the re-establishment of Dutch colonial rule. To this end, he enlisted in Badan Keamanan Rakyat, a civil defense unit, for which he served as the unit’s press officer. Following reorganization of the army in late 1946 he joined Voice of Free Indonesia. In July of 1947, he was arrested by the Dutch military for possessing anti-Dutch documents.

His subsequent imprisonment at Bukit Duri Prison in Jakarta marked the first of his three periods of incarceration as a political prisoner. Unlike his second time in 1960-61 and, more significantly, his third time, in Jakarta and then on Buru Island from 1965 to 1979, where during the first few years of his stay even the possession of paper or other writing tools was a warrant for death, at Bukit Duri he was given both the freedom to read and the means and impetus to write. It was in Bukit Duri that the author wrote his first several books whose later publication established him as a rising light in Indonesia’s literary world. His first-published novel, The Fugitive, which was written at Bukit Duri, was awarded a national literary prize and his collection of short stories, Stories from Blora, cemented his his status as the literary voice of a new nation.

Indonesia of the 1950s was a fragile construct which the centrifugal forces of ethnic, social, political, and religious rivalry as well as economic disorder threatened to tear apart. The country’s shaky financial base — World War II and the four years of resistance to Dutch attempts to reestablish hegemony over the archipelago had severely depleted the country’s resources — combined with the determination of the young nation’s first president, Soekarno, to keep the country “non-aligned,” not bound to the political doctrine of one particular foreign power, kept the nation in a state of heightened tension. The Cold War raging outside Indonesia, with the Western Imperialists marching towards a showdown with the Tyrannical Red Menace of the East, further heightened pressures at home.

Pramoedya’s populist views, at least those evident in his writings from this period, along with his sympathy for the downtrodden and his championship of “people’s power,” earned him frequent invitations to travel abroad to non-aligned and Communist countries — China, the USSR, East Germany, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, among others. At home he was often called to speak on behalf of socialist causes; in 1958 he was given an honorary seat on the governing board of Lekra, the Institute for People’s Culture, the cultural wing of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and thereafter served as one of the Institute’s unofficial spokespersons. In 1962 he also began to edit “Lentera,” the literary column of Bintang Timur, a newspaper backed by the Indonesian Nationalist Party. Even though many people assume he was a member of the PKI, he says he was not. He has written “I’ve never been a party man, never an organizational sort of person.” The only organization to which he claims ever to have belonged is Gelanggang, a short-lived association in the early 1950s of writers devoted to the cause of universal humanism.

Pramoedya considered himself to be an individualist and was forever unswerving in his refusal to be dictated by others, much less by a particular ideological or political doctrine. Another former political prisoner once remarked that D.N. Aidit, Indonesian Communist Party chairman, specifically requested that Pramoedya not apply for Party membership. 

Pramoedya’s unwavering views and his sometimes strident criticism of people whom he deemed inconsistent in their support of the populist goals of the Indonesian revolution earned him many enemies and might very well be cited as the main reason for his detention in 1965 and subsequent exile in Buru. However, five years before that time, in 1960, he was forcibly detained by the Indonesian military and imprisoned for the second time in his life for publishing what was then regarded as an overly sympathetic history of the Chinese in Indonesia—which is a subject that remains sensitive to this day.

The period of 1960 to 1965 was one of mixed fortune for Pramoedya. Though he was, by this time, one of the most well-known names in Indonesia’s literary circles — his books were being translated into numerous foreign languages and earning him critical praise abroad — fame did not translate into fortune. Domestic publishers refused to publish his works and remuneration from translation rights was negligible. Many foreign publishers didn’t even bother to ask him permission to translate and sell his books. Living from the pen, the writer was having a difficult time making ends meet; but a far worse time for him and his family was yet to come.

The spirits of havoc that had plagued Indonesia from the time of its proclamation finally merged in 1965 to start a blood bath never before seen in the nation’s history. While to this day no irreproachable chronology or analysis of this period of Indonesian history has ever been put forward, almost all historians agree that the trigger for this cataclysm was the kidnapping of six senior army officers in the late hours of September 30, 1965, and their murder in the early hours of the following day. Regardless of whether this incident represented a “coup” or a “counter-coup” and without regard to “who” tipped the first domino — right-wing military officers or left-wing PKI supporters — the unquestionable result of Gestapu or The Thirtieth of September Movement (as it is somewhat erroneously called) was the eventual downfall of President Soekarno, the emergence of a military-controlled “new order” government, the massive roundup of members and supporters or suspected supporters of the PKI and its affiliated organizations, and the extermination of as many as one million innocent people. 

The introduction to The Mute’s Soliloquy, a memoir based on letters Pramoedya wrote (but was unable to send) to his children during his time on Buru island, provides a lengthy description of what happened to Pramoedya in the aftermath of Gestapu but, in short, on the night of October 13, his home was ransacked by an anti-Communist mob; his books and papers were burned; and he himself (along with his brother, Koesalah) was taken into detention. First held at the Army Strategic Reserve Command Post (Kostrad) and then later at the Regional Military Command Post (Kodam), both located in Central Jakarta, he was stripped of all his belongings and then, too, his freedom.

Prisoners on Buru Island ©Edi CahyonoThe huge number of people who were detained following the alleged Communist Party coup presented immense logistic problems for the newly-established military regime. While the regime never pretended to make a show of caring for the prisoners under its control — it was the prisoners’ families that provided them with food and clothing; many of those without families or whose families were ignorant of their whereabouts died of neglect — it soon became apparent that if cases were to be built against all of the political prisoners, it would take years if not decades to work through the roll. A solution had to be found. Buru Island, the penal colony to which Pramoedya was later sent, was one part of that solution. Just as Indonesia’s former colonial masters, the Dutch, had once exiled Indonesia’s nationalist leaders to the far flung reaches of the archipelago, the military regime decided to send 12,000 prisoners to Buru, a virtually undeveloped island in the Moluccas. Pramoedya was on the first ship-load of prisoners to be sent there.

For the next ten years Pramoedya and his fellow prisoners developed Buru Island, opening by hand thousands of hectares of land for fields, building hundreds of kilometers of roads and waterways, constructing from the trees they themselves felled the barracks they were to call their homes.

Drought, floods, and pestilence — the very hardship of life on Buru — drove some prisoners to suicide. More succumbed from torture, and a far larger number died from what can only be called intentional neglect. 

At the age of forty-one, when Pramoedya was imprisoned, the author should have been entering the most productive period of his life. Exiled for fourteen years, that period was stolen from him. Nonetheless, despite the hunger, adversity, and constant threat of death first in Jakarta and later on Buru, he somehow managed to write and, with the help of sympathetic missionaries and visitors, smuggle from the island five historical novels, a play, and an estimated thousand pages of scattered papers.

Following more than fourteen years of imprisonment, Pramoedya returned home from Buru Island and began to put back together the pieces of his life as a writer. As writing was the only skill he knew, the only means he had to support his family, he, with the assistance of two fellow political prisoners—Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachmat—established a publishing house by the name of Hasta Mitra for the purpose of publishing the works that he had written or composed on Buru Island.

The series began in September 1980 when Hasta Mitra released Bumi Manusia – This Earth of Mankind – the first volume in Pramoedya’s “Buru Island Quartet.” The book became an Indonesian bestseller, going through five editions or approximately forty thousand copies, before it was banned in May of 1981. (In Indonesia, where literary titles usually sell no more than 4,000 or 5,000 copies, and then over a long period of time, the sales volume of this publication was remarkable indeed.)

It was not only the book and its popularity that posed problems for the authorities; it was the book’s author as well. Here was a former political prisoner who claimed to have the right to be a member of the Indonesian nation and wanted to make use of his freedom of speech. His book was an obvious first step towards the author’s social rehabilitation, the re-entry into society of a man the government had marked as a criminal. 

It took the authorities some time to define their position but, finally, on May 29, 1981, it was proclaimed that This Earth of Mankind and its sequel, Anak Semua Bangsa or Child of All Nations, which had been published some months earlier, were forbidden reading within the Republic of Indonesia. 

The ban discouraged neither the publisher nor the author and, in the second half of 1985 the third novel in the quartet, Jejak Langkah or Footsteps, appeared, followed soon thereafter by a book entitled Sang Pemula or The Pioneer, a historical study on the quartet’s real-life protagonist, Tirto Adisoerjo. 

On October 16, 1985 the publishers were told by the authorities to see to it that copies of these two publications were not further distributed, pending a study by the Attorney General’s office. That, Hasta Mitra refused to do and it took seven months before an official ban on the two books was issued in May of 1986. 

In 1988 this cat-and-mouse game between the government and Hasta Mitra was repeated once more. In June of that year Rumah Kaca or Glass House, the fourth volume in the quartet, was published and, on the basis of exactly the same considerations as the banning of Footsteps, was declared vorboden and removed from public circulation. 

For a time Hasta Mitra refrained from publishing more original work by Pramoedya. Instead, the company brought out an anthology of early-twentieth century Malay tales that Pramoedya had edited and then, later, Hikayat Siti Mariyah or The Saga of Siti Mariyah, an early if not the first Indonesian novel, dating from 1917, which Pramoedya had edited.

It seems that the appearance of Pramoedya’s name alone on the cover of a book was enough to rankle the censors for these books, too, were also banned.

The next banning of a book by Pramoedya took place in late 1994. This, in fact, was the renewal of a ban that had been placed on one of Pramoedya’s earlier works, namely Cerita dari Blora or Stories from Blora, which had been first published in 1952. Though officially banned, the book had been reprinted and copies had begun to resurface, primarily in Yogyakarta. As a result, the prosecutor’s office of Central Java took it on himself to issue a warning to bookstores that they remove all copies of the book from their shelves and to citizens who possessed a copy to turn the book into the authorities, allegedly because the book contained political messages capable of undermining the state ideology of and the 1945 Constitution.

Each case of the banning of a work by Pramoedya demonstrate that the Indonesian authorities were fearful not of Pramoedya, the author per se, but of Pramoedya the citizen, a rebel who failed to heed the government’s “party line,” and whose every publication represented a snub to the government’s perceived right to control the thoughts and minds of the nation’s citizenry.

In February 1995, Hasta Mitra next brought out the first volume of the Indonesian edition of The Mute’s Soliloquy, entitled Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu. For a number of weeks after its release the book was available in certain bookstores. Even so, the book was not an immediate bestseller and it was not until May 12 of that year, when the attorney general announced that the book was banned, that sales of the book took of.

Why was this book banned? No doubt, if seen from the perspective of the authorities, The Mute’s Soliloquy might very well have given rise to mistaken opinions about the government. For the government and the military “Buru Island” was not a prison-camp where people were indoctrinated, maltreated, and if necessary killed, but a place of rehabilitation and re-education where individuals who had been led astray by an evil ideology were shown the way of how to become good and God-fearing citizens. The Mute’s Soliloquy contradicted this view and, to put it mildly, its descriptions about the government’s methods of detention were not very edifying or flattering. Moreover, Pramoedya’s representation of facts and events before 1966 contradicted official interpretations; his words could very easily have lead to undesired discussions among those who did not fully support the New Order government. 

Secondly, the book was about Buru, the negative connotations which were slated to be erased from collective memory. But Soliloquy describes the island, in all its realistic horrors: the bogeymen are mentioned by name; their stupidities and cruelties are explicitly mentioned; their system is ridiculed. 

Another ground of the ban may have been of a more literary character. The Indonesian used by Pramoedya in Soliloquy is powerful and painful. The form in which the tales of horror, the ideas about history and culture, the recollections of senseless punishments, are presented is compelling and persuasive—and, therefore, in the government’s view, erroneous. Besides, Pramoedya was supposed to be a writer of literary prose, a writer of fiction, but here was a book, a horror story, whose great detail showed that it could not possibly have been born from a writer’s imagination alone. This was real-life history, in all its gory detail.

Last and definitely not least is that the book was not written by an anonymous or unknown author but by none other than the world-famous Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In the mythology which had been created by the New Order government, Pramoedya was supposed to be the epitome of terror and intimidation. Oh, sure, he was a widely-acclaimed author, but something had happened to him. He had become—God forbid!—a “communist.” He was a criminal who did not deserve the right to participate in the nation’s development. Simply put, this man did not have the right to challenge the authorities and if, through his statements and publications, he claimed to speak in the name of the nation, then his voice must be silenced. 

The New Order government never did succeed in silencing Pramoedya. As Soeharto’s New Order government began to weaken, Pramoedya’s fame was on the rise both at home and abroad. In 1995 Pramoedya was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award from the Philippines for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. While Pramoedya had received a number of notable prized before this time—most significantly, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 1988; the Freedom of Expression Award in 1989; and the Wertheim Award (from the Netherlands) in 1992—these prizes had been given to Pramoedya for his role as human rights activist. The Ramon Magsayay Award, on the other hand, was given to Pramoedya for his intellectual and creative talents. In Indonesia, the awarding of this prize by another ASEAN nation, caused a great deal of outcry among the authorities and even among some former Ramon Magsaysay Award winners. One of them, Mochtar Lubis, a conservative writer and one of the first recipients of the award, publicly announced that he intended to return the award.

The outcry eventually faded and, in 1998, by the time the New Order government had begun to crumble and fall, more and more awards were given to Pramoedya. In 1999 he was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Michigan; also in 1999, he received the Chancellor's Distinguished Honor Award from the University of California, Berkeley; then, in 2000, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France and the 11th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize from Japan, followed by the Norwegian Authors' Union award for his contribution to world literature and the 2004 Pablo Neruda Award from Chile in 2004.

Cited numerous times as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pramoedya never received that ultimate recognition of his literary skill. In April 2006, he was hospitalized for complications brought on by diabetes and heart disease. His years of heavy smoking and the abuse he suffered while in detention no doubt contributed to his rapidly failing health and he died on April 30 of that year at the age of 81. 

John H. McGlynn, originally from Wisconsin, U.S.A., is a long-term resident of Indonesia, having lived in Jakarta almost continually since 1976. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, with a Masters degree in Indonesian language and literature, he is the translator of several dozen publications. Through the Lontar Foundation, which he established with four Indonesian authors in 1987, he has edited, overseen the translation of, and published more than 100 titles containing literary work by more than 300 Indonesian authors. Also through the Lontar Foundation, he initiated the “On the Record” film documentation program which has thus far produced 24 films on Indonesian writers and close to 40 films on Indonesian performance traditions. As a subtitler, he has subtitled more than 100 Indonesian feature films. McGlynn is the Indonesian country editor for Manoa, a literary journal published by the University of Hawaii; the senior editor for I-Lit, an on-line journal focusing on Indonesian literature in translation; a contributing editor to Words Without Borders; and an editorial advisor for Jurnal Sastra, an Indonesian-language literary journal. He is a member of the International Commission of the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI), PEN International-New York, and the Association of Asian Studies.

A large portion of this introduction to the life and work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer was adapted from the introduction produced by this same author for The Mute’s Soliloquy, (New York: Hyperion, 1999). Additional material was taken from the introduction the author produced for All That is Gone (Hyperion, 2001). Still more information was gleaned from a paper presented by the author at a seminar devoted to the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer at Fordham University in New York in April 1999. Special thanks to my friend and colleague Henk Maier.