Seminar on Pramoedya AnantaToer’s Novels and Their Political Significance Today

This seminar discusses the reasons behind their increased popularity among contemporary Indonesian youths, and the connections with the ongoing and intensifying polemics over Indonesian history in general. 

13 November 2017 – During Sukarno’s period, Pramoedya was jailed for publishing a book (Hoakiau in Indonesia) that spoke against racism against the Chinese. During Suharto’s period, he was jailed for being closely associated with the left. In 1980s, after his release, with his fellow former political prisoners, Joesoef Isak and Hasjim Rachman, they published Pramoedya’s famous Buru Quartet: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass. Despite the bans imposed during the New Order, these books were widely circulated and read, especially amongst university students.

This seminar discusses the reasons behind their increased popularity among contemporary Indonesian youths, and the connections with the ongoing and intensifying polemics over Indonesian history in general. The seminar was presented by Dr Max Lane, Senior Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a Visiting Lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gajah Mada University. He has published widely: Indonesia and Not, Poems and Otherwise: Anecdotes Scattered (Djaman Baroe, 2016), Decentralization and Discontents: An Essay on Class, Political Agency and National Perspective in Indonesian Politics (ISEAS 2014); Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto (Verso 2008, 2017); and Catastrophe in Indonesia (Seagull/University of Chicago 2010), among others. He is the translator of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, and his most recent book, Indonesia Tidak Hadir di Bumi Manusia: Pramoedya, Sejarah dan Politik (2017) – [Indonesia is Not Present on This Earth of Mankind: Pramoedya, History and Politics] is now into its second printing.

From Left to Right: Dr Siwage Dharma Negara and Dr Max Lane. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Lane started by introducing how Pramoedya, through the Buru Quartet, built the grand narrative of the creation of Indonesia. He also highlighted the political context of 1980s, when the prisoners were released from the Buru Island. The act of publishing in itself is an act of political defiance. This was also a few years after the clamping down of the student movement in 1978 — which had forced many self-introspection within the student movement about their failure. Despite the explicit political reference, “Roman Karya Pulau Buru (Buru Island Novel”, the initial reception from mainstream presses such as Kompas and the government, was positive. Then Vice-President Adam Malik even invited the three of them, and recommended the books to be compulsory reading for all students in high schools. The books, however, were later banned for allegedly containing disguised and unidentifiable Marxist-Leninist teachings.

Fast forward to 2010s, these books can be found around the country, sold freely in many major bookshops, while pirated versions abound in the small book kiosks. In relation to the increased interest in reading in general, there seems to be a resurging interests in in Pramoedya’s historical novels, especially among Indonesian youth. What is it in all this book that illicit the responses in contemporary young Indonesians?

Dr Max Lane, delivering an engaging introduction of how Pramoedya built the grand narrative of the creation of Indonesia. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Lane dissected this question by first showing how the Buru Quartet is about the awakening of Indonesia. Interestingly, throughout the quartet, there was no word of Indonesia being used. In other words, Indonesia was not yet in existence. Pramoedya also consciously chose to use the first person in telling the story — bringing a voice from within the time period of early 20th century. This brings the message: “Don’t forget, at one point, not too long ago, there was no such thing as Indonesia. Not in anybody’s brain, and not in reality. There was no such thing as an Indonesian — no such thing in this earth of mankind. There was Javanese, Bugis, Chinese, but no Indonesian. If it did not exist, then it must have been created.”

However, Dr Lane also reminded that the creation of Indonesia is not merely an issue of identity, but of cultural revolution, materiality, and values. The origins of nations lie in the experienced community, bringing various types of individuals in relation to different classes. From the colonial capitalists, the peasant girl that became the colonial concubine and successful capitalist (Nyai Ontosoroh), the aristocracy and its traitor (Minke, modeled after the pioneering journalist, Tirto Adisoerjo), colonial journalist and intellectuals, etc.

Dr Lane underlined how the Quartet also demonstrated the agency in nation creation, the relation between individuals and different types of classes and castes. Minke is an example of a priyayi moving towards traders (waisya), and Pramoedya had also written Sang Pemula, the non-fiction book on Tirto Adisoerjo, to complement the Quartet. Dr Lane argued that Pramoedya ultimately also tried to explain the failure of this generation of entrepreneurs: they might be pioneers, but they failed in completing what they had started. In the third and the fourth volume of the Quartet, Pramoedya showed where the batons were being passed: Haji Misbach, Marco, Semaun, who were all apprenticed under Minke, but with a new, more confrontational consciousness. Minke, on the other hand, often chose to work within the system. Mass media (particularly newspaper) and organisations appear as constant themes in the agency of change in the earlier period.

Dr Siwage Dharma Negara and Dr Max Lane during the presentation. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Thus in 1980s, and even now, the political impact of the novels are in bringing real exhalaration of finding Indonesia, of discovering its creation amidst complex social reality. The quartet also brings rediscovery of class struggle, recognising agency, and the unravelling of anti-communist taboos. It also brings the contradiction of Enlightenment. History becomes accessible as a tool of struggle. Books played a pioneering role, catalysing radicalisation and arrests.

However, there are major limitations in Pramoedya’s works: Pramoedya might be a genius in understanding earlier period of history, but he made no comprehensive critique of his own generation (1920s or after). This is to a large extent attributed to the break caused by the 1965-66 tragedy, that imposed severe constraints in investigating the histories after.

Recent events have shown more accelerating cracks in the dam wall of 1965-66 though. There has been a long vacuum in the systematic state drive of New Order’s old propaganda. Throughout, there has been continuous resistance by survivors and civil rights activists and artists. The past couple of years have also witnessed the International People’s Tribunal on the 1965-66 killings in Den Haag, the organising of the state-sponsored seminar, the releases of declassified US archives, and two new important books by Geoffrey Robinson and Jess Melvin coming next year. While there has been a recent attack by the FPI on the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, it also brought about interesting aftereffect: more people from oppositional camps (such as the military hardliner Kivlan Zen, the daughter of Sukarno, the son of Aidit) were brought together to debate what was previously taboo in mainstream television. There is undeniably increased erosion of the taboo around the official narratives regarding the massacres that have been grossly falsified for more than three decades.

On the question about the need for autocritic among the Indonesian left, and Pramoedya’s own shifting position, Dr Lane said that indeed, Pramoedya’s polemics against his literary opponents were often very harsh. In hindsight, one of the main blunders of the Indonesian Communist Party was its strong support for Sukarno’s anti-democratic moves, such as the banning of Masjumi, the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI).

More and more, contemporary Indonesians began questioning their histories, the authenticity of official narratives, and Pramoedya’s novels bring narratives that make their histories meaningful. Unfortunately, none of existing political parties or institutions have invested in re-knowing history or re-winning early nationalist values. Indonesia is unique to be perhaps the only major country in the world that does not teach literature in schools. Instead, Indonesian students are taught to memorise names, dates, and grammars, but the national curriculum does not assign the discussion on world or Indonesian literature. At the same time, there is a growing sense, especially among civil society outside of formal education, that for too long the society has been deliberately kept ignorant.

The audience listening with much interest. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The state has not been proactive either in creating solutions, or proposing anything new. Instead, the concept of “Pancasila” is uncritically recycled and weakly formulated, without strong social organisations, merely as a defense against Islamist turn. Looking at the balance of forces, the Pancasilaist supporters might have the current government behind them, but the Islamists are much ahead in terms of social organising. There is no formal, structural shift in academic spheres, and efforts to investigate histories and question official narratives are often driven by individuals.

Another audience asked the question of the role of Islam. Dr Lane responded that at the present time, among young people, there are two main currents. A smaller current started questioning histories. The other Islamist current, no longer questions, but is largely convinced in their faith. How these two currents will evolve in the next few years, we will have to see.

You may view a video coverage of the first 30 minutes of the seminar here.