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Child of All Nations

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
May 16, 1999


INDONESIA—Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a slight man, stood absorbed in a picture-postcard panorama that greets all who enter the Department of Audiology at UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus Heights, overlooking Golden Gate Park. He watched a container ship steam slowly west. Waiting for a hearing test, he looked a few days overdue for a haircut, an unremarkable retired guy.

He is not.

Pramoedya waits at UC, hoping to have hearing restored to ears whacked too hard, too often since 1965 by the rifle butts of Indonesia's army. The visit is a detour from what is in essence a victory tour for Indonesia's most famous and most outspoken living writer, the author of more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction. He calculates more of his work has been destroyed than printed.

Jailed for almost two years as a nationalist by the Dutch colonial government, he spent 14 years in an equatorial gulag—never charged by the government of an independent Indonesia, which arrested him in 1965 (the "year of living dangerously" ) for his leftist associations.

Released from Buru Island in 1979, he remained under police surveillance and house, or city, arrest until last year, when B.J. Habibie replaced President Suharto, the man who orchestrated Pramoedya's hell on earth.

Pramoedya's lengthy prison stays served him as blindness did Homer - obstacles that became catalysts for talent. He received the P.E.N. Freedom-to-Write Award in 1988 and the Magsaysay Award (Asia's regional Nobel Prize) in 1995. Widely acknowledged as the greatest living Southeast Asian author, Pramoedya annually weathers speculation that this year he will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novels have been translated into over 20 languages.

They are all banned in Indonesia, pleasing Pramoedya: "Every book banned is another star, another badge of honor, on my breast."

Possession of his books carries a stiff prison sentence for sedition, as the government views Pramoedya with ill-disguised loathing—although it cemented his iconic position among students by branding his most famous work, the Buru Quartet as "poisonous" with the power to "create public unrest."

Pramoedya's memoirs, The Mute's Soliloquy, translated from the Indonesian by Willem Samuels (Hyperion East, 375 pages; $27.50), may well be the final dark chronicle of yet another bleak chapter in a century marked by extravagant evil.

It is Pramoedya's first work of nonfiction to be published in the United States, and, as he is 74, likely to stand as his autobiography. It describes his life before and during his Buru detention.

The latest work of Indonesia's Political Detainee No. 641 does not offer insight into the world's fourth most populous nation after China, India and the United States. Instead, it marks the triumph of one man over repression, a man on an intellectual journey.

The memoirs are fragmented, scattered. (But even a thwarted reader can take pleasure in knowing Pramoedya published the Indonesian version on his own and refused to give the government a copy for its approval. He made censors buy a copy, before they not unexpectedly banned it.) There is a lack of context, historical, political and social, which often leaves the reader unable to place Pramoedya's true role in a fragile post-colonial nation of 13,676 islands struggling to forge a national identity from a population that speaks more than 500 languages and lives in many richly different cultures.

But the final segment, "The Table of the Dead and Missing," needs no explanation. It merely lists 325 of Pramoedya's fellow mutes, their education, religion and cause of death on Buru Island in the Moluccas.

In the English language edition, the most accessible sections are letters to Pramoedya's eight children, letters he never sent.

It is here that Pramoedya sets forth his life's story for children who did not know him, while sketching, among other milestones, an unhappy first marriage: ". . . It was only after we were husband and wife that our personal character faults became all too evident. I was a person unable to either give or take orders. Your mother was a person who liked to pout."

He confesses continued bafflement at why his second wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, accepted his proposal and testifies that she kept him alive: "It's possibly my knowledge that she could survive without me that gave me that extra little bit of stamina I needed to survive those years on Buru."

In one of the curious twists that marks Pramoedya's literary life, he has provided much of the necessary context for his memoir in four earlier novels, the Buru Quartet, which he composed and transmitted orally in the Javanese tradition to his fellow prisoners on Buru, "to lift their morale."

Pramoedya's words flowed from one political prisoner to another in the showers, the only place where those in his vilified "incorrigible" unit mingled with others. When finally granted permission to write, Pramoedya recorded his saga, his fellow prisoners allocating his work among themselves and building him a room of his own for writing. Prisoners contacted after release could still recite Pramoedya's saga. Jesuits who smuggled carbon paper into the camp walked out with copies of his work.

The resulting novels cemented Pramoedya's reputation as a storyteller, and Indonesian as a language capable of contributing to the international canon. These are the books to read to understand Indonesia. The Buru Quartet is a wonderful, stay-up-late, four-volume read peopled by a huge cast of characters riding a plot as complex and twisted as modern-day Indonesian politics. Set in turn-of-the-century Indonesia in the waning years of Dutch colonialism, the Buru Quartet follows Minke, the first native Javanese boy to attend an elite Dutch colonial high school. Through "This Earth of Mankind," "Child of all Nations," "Footsteps" and "House of Glass," Pramoedya traces Minke's intellectual awakening, political battles and love affairs ( "Where there is Minke, there is always a woman. . . ." )—making the tetralogy a road map through the everyday brutalities of Dutch colonialism.

Pangemanann, the police official assigned to monitor Minke, replaces Minke as narrator in the final novel, "House of Glass." With this new voice, Pramoedya explores Indonesia in a post-colonial context and offers a vision for its future.

Since the English language publication of the final volume of Buru Quartet in 1996, Indonesia has changed profoundly, despite what Pramoedya views as continued occupation by the Army. The so-called "Asian miracle" of the past three decades forced Indonesians, and others, into a trade-off. People hesitated to demand cures for social ills during a period of economic expansion.

Pramoedya sees the student movement as Indonesia's only hope, as "They are too young to think about money."

Continued student-led demonstrations please Pramoedya, who urges his young supporters to look for inspiration at the "people power" that overturned the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Their elders' lives are corrupted by multinational capital, which attempts to influence internal affairs and government, he believes.

The real reason the Habibie government let him out may never be known. As Indonesia braces for the June 7 election, its first without a strongman measuring his margin of victory before polls open, uncertainty rules. It is possible the government did not let him go so much as some do-nothing bureaucrat did not stop him.

After several hours with Dr. Robert Sweetow, the director of audiology, Pramoedya emerges sporting two donated devices fitted by doctors donating their time.

Pramoedya nips downstairs for a clove cigarette. He hears the wind.