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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 242-244

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Book Review

The Mute's Soliloquy

The Mute's Soliloquy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Translated by Willem Samuels. New York: Hyperion, 1999. 352 pages, cloth $27.50.

On the evening of 13 October 1965, two weeks after the kidnapping and execution of six Indonesian army officers sparked unrest throughout the country, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer was in his study editing a collection of short stories written by Sukarno, then president of the Indonesian republic. Though he and Sukarno had a personal relationship, Sukarno had been unable, or unwilling, to protect Pramoedya from arrest and imprisonment in the early 1960s, when Pramoedya had published Hoakiau di Indonesia (The Chinese in Indonesia), an impassioned defense of the country's Chinese minority.

Fearful of either mob or government-sanctioned violence, Pramoedya had sent his wife and children away. Only his brother remained in the house with him when a group of angry, masked men gathered outside his home. His brother fled out the back door, but was easily captured. Pramoedya tried to reason with the mob. The police soon arrived to take him into custody "for his own safety." They handcuffed him, put a noose around his neck, and led him away. He pleaded with the police to try to save his library--an invaluable resource on Indonesian literature, history, and politics--but after they left, the mob broke into his house and burned the hundreds of bound books and manuscripts that he had accumulated over the years.

During the next fourteen years, Pramoedya was shunted from prison to prison in Jakarta and other parts of Java and finally taken to Buru, an undeveloped island where the prisoners had to sustain themselves using almost nothing but the bounty of the earth. Malaria and other diseases ran rampant. Many prisoners died--Pramoedya includes a list of "those who disappeared"--and others went insane.

Pramoedya survived. He told stories to the other prisoners at night, after work details had ended. These he later refashioned into the Buru Quartet, a masterful tetralogy based somewhat on the life of a crusading Indonesian journalist who lived around the turn of the century, when the country was a Dutch colony.

Though Pramoedya's sojourn on Buru comprises the most emotionally wrenching segments of The Mute's Soliloquy, his memoir returns again and again [End Page 242] to family life, in symphonic movements with themes, variations, and leitmotivs. Many of the passages take the form of letters to his children--epistles he thought would never be sent and certainly not read; perhaps these conjured communications helped to keep him alive, to allow him to parent despite an implacable interdiction. By outlining his childhood, which was full of failed dreams, and then counterposing advice to his children, Pramoedya paints a picture of himself as deracinated guide. He is cut off from his minions but unwilling to succumb; proud, he perseveres against all hope. Despite the silencing of his voice, he wills himself to play the role he has set out for himself.

Pramoedya was born into political involvement, and thus The Mute's Soliloquy reads like a political history of Indonesia in the twentieth century. His father was a teacher in Budi Utomo, an indigenous movement to educate Indonesians founded in 1908 and reminiscent of similar "autonomy through education" attempts in the English colony of India and the Spanish Philippines. This focus on national autonomy marked Pramoedya at a young age. Despite his father's emphasis on education, however, he was somewhat thick when it came to academics. He was unable to learn Dutch with any proficiency, a startling drawback. Even when he began to move beyond his linguistic shortcomings, he barely passed his courses as a radio technician, earning a second-class status, which enabled him to work but not at the top of his profession. Ironically, the Japanese invasion and occupation of Indonesia would give him an "opportunity" that he would seize and that would govern the next fifty years of his life.

As an office worker for a Japanese magazine in Jakarta, Pramoedya began to write. First...


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