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  • Pramoedya’s Fiction and History: An Interview With Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta ToerJanuary 16, 1995, Jakarta, Indonesia
  • Chris GoGwilt (bio)

A Note On Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s leading prose writer, was born in Blora, Java in 1925, and lives now in Jakarta under city arrest. Pramoedya’s renown as a fiction-writer was established in the years following Indonesian independence. The Fugitive, about the resistance against Japanese occupation in 1945, was written during imprisonment under the Dutch between 1947 and 1949. From 1950 to 1965, Pramoedya played an increasingly important role in Indonesian literature. In 1958 he became a member of Lekra, the Institute of People’s Culture, which championed the radical nationalist ideals of the 1945 revolution. In the first half of the 1960s, he was editor of Lentera (Lantern, 1962–65), the weekly section on cultural issues in the left-wing semi-tabloid Bintang Timur (Eastern Star), where he published many articles on turn-of-the-century Indo nesian history and reprinted the work of the forerunners of Indonesian fiction and journalism. He was lecturer of Indonesian language and literature at the University of Res Publica (founded by the Chinese-Indonesian organization Baperki). He also taught at the “Dr. Abdul Rivai” Academy for Journalism, and was a founder of the “Multatuli” Literature Academy, also in Jakarta.

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Figure 1.

In October 1965, Pramoedya was arrested during the events that unleashed mass execution, massive repression, and created, with the toppling of Sukarno, the current “New Order” under President Suharto. Pramoedya’s work was banned and his unpublished writings, personal archives, and research materials were confiscated and either destroyed or lost. Between 1965 and 1979 he was imprisoned and, from 1969, exiled to the infamous Buru island prison camp. In Buru, Pramoedya reconstructed the historical work he had conducted before imprisonment on turn-of-the-century Indonesia and the emergence of anti colonial mass movements to resist Dutch colonial rule. The story which Pramoedya began reciting orally to his fellow prison-mates shaped the Buru tetralogy: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of [End Page 147] Glass. In 1980, after Pramoedya’s release from prison, the first two books were published and became instant bestsellers. Both were soon banned, as were Footsteps (1985) and House of Glass (1988). The Buru tetralogy, in underground circulation in Indonesia, will be available in its entirety in the United States in early 1996. In this interview, Pramoedya challenges the government to bring him to trial on the charge that the Buru tetralogy covertly spreads Commu nism, Marxism, and Leninism, the official rationale for banning the books.

In 1992, using the occasion of Human Rights Day (December 10) to speak out against the regime’s abuse of human rights and its violence against demonstrations in East Timor, Pramoedya announced he would no longer [End Page 148] report to the Indonesian Government, part of the terms of his city arrest. The government has not lifted its restrictions on Pramoedya’s freedom of movement and freedom of speech. In 1988 he received the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award. Most recently, in August 1995, he received the Wertheim Award, from the Netherlands, and, from the Philippines, the prestigious Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature, and creative communication arts. Pramoedya’s fiction has been translated into 24 languages.

About the Interview

The organizing principle for presenting the questions posed in the interview was to provide a general sense of Pramoedya’s work for readers of the English translation of the Buru tetralogy. These novels, in some respects, need no introduction. Pramoedya’s power as storyteller makes their setting, turn-of-the- century Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule, the historical scene for a reading of the present. It is, moreover, as much world history as it is the history of Indonesia that these novels re-imagine.

Yet the imaginative power with which the tetralogy presents the historical past is deeply shaped by an absent, unrepresented history: the bloody events of 1965–66, when the revolutionary nationalism of Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto’s military-backed regime. Officially, Pramoedya’s voice has been silenced in “New...

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pp. 147-164
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Ceased Publication
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