Among the Indonesians who have made their mark on the international stage due to their skills and massive influence, there was one slender man who was the most conspicuous from his ordinary appearance, yet extraordinary achievements. The man was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a writer and journalist who had spread his opinion and even retaliation during the colonial era, when Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch and Japanese. Today, we are going to take a brief look into the man who was one of Indonesia’s greatest, not only due to his works, but his undying spirit and will for expression while also fighting for the nation’s future.
Born in Blora, 1925, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was the eldest of nine children. His father, Mastoer, was a political figure with some influence as he had been the headmaster for the Boedi Oetomo Institute. Her mother, Oemi Saidah, married Mastoer when she was just 15 years old due to family circumstances. The couple had always been encouraging Mr. Pramoedya to become a strong, independent individual. Some said that he had underwent a rough childhood from his disciplined father, who was an activist against the Dutch’s colonization.
Mr. Pramoedya’s mother died from illness when he was 17 years old, resulting in him had to break his sweat even more by selling cigarettes, tobaccos, and threads to help his father supporting a family of nine children, including himself. He had attended military groups in Java, was placed in Jakarta during the finale of the war for independence, and had been detained by the Dutch from 1947-1949. While he was being imprisoned, he wrote his first published novel, titled “The Fugitive”, a story about a platoon leader finding his fiancée after failing in a revolt against the Japanese; with various social and political criticisms. Before those years, he had worked for the Japanese News Agency during their occupation in Indonesia, in which he improved his writing.
Mr. Pramoedya kept on writing during the 1960’s, and during this period, he wrote “The Chinese in Indonesia”, a book where he criticized the discriminatory acts against Chinese Indonesians. The book was banned (before eventually being republished in 1998) after his apprehension in an abortive coupt attempt in September 1965 which resulted in the rise of Suharto’s power. Suharto alleged Mr. Pramoedya as a communist since he was the head of People’s Cultural Organisation, and organisation with ties to the Communist Party. This resulted in him being treated as a “Political Prisoner”. Mr. Pramoedya had been imprisoned for 14 years, and after that, he was under house arrest until 1992.
During the period of his imprisonment, he told the story of his famous “Buru Quartet”, a story about a man named Minke who was a nationalist leader who fought against the Dutch until independence. He did this orally to his fellow prisoners since he had been denied pen and paper, before he was granted papers and a typewriter two years prior to his release. The Buru Quartet’s first volume, “The Earth of Maknkind”, was translated to English by Max Lane, who was an Australian Diplomat during the time. Max Lane had been a student of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney and was introduced to Mr. Pramoedya by a friend of his after Mr. Pramoedya’s release from imprisonment.
Mr. Pramoedya, other than being a highly influential figure nationally by becoming a political critic and spreading messages through his writing, also had some international experiences from his cultural exchange trip to the Netherlands, Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and being involved in translations of Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy, who was known for “War and Peace”. Furthermore, he held a number of international acclaims and achievements, such as the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 1988, The Fund for Free Expression Award during 1989 in New York, Doctor Honoris Causa in 1999 from the University of Michigan, Pablo Neruda Award from Chile in 2004, as well as many more international accolades.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer breathed his last breath at the age of 81 due to diabetes complications and heart disease. The date was April 30, 2006, in Jakarta, at his family home. Indonesia has lost one of the greatest figures of all time not only nationally, but also across the globe. However, as the nature of literature is, Mr. Pramoedya’s messages, legacies, and memories live on through the oral tales of his hardships and pain, the texts beautifully stringed together in his writings, and of course, the nation’s clear independence that he was once part of.
Life can give everything to whoever tries to understand and is willing to receive new knowledge
– Pramoedya Ananta Toer