Review: The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

By Anton McCabe in Socialist View Spring 2001

THE NOVEL as a form was developed in Europe with the rise of the capitalist class. However, most of the world is not white European. As a form, it has exported, and can tell us a great deal about the rest of the world.

The Buru Quartet by the Indonesian revolutionary Pramoedya Ananta Toer is one of the great achievements of world literature. The four books - This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass are set in the early years of the last century, as revolt was stirring against the Dutch colonial rulers of what was then the Dutch East Indies.

The conditions under which the quartet was written make it even more extraordinary. Toer was arrested in 1965 during a right-wing coup, when up to 1.5 million people were slaughtered. During his arrest, he was struck on the head with the butt of a rifle. This blow has left him deaf. He was not freed until 1979. He was sympathetic to, but not a member of, the Communist Party, PKI. The Indonesian military regime feared words and ideas. On his arrest, Toer's manuscripts were destroyed, some deliberately, some by a mob. The conditions under which the Buru Quartet was composed are a tribute to the resilience of man. Buru is a remote jungle-covered island. Even a prisoner escaping from the prison camp had no chance of getting off the island. Toer watched guards murder fellow-prisoners for sport.

Toer composed the Buru Quartet verbally, as a serial he told to fellow-prisoners every day to keep their morale up. Only in the last ten years of his confinement did he have access to pen and paper. On release, he re-assembled the stories in his head and wrote them down. Even then, his work could not be published in Indonesia. For twenty years he was confined to Jakarta, the country's capital. Prison has played a big part in Toer's life. From 1947 to 1949 he was imprisoned by the Dutch colonial authorities for his part in the anti-colonial revolt.

The first three books - This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations and Footsteps had at their centre Minke, a young radical nationalist leader. Jacques Pangemanann, the central character of House of Glass, is a policeman working for the Dutch colonial authorities. Part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, he has risen as high as a non-European can go in the police force. He is married to a white Frenchwoman.

He is 50, and in a privileged position. A big theme in House of Glass is how revolutionary ideas are attractive, and can win over the most unexpected recruits. Pangemanann is sent to spy on Minke: but he sympathizes with him. The policeman feels disgusted at his role - but is caught by his need to provide for his wife and children. That conflict at the heart of him makes this a most memorable novel.

Toer is now an open member of the PRD, the main socialist party in Indonesia. Though Marxists would have differences with its programme, it is a party of self-sacrificing revolutionaries, and sees itself as having broken with Stalinism.

The entire Buru Quartet is available in Penguin.

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