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Below is Joeseof Isak's sppechon September 29 on Pramoedya Ananta Toer. It is taken from http://ubudwritersfestival.warplet.com/2006/09/30/remembering-pramoedya-ananta-toer/ You will find other trbutes to pramoedya delivered at Ubud on this site.

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I am very pleased indeed to be able to participate in this conference which commemorates Pramoedya Ananta Toer who passed away this year at the end of April. As Pramoedya’s editor and publisher during Suharto’s administration – along with my late colleague Hasyim Rachman – I consider it an honour and duty to add my modest contribution to this commemoration of Pramoedya. Such a gathering years ago would have subjected us all to arrest and imprisonment.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind and the three sequels to that novel, now known as the “Buru Quartet” is recognized as the pre-eminent literary work of modern Indonesia. But what is never mentioned is that these works are fundamentally representative of Soekarno’s Indonesia, the Indonesia created before 1965 and not the Indonesia of the last 40 years. Not only are they not a product of Suharto’s Indonesia, they are not a product of the resistance to Suharto, either. It was the publication of Pramoedya’s Buru Prison novels written during his long detention which significantly contributed to the resistance to Soeharto’s arbitrary power. Nevertheless the cultural resistance to Soeharto did produce important literary works, such as Rendra’s poems of the 1970s and the later poems of Wiji Thukul. However, the conception and writing of Pram’s novels, their very creation, was entirely a product of Soekarno’s Indonesia. The fact that Pramoedya’s work is an artistic product of Soekarno’s era and represents Indonesia in world literature today, has been a literary and spiritual inspiration for many of contemporary Indonesia’s younger generation of activists, underlining the superiority of cultural and political life in Soekarno’s Indonesia over Soeharto’s Indonesia.

Here in Indonesia, there has been a steady and consistent build up of Pramoedya’s readership since Bumi Manusia was published in 1981. Since the fall of Suharto, Pramoedya’s books are now available in all the major bookshops – despite the fact they are still officially banned. There are now email lists of Pramoedya readers; a Bumi Manusia foundation; a Pramoedya Institute. At his burial, even an Indonesian government minister turned up and stated the government would give Pram recognition. For me, it is quite a puzzle about how to do that while all Pramoedya’s books are still officially banned and not taught in Indonesian schools.
Nobody would deny that since 1981, there has been no other serious literary work that have won the same recognition, the same literary acclaim or same national cultural status. There have been other interesting novels – the popular Saman of Ayu Utami just to mention one – is on the foreground, and I am sure there are still many others yet. I think among young Indonesian writers there are now the signs of a blossoming about to take place. I am not referring to the cosmopolitanism novels that have received recent attention in the media. But the writing done by young people trying to get to the reality experienced by the 200 plus million people living outside the cosmopolitanised real Indonesia which is still fragmented and developing. The signs are there, but it has yet to fully bloom.

Pramoedya and his works represent the cultural and literary heights of the last 25 years. Those peaks – his Buru Prison novels, including Arok Dedes and Arus Balik – are actually writings that would be very accessible, very readable, to all literate Indonesian people if the publishing industry and education system were free enough to make the books available. This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, Glass of House, Arok Dedes, and The Current Reverses are the creations of a human being whose mind and soul is a product of a struggle, the struggle to complete the Indonesian revolution, a product of Soekarno’s Indonesia. Pramoedya’s novels are the creation of the mind and soul of a different, pre-New Order Indonesia. Many of the ideas and even sketches of the characters in these novels are to be found in the columns that Pramoedya wrote in the “Bintang Timur” newspaper long before 1965. And Pramoedya even wrote these novels on Buru Island, separated and alienated from the day-to-day reality of New Order Indonesian society, except insofar as brutality, constant imprisonment and concentration camps captured its essence.

Most of you have read the This Earth of Mankind novels, either in Indonesian or in translation. There have been many reviews and I am sure you all have views of your own about what you like or don’t like about his novels. For me, Pramoedya’s greatest achievements are in his short stories and, most especially, the novels he wrote on Buru. These are not just great examples of an enthralling method of story telling, giving you the sensation almost that you are ‘reading’ a film or movie. Nor is it that so many of the characters vividly come to life causing the reader to take the side of one over another. Nor is it simply that Pramoedya is able to describe superbly a different historical epoch.

All this is true of course, and is part of his strength. It is those aspects which are a result of him being a product of Soekarno’s Indonesia that give his works universal appeal, attracting readers in America, Australia, Japan and Europe, a world away from the terrible reality of Indonesia’s 200 million people scraping by on $1 per day.
Pramoedya’s historical novels are revolutionary. Built on the deep humanism that is so evident in his work from the 1950s, Pramoedya’s immersion into the study of Indonesian history in the 1950s and 60s obviously revolutionized his consciousness. This was not academic study of history but a study driven by Maxim Gorky’s exhortation: “The people must know their history! ”

Without the Rakyat, the people, knowing their own history they could not advance the historical process they were carrying out: the Indonesian revolution, the creation and consolidation of an Indonesian nation, where the people were sovereign, independent, not an alienated and cosmopolitanised elite. This deep sense of the people’s history, built on research and study, infused his novels with a sense of motion, of intertwined causes and effects and a reality still to be finally formed that inject that extra stream of energy into his novels. As we can see clearly, history itself becomes a lead character alongside Nyai Ontosoroh, Minke, and all the others.

This also explains the appeal of these novels overseas, especially in the United States, where quite many have become fanatical readers of these novels. The social and political values of the novels are those of humanism, liberty, equality and fraternity. These were the very values of the great revolutions of America and Europe, and where they still linger in the spirit of Americans or Europeans, people will be drawn to the novels.

These were the values of Soekarno’s Indonesia also – as Pramoedya himself put it, “the period of Soekarno’s Indonesia was a period of struggle to complete the unfinished revolution”. Until this struggle is resurrected, my country’s full cultural potential will not be realized. Pramoedya’s Buru novels fought this.

They brought Indonesia to life, for Indonesians who were able to read the novels and for foreigners who were introduced to Indonesia via Pramoedya’s works. They gave back to Indonesians their history – their real history, not the falsified history created in the History Center of the Armed Forces and then taught in the schools and universities.

Moreover our history was revealed as a history of struggle and rebellion, of humanity, of questioning and ideas. What an anti-thesis to the New Order’s cultural values: blind obedience, don’t question, learn by rote a history made up of lies, and above all else, don’t think for yourself.

Into this cultural desert, after coming out of the concentration camp of Buru Island, Pramoedya’s works appeared as an oasis at which many Indonesians, especially young Indonesians started to refresh themselves. It was created at some cost. After being imprisoned in Salemba jail, Jakarta, from 1968 until 1977, I was again jailed for 4 months, along with my son, for inviting Pramoedya to speak at the University of Indonesia. My son and three other students were expelled from the University of Indonesia. The books were banned again and again, making it commercially impossible for our publishing company to grow. The repressive apparatus was constantly on our backs. But a nation, especially a nation whose revolution is not yet finished, cannot survive off a single oasis. The energy giving sustenance that can come from reading these novels needs to be available to more people: to children, young people, and a new generation of writers, thinkers and cultural activists. To go from a desert in which there is one or two oasis, to go to places where culture flourishes everywhere, a nation will need many things to happen, in politics, and in the struggle for individual rights and for social justice.

There are some specific struggles that directly relate to Pramoedya and his writings that I appeal for everybody, here in Indonesia and overseas, to understand. This is about the banning of all Pramoedya’s works which untill this very moment are not lifted yet. This horrible stupidity must end. But even more terrible is that young Indonesians are still being deprived. Literature is not being taught seriously in Indonesian schools, and – of course – Pramoedya’s works are not being studied at all. In fact, in Indonesian state highschools there are no critical studies of Indonesian national literature. No reading of the texts, studying how to critique plot, character and ideas. This is really sad. For Pram, and for me also, this is a crime.

Young Indonesians get an education, which deprives them of exposure to the whole process of the creation of their own country as revealed in novels, short stories, plays and poetry. From the first Malay language stories of the turn of the 20th century – those first stories of modern society, through the works of the anti-colonial period, of revolution itself, of the discovery of independence, of the realization that independence itself was not the total solution, Pramoedya’s novels of rediscovery of our history, all these are absent from the schools. Parallel with this is the reality that the old, falsified and rote education about the history of the New Order is still being taught.

We need a new cultural movement in our country, a movement to win back our literature and history for our people, as the foundation for what can be a resurgence in cultural life. Such a resurgence can only occur as a part of grappling the full Indonesian reality. There can be no cultural resurgence based only on the experience of the one-percent of cosmopolitanised Indonesians.

Such a movement actually began in 1981 when Hasta Mitra published Pramoedya’s works. But as you know, its progress was slowed down by the repression of the dictatorship. Now it is not repression that slows it down. It needs young people to take up these issues and make sure that our cultural resurgence does happen.

These issues will soon be given a boost. I was informed that an Indonesian film producer has bought the film rights to Bumi Manusia. Hopefully this will boost awareness of Pramoedya’s works. A theatrical adaptation focussing on the character of Nyai Ontosoroh, will be performed on stage in Jakarta and other cities throughout Indonesia. Another foreign film-maker has written a film script based on the story of how Pramoedya created the novels on Buru Island and how in defiance of the dictatorship, Hasta Mitra published all the frightful quote unquote Marxist-Leninist books of Pramoedya.

And of course your presence here, in fact more over this conference itself, will be a great contribution to propel the process of our cultural resurgence. But more still needs to be done, culturally and politically.

There are now many young people writing in many magazines around the country, stories and novels, and also on many blogs. Some of these new writers have already started to make a mark. I know some are present here at Ubud. I do not get a chance to read them all. I do not know which of them will be the Pramoedya’s of the post-Soeharto era, but I am sure they will emerge and be a part of a new Cultural Revolution here.

Once again please allow me to thank the organisers for providing this opportunity for me to speak. I hope we all continue to remember Pramoedya: by reading his works; by making sure others read them and by following in his footsteps making literature a tool of beauty and human liberation.



A small remark, I believe I am the one and only participant in this distinguish conference which is not a writer. I use to be a journalist and the discourse you just heard is in fact a jounalistic account.

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