Commentary: Pramoedya's Brilliant 'Bumi Manusia' Should Be Celebrated More Openly

An excerpt from legendary writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer on display as part of artist Anggun Priambodo's work for Poetry of Space. (Photo courtesy of Poetry of Space)

By : Angus Nicholls | on 4:23 PM July 18, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a controversial author during the New Order period in Indonesia. His famous Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind, 1980) was composed, first orally and then in writing, when Pramoedya (1925-2006) was a political prisoner on Buru island, and it was quickly banned for its purported ‘Marxism-Leninism’ soon after publication.

From the Indonesian perspective, the novel has traditionally been seen as a social-realist work in keeping with the esthetic tendencies of the left-wing artistic organization of the post-war period in Indonesia – Lekra, founded in 1950. But when a novel attracts many readers from other nations – as is the case with Bumi Manusia – it becomes open to other interpretations that arise from those who must necessarily perceive it from outside of its original political and cultural contexts. How is this novel read from a European perspective?

In London we teach Pramoedya in our comparative literature curriculum alongside other postcolonial works and various national literatures from across Europe and the Western world. Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet of novels begins in Indonesia at the turn of the nineteenth century, and especially Bumi Manusia, its opening volume, now belongs to what the great German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe termed ‘world literature’ – literature that circulates beyond national boundaries and achieves a high level of resonance beyond its original cultural context. Outside of Indonesia Pramoedya is, without doubt, the most widely translated and the most celebrated Indonesian writer in world literary history.

As a specialist in German literature and a comparatist, I read Bumi Manusia as a complex work that combines the esthetics of an essentially European form with the very Indonesian political discourses of decolonization. For this reason I see very little evidence of it having been actively informed by ‘Marxism-Leninism.’

Instead, I read Bumi Manusia as a postcolonial Bildungsroman – a novel of individual development and education. The term Bildungsroman (Bildung meaning ‘development’, Roman meaning ‘novel’) is a form that focuses on the internal development and enlightenment of its main character. Readers familiar with European literature will know prime examples in works such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels or Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Those works center on protagonists whose naive opinions about the world are transformed by the painful experiences that they are forced to undergo when they encounter the harsh social forces that surround them.

So it is with Bumi Manusia. The novel’s hero is Minke, a young man from the Javanese nobility who receives a Dutch education at the highly prestigious HBS (Hogere Burgerschool) in Surabaya. Set in the Dutch East Indies of 1898, the novel displays an acute awareness of issues to do with language and ethnicity within a colonial society. Minke is able to switch between Javanese, Malay and Dutch, depending on the social situation in which he finds himself, and although he speaks and writes in Dutch, the language of imperialist power, he also comes to understand that his ethnic status represents an insurmountable barrier to his human rights and to his chances of social ascent within a colonial society.

Minke begins the novel believing that European education and technology represent the highest forms of human achievement, and he accordingly plans to develop his literary career by writing in Dutch. Because he so idealizes his European education, he also views his own Javanese culture as reprehensible for its feudalism. But the great educational ‘institution’ in this novel is not Minke’s HBS in Surabaya; it is a Javanese concubine named Nyai Ontosoroh. Perhaps a more fiery and socially critical version of the Indonesian nationalist Kartini, Nyai Ontosoroh urges Minke to cease writing in Dutch, and to adopt the language of nascent Indonesian nationalism, Malay, which would later become Bahasa Indonesia.

In the novel’s most crucial passage, she exclaims to Minke: “Your writings are so gentle, like the writings of a teenage girl waiting for a husband. Have you still not become hard with all your recent experiences … Uncompromisingly hard? … Now you must write in Malay, child. The Malay papers are read by many more people.”

Nyai Ontosoroh teaches Minke the most valuable of political lessons: that he can only oppose the injustices of a colonial society by writing for his own people in their lingua franca. She is one of the great female characters of world literature.

The brilliance of Bumi Manusia lies in the fact that its esthetic form perfectly mirrors its thematic content. Just as Minke moves beyond his European education by renouncing Dutch for Malay, so too does Pramoedya use a European form – the Bildungsroman – in order to make a powerful statement about Indonesian nationalism and political consciousness.

But Pramoedya’s nationalism is never narrow-minded or chauvinistic; it is an open-hearted and generous nationalism that wants to see Indonesia achieve self-determination among the world of nations. The novel is also deliberately written as a popular page-turner in order to appeal to the general Indonesian reader, and it functions seamlessly as high literature and as popular culture in a way similar to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

When I gave a lecture in Surabaya on what is possibly the greatest novel in modern Indonesian literature, I was, perhaps a little naively, surprised to discover how few of the students in front of me had actually read it. This is no doubt due to the novel’s difficult political reception during the New Order period. But now that Indonesia is a democracy and a more open society, it is time to openly celebrate this novel of pride about Indonesian nationalism and the beginnings of decolonization. Pramoedya’s generosity of spirit embraces all Indonesians, and also the world, this great earth of mankind. 

Angus Nicholls is chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London.

This article is based on a lecture delivered to the Literature Department at Dr. Soetomo University in Surabaya, on June 30. The author wishes to thank the university as well as Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara for the invitation.

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