Sunday, 12 June 2011

This Earth of Mankind

Source: Nobelang Atisan
Some authors are known for their tendency to put their characters through hell. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, I suspect, is one of them.

The Buru Quartet is considered to be one of Pramoedya's most well-known work. The four book series consists of This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia), A Child of All Nations (Anak Semua Bangsa), Footsteps (Jejak Langkah), and House of Glass (Rumah Kaca). Initially banned by the Indonesian government for propagating communism thoughts— an allegation that turned out to be entirely false— the books have been translated into many languages and have been critically praised for its boldness in exploring the intricate web of native-colonial relations.

Pramoedya himself had went through a hell of sorts. Buru Island was the place of Pramoedya's incarceration, and the books were originally told to his fellow inmates before later recollected in writing after Pramoedya was released. The prison prohibited any text whatever. According to Max Lane, the translator of the Buru Quartet, an inmate was taken away by the prison's authority because he was to found to possess a small piece of newspaper that was used to wrap some nails. His body was found floating in a nearby river a few days later.

My Buru Quartet journey began with its ending. House of Glass was a cat-and-mouse tale between a native-born colonial police officer and the figures of Indonesia's native liberation movement. One of them of the Dutch-educated Raden Mas Minke, the novels' most central charater. Minke's final fate was an ill one, a fate that could befallen upon the many who fought and died in the struggle for liberation. For every few names remembered in the history tomes, thousands are still buried in obscurity, doomed to be forgotten.

But Minke had a life, a beginning, and This Earth of Mankind is that beginning. We meet young Minke as young man, a promising native-born student at a Dutch school, the son of a Bupati (native officials in the Dutch administration). Minke was on the path to become somebody.

And that path would lead him to Nyai Ontosoroh. During an expected visit to home of businessman Robert Mellema, Minke becomes acquainted with the most cultured and intellegent native woman he ever met, someone so rare she is almost mythical; the self-educated native businesswoman. She would have been the jewel of her society if were not for one reason. Nyai Ontosoroh is not the legal wife of Mr. Mellama despite being the mother to their two children, Robert Jr. and Annelies.

Minke falls for Annelies as instantly as Robert Jr. despises Minke for winning the heart of his mother and sister. Annelies is fragile strand that holds the story together. Her naivete and exuberance are direct opposite of her mother's character, the indomitable manager whose fate were sealed when as a young girl she was sold by her parents to Robert Mellema. Annelies embraces her mixed heritage which similarly makes her what her brother is not; the self-loathing native-born Dutch. The family's patriach, Mr. Mellema, was first introduced as a man who is reduced to a shell of his former self.

The Mellema family continues to shape Minke's view of the future. In Nyai Ontosoroh, he sees the hope that education can bring. Before Mr. Mellema succumbed to frequenting a nearby brothel, he taught Nyai Ontosoroh all he could. He even admits that Nyai Ontosoroh was more educated than the average Dutch woman in the Netherlands. Nyai Ontosoroh tries to do the same for her daughter by getting her to be actively involved in the family business. Meanwhile, Robert's retaliatory behaviours constantly widens the gulf between him and both his mother and sister.

Towards the end, Minke becomes embroiled in a series of shocking events involving the Mellema family, including him getting married to Annelies. The young couple's happiness was cut short by the intervention of Dutch administration on the grounds that Annelies is underage. At this point it seems that Minke is destined for a difficult life, and thinking about his twilight days on earth in House of Glass really got to me.

To say that I thoroughly enjoyed the two books in this tetralogy so far would sound as if I enjoy seeing Minke and the other characters suffer, being oppressed and subjugated. The truth however is I am both appreciative of and shaken by the realism that Pramoedya conveys.
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