Set at the turn of the century in the waning days of Dutch colonial rule, This Earth of Mankind is the first of the four books that comprise Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. A powerful story of oppression, injustice, and one young man’s political, emotional, and intellectual awakening. Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote This Earth of Mankind while confined on the prison island of Buru, where prisoners did hard labor, clearing jungle with the crudest tools, and suffered starvation diets, beatings, and torture. Much of Pramoedya’s work has in fact been written under such circumstances. “I happen to be pretty productive when I am in jail,” he has said. “When you are in jail, you have to spend more time with yourself.”
The narrator of This Earth of Mankind is Minke, the first native Javanese boy to attend an elite Dutch colonial high school. A brilliant student, descendant of Javanese royalty, and an acutely sensitive observer of the complex and dangerous world around him, Minke’s life is disrupted when he is invited to live with a highly unconventional family. Here Minke meets an extraordinary cast of characters who will force him to confront the entrenched antagonisms of a society built upon racial and gender oppression. The household is headed by Nyai Ontosoroh, a native concubine who runs the family’s dairy business, and her half-European children, the beautiful Annalies and the treacherous Robert. Minke falls in love with Annalies, arouses the murderous hatred of Robert, and through his relationship with Nyai takes his first steps on the path that will lead him to become an outspoken opponent of Dutch colonial rule.
Minke and Nyai are both proud, highly educated, strong-willed individuals, who refuse to accept the hierarchy that parcels out freedom and power according to the amount of European blood running through one’s veins. In developing the novel primarily through the consciousness of these two characters and their confrontations with injustice, Pramoedya casts a stark light on the hypocrisy of European civilization. Nyai, though a concubine with no legal rights over her children or the business she has made successful, emanates a moral authority unmatched in the novel. And Minke, though his native limitations are regarded as self-evident to many Europeans, proves through his writings and his behavior that he is the equal of anyone.
When Nyai discovers that Minke wants to be a writer, she tells him to “Write always about humanity, humanity’s life, not humanity’s death. Yes, whether it’s animals, ogres, gods, or ghosts that you present, there’s nothing more difficult to understand than humanity. That’s why there is no end to the telling of stories on this earth. This Earth of Mankind is one such story. An unflinching portrayal of both the suffering caused by colonialism and of human dignity trampled upon, it is also a story of a valient struggle for freedom. It is one of the most compelling political novels of the twentieth century, and an unforgettable attempt to understand humanity in all its complexity.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (whose name means “first in the fray”) was born on the island of Java in 1925, the eldest child of a prominent headmaster. In 1945, he took part in Indonesia’s revolt against Dutch rule, and in 1947 he was jailed for two years for carrying anti-Dutch documents. While in prison, he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive, about the struggle against colonialism, which established his reputation and launched an extraordinary literary career. From 1950 to 1965, Pramoedya played an increasingly important role in Indonesian intellectual life. First as a member of Lekra, the Institute of People’s Culture, and later as editor of Lentera (Lantern), the cultural section of the leftist paper Bintang Timur (Eastern Star), Pramoedya advocated a new socially conscious Indonesian literature. He was also one of the founders of the “Multatuli” Literature Academy and a Teacher at the “Dr. Abdul Rivai” Academy for Journalism in Jakarta. Arrested during the Indonesian government’s massive repression of 1965, Pramoedya was held as a political prisoner until 1979, spending the last ten years on the brutal Buru prison island, where he composed the Buru Quartet, of which This Earth of Mankind is the first novel.
Pramoedya is the author of thirty works of fiction and nonfiction and has been translated into twenty languages. He received the PEN Freedom-to-write Award in 1988 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995. Until 1998 he remained under city arrest in Jakarta where his books are still banned and selling them is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
In This Earth of Mankind, one of your characters says, “Without a love of literature, you’ll remain just a lot of clever animals.” Where did your love of literature come from?
I couldn’t do anything else, apart from writing.
Ever since you were a boy?
At first I had no inclination to write. But I failed in trying to do other jobs, so I decided to become a writer.
How did you manage to write your quartet while in prison?
Before I got permission, I had to do it behind their backs. For a long time, I was not permitted to write, so I had to do it orally. From 1971 until mid-1973, we were not allowed to socialize with the others. During mass executions of political prisoners, in the isolation cell I told the stories to my friends. During official ceremonies, my fellow isolated friends told the stories to other friends who were not being isolated, and that’s how they were spread.
How did you convey such a long and involved story orally?
Only the general outlines were orally transmitted. The details had to be written down later, when paper was available.
Minke, the hero of your quartet, is a journalist, and you, for a time, were a journalist, too. Did you become a journalist as a way to fight for Indonesian independence?
No, when I was a teenager, I had to find a job. And journalism was the one open to me.
But you soon began to realize the power of the word?
Yes, the power of the word. Even though no one admits it, writers are leaders in their communities. And Indonesia, especially, needs writers who can reach the people evenly, regardless of class or station.
But you have a character in your quartet warn Minke “to be a writer, and not a speechmaker.” Are you making the point that speechifying gets in the way of art?
I chose to write, and not to make speeches, though I did make some speeches before I was imprisoned. But writing is still writing. And it depends on the quality of the writing itself whether someone is creating art or not.
In Child of All Nations, Minke’s mentor also says, “A good author, Mr. Minke, should be able to provide his readers with some joy, not a false joy, but some faith that life is beautiful.” What did you mean by that?
I don’t know; I never reread my own writing.
Why is that?
If I reread it, I’ll keep rewriting it, and it’ll never be finished.
But were you advising yourself to provide joy in your own writing?
No, no. This is about Minke; it is different for myself.
But surely as a writer, you must think it’s important to provide some joy, some faith?
I don’t write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.
I’ve got to ask you the obvious question about your quartet: Why did you remove Minke as the narrator of your fourth installment, House of Glass, just as he enters confinement?
Because, practically, Minke’s life story has already finished. The fourth book is about how power defeats Minke–colonial power. His life doesn’t continue. If there is a continuation, then the continuation is with the history of independence. And that process of continuation is in the hands of others.
Near the end of House of Glass, Minke’s guard writes up a release form for him to sign, which says that Minke forswears future involvement in politics and organizing. Minke rejects the offer with an eloquent speech. Is this scene at all autobiographical?
With me, I did sign it. But in the letter of release it mentioned that it was not legally proven that I was involved in the Indonesian Communist Party.
Minke, in This Earth of Mankind, says, “Maybe one day I could become a great writer like Hugo.” Now you are like an Indonesian Hugo. Are you comfortable in that role?
I feel I am in the place that I have chosen for myself my whole life. I feel it’s more appropriate for me to be where I am today than to be a member of parliament or a minister or president.
You’re often mentioned as someone who is likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Is that important to you?
Every award for me is important because it means a slap against militarism and fascism in Indonesia.