Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the most important Southeast Asian novelist and prominent Indonesian dissident, died in Jakarta in the morning of April 30.
“Look what Indonesia did to me, after all that I have done for Indonesia!” These were the words with which Pramoedya Ananta Toer – one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century – concluded long conversations with me and Rossie Indira; conversations recently published in English as “Exile” and in Bahasa Indonesia as “Saya Terbakar Amarah Sendirian”, his last book and final testimony.
Pram’s (Pram is how he is known and called in his country) Indonesia died more than four decades ago, crushed by the military boot of Suharto’s regime, disintegrated under weight of savage, merciless and corrupt capitalist system, squashed by irrational religious zeal. “I live in internal exile”, he said. “This is not my country, anymore. It’s not what I fought for, not what I wanted to build”.
Since the independence, Pram’s was the lonely voice of courage and honesty. He was incarcerated during Sukarno’s guided democracy for defending rights of the Chinese minority. After the fascist, US-backed military coup in 1965 his manuscripts were burned and his work banned. He himself was arrested and thrown to prisons and then to Buru concentration camp, becoming a prisoner of conscience for 14 years. “They kept repeating that I was a Communist which was not correct: I am Pramist, I have my own philosophy.”
The answer to the madness outside his prison cells was to write; to produce some of the most powerful prose in the history of Asian letters. The most important Indonesian narrative – “The Buru Quartet” – was born on Buru Island, a concentration camp where some of the most outstanding minds of Indonesia were imprisoned, tortured and killed.
Noam Chomsky wrote about Exile: “It is a rare privilege to be able to listen to the voice of a remarkable talent, who has survived shameful abuse with immense courage and dignity, and now shares his dreams, his struggles, and his pain at the decay of the country and the culture he fought so hard to revive from centuries of subjugation”?
For many years, Pram had been nominated for The Nobel Price for literature, but he never received one, mainly due to conservative nature of the jury. He was often described as Indonesian Solzhenitsyn. While human rights violations by the Soviet regime were well documented and used by the West as part of the Cold War propaganda, Indonesia got away with invasions as well as internal and external genocide, as it was on “our side of the barricade”.
For the mainstream western media, Pram was nothing more than an uncomfortable voice speaking about injustice and brutality of Suharto’s right-wing regime, social collapse of Indonesian society and invasions backed by the U.S. and Australia. His books were translated into 36 languages, but were steadily disappearing from prominence on the shelves of all mainstream North American bookstores.
Living in absolute isolation, Pram didn’t try to hide his bitterness about the state of his nation. He openly declared that “Indonesia has no culture” and apart from him, there is not one writer in his country who can write more than five pages of decent prose. He defined “Javanism” (Java is the most populous island on the Indonesian archipelago) as being closely linked to Fascism – expansionist, brutal, groupist and at the same time submissive to any authority and religion to the extreme. He didn’t believe in God but in his own strength – but above all in the strength and creativity of human beings.
His latest words were those of immense lament over vanished idealism, creativity and search for social justice in today’s Indonesia. He couldn’t write for more than ten years after suffering from a stroke and he felt impatient with the local press which he considered unprofessional and servile. Apart from Exile – his final testimony and the bitter summary of his political and artistic thoughts – he avoided creative writing altogether, surrounding himself by the memories, sitting by the window, his face covered by a cloud of smoke from his kretek cigarettes.
The world behind the window was unsettling. Indonesian streets were full of homeless children and beggars. Elites were driving their luxury sedans, while the great majority of the people were unable to afford basic food, education for the children, or even clean water. Religious zealots were gaining strength while progressive ideas were fully censored from the media.
He felt desperate observing a decay which was consuming his nation, claiming that there is nothing left from the dreams which he was helping to shape during the first years after independence. He lost hope. “Even the Dutch colonial administration was better than today’s government and elites.” He saw revolution as the only way to fight a system based on immorality, corruption and cynicism. “The present system can’t be reformed. To reform New Order would only create New-New Order. What is needed is revolution, but all revolutions in Indonesia were always performed by young generations. This time, the young generation is not able to give birth to a leader.”
“When Pramoedya Ananta Toer goes, the last bridge between Indonesian culture and the rest of the world will collapse”, said Dan Simon, editor of the Seven Stories Press in New York, after watching my documentary film “Terlena – Breaking of a Nation”, in which Pram plays the role of the main narrator. We both agreed that in present-day Indonesia there is no other figure which can communicate to the world tremendous moral strength and dignity through the highest level of artistic excellence.
Now Pram is gone and Indonesia is mourning. But instead of spilling tears, the greatest tribute to this extraordinary man would be to do what millions of men and women all over the world do for decades – read his books and understand the pain he was lately carrying inside: burning pain from the fact that the country he helped to build and define became nothing more than a failed state.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of the publishing house for progressive political fiction Mainstay Press http://www.mainstaypress.org ), senior fellow at The Oakland Institute. His recent books include a novel “Point of No Return”, a book of political essays “Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad” and “Exile” – conversations with Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Rossie Indira.