The Buru Quartet (Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1980-1988)

“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)
“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)

The Buru Quartet refers to the the volumes Bumi Manusia (“This Earth of Mankind”, 1980) , Anak Semua Bangsa (“Child of All Nations”, 1980), Jejak Langkah (“Footsteps”, 1985) and Rumah Kaca (“Glass House “, 1988). The books were banned by the regime of long time Indonesian president Suharto and his successor B.J. Habibie. The ban was lifted in 2000.

The Quartet establishes Pramoedya as a leading figure in Southeast Asian literature and showcases his mastery of the classical historical realism. The carefully constructed narrative structure and detailed rich descriptions provide a broad overview of the cultural and ethnic diversity of colonial society.

The books tackle the nature of power and how it is balanced by social classes throughout history. They also provide an insight into the relationships between groups identified in the book and guide the reader’s attention on the world outside the former Dutch colony. Pramoedya has shown an deep understanding of the events and developments in the Philippines, Japan, China and the Netherlands, the motherland of the caste of colonial masters. This outlook is remarkable since the book was the result of stories originally told from the prison cell and gathered from memory.

The tension in the novel comes from the inherent conflicts between families, a complex love affair, as well as elements fit for a detective novel. The works primarily trace the life story of the Javanese nobleman Minke between 1898 and 1918. This is told through a first-person narrative in the form of revised diary notes and memoir writing. This technique gives us a peek into the process of political awakening by the protagonists. Minke’s experiences are extraordinary in his time. His radical rejection of colonialism, his aspiration for freedom, equality, and brotherhood, his insistence on self-determination and his commitment for nationalism, appear credible in the novel as the only correct answer the social conditions besetting the colony at the turn of a new century.

This unique place occupied by Minke, makes him, according to the formulation of Australian literary scholar K. Foulcher in the Anthology Culture and Politics in New Order Indonesia (1993) , as a “prototype of the Indonesian intellectual.” Minke is midway between tradition and modernity as well as between individual self-realization and social responsibility. On the way to becoming a revolutionary, Minke meets journalists and initiators of the early nationalist organizations and learns about the experiences of various social groups inside and outside the colony.

The novel’s exposition of the intellectual’s role model function as a journalistic, social reformist and its account of the political activities of the minorities (mestizos, Chinese, Arabs) are diametrically opposed to the common view of Indonesian history. It is very surprising for the reader then when the narrator shifts  in the fourth volume: We are presented with Pangemanann as a first-person narrator. Pangemanann is the only indigenous police commissioner in the colony and is Minke’s main antagonist.

This opens up to the reader a look inside the colonial security service:The fourth and final novel of the series, House of Glass is narrated by Pangemanann, the police commissioner who arranged for Minke’s exile and who has constantly monitored Minke during his time in Ambon. The plot revolves around Pangemanann’s moral conundrum—fulfill his responsibility to identify and imprison rebel leaders, or to join the growing independence movement. Pangemanann becomes obsessed with Minke, who has returned to Indonesia from his exile, after reading three novels that Minke wrote during his isolation—paralleling Pramoedya’s own experiences. Eventually Minke is poisoned by younger revolutionaries, who regard Minke as an ineffective remnant of a past age, and Pangemanann loses his position due to changing political circumstances. Pangemanann cannot, however, the voice of his complete supress the voice of his own conscience. His personal decline, the failure in his marriage and in his non-professional life show him that his victory is hollow, and he is sure that Minkes idealism and historical mission will be continued by others.

Minke does not fail primarily due to the cunning superiority of Pangemanann and the repressive apparatus he represents. A much bigger setback for Minke and his goals is the emergence of Budi Utomo, a Javanese ethnic group aligned and soon dominated by the aristocracy.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer illustrated in his novels the interdependence of colonial power and Javanese nobility.  These are the roots from where the conservative tendencies had sprung and are now the face of the independent Indonesia: a social conservatism, the traditional hierarchies which are yet to be radically challenged, and a tradition-bound concept Nation, which focused on the indigenous people and excluded all other minority.

Pramoedya’s Buru Quarter is thus not just a story about the emergence of a national movement, but at the same time the story of a missed historical opportunity.

Budi Utomo appears as the broader context of Pramoedya’s thoughts. It embodies the sinister link that contributes to the continuation of the pattern of colonial mentality  that have seeped into nationalist circles. The scope of this message becomes clear when one recalls that in the semi-official historiography of the founding of Budi Utomo, it is considered the beginning of the first national movement after which, all pre-existing organizations and movements became marginalized.

Nationalism, democracy and humanity are of paramount importance in Pramoedya’s entire oeuvre. In the 50 years of his career as a write, Pramoedya always abided by these ideals which has placed him in conflict with the changes and developments in the colony,  circumstances which later on became more accepted.

In one of the letters from Buru he says: “Shut up, my heart, do not be sorry to have had dreams, and not to be satisfied with the existing one “. In the 14 years of imprisonment and 19 years of house arrest, Pramoedya has guarded this aspiration. Before his death, Pramoedya has helped in a small private foundation for investigation into the 1965 massacres and other human rights violations, and contributing in small steps to the strengthening of the rule of law and Indonesian democracy.

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