Pramoedya Ananta Toer,
a.k.a. Pram,
This Earth of Mankind
(Penguin: orig. 1975; Max Lane trans. 1990)

This is first of the famous Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, or "Pram" as he is known, the great Javanese-Indonesian novelist. Pram was imprisoned for over a decade by the Suharto dictatorship, and this book was first spoken aloud to fellow prisoners in the inhumane conditions of the Buru prison camp.

This fast-paced novel is the story of Minke, considered an "educated Native" according to the class system of colonial Dutch East Indies, of which the island of Java formed the densely populated core. Because of his wealth and education, Minke is able to mix with Indo-Europeans and even the Dutch colonizers. But, as the tale unfolds, he unravels the hypocrisy inherent in colonialism.

The Dutch masters of Indonesia maintain a fiction to justify their continued presence in the archipelago. That fiction is that the locals "are not ready to govern themselves because they do not have the benefit of European civilization and culture." Through Minke's saga, Pram demonstrates vividly the systems of oppression put in place by the Dutch to siphon immense resources out of the islands and maintain the class/race structure in place.

Minke becomes involved with the family of a Nyai, a Javanese concubine taken from her family by a Dutch merchant and educated to European ways. In the race-based caste system, her children are considered "Indos," half Asian and half European. Even with European education, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh cannot gain justice. It becomes clear to Minke, a young writer, that European "culture" is just the gloss on a corrupt and distorted colonial system.

Pram evokes the Dutch-Indonesian classic novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli, a devastating critique of the sytem used by the Dutch to bleed the islands dry. In echo of that great work, Minke (based on an actual historical character) writes under the name of Max Tollenaar.

Since this book is a critique of colonialism par excellence, it is hard to fathom why an independent Indonesia would ban his works and imprison him. Unless, of course, the regime in place at the time saw too much of itself in the portrayal of the Dutch imperial masters of an earlier time. Aceh province, for instance, still fights for its own independence a century later. In many ways, Indonesia simply "inherited" the Dutch claim to this huge and diverse archipelago, and with it, the problems involved in keeping such a diverse state together.

Many readers of this translation will not be familiar with Indonesian history or politics. For any reader, however, it will be difficult to finish this novel without continuing with the tetralogy.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 10 December 2005

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