It’s not often that a great writer’s life is more interesting in some ways than his books. But that’s the case with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Born on the island of Java in 1925, Toer lived through several revolutions and national rebellions, participated in a few himself, and was imprisoned both by the Dutch colonial government and then later by the Suharto regime.
While in jail during his first imprisonment in 1947-49, he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive. During his second imprisonment, this time by the Suharto regime in 1965, he accomplished something even more amazing. Denied pen and paper, he managed to construct a tetralogy, recite it to his fellow prisoners, and eventually get it down on paper and published after his release in 1979.
Toer said in an interview:
“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.”
The result was The Buru Quartet, named after the island that housed his prison.
Later translated by Max Lane, the English titles are This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. The first is my favorite of the quartet. It’s the story of young Minke, the narrator of the first three novels, who awakens slowly to the reality of the oppression of colonial rule and the ways of the rich and powerful. The novels are semi-autobiographical, moving, and revelatory. But there are differences between Minke and Toer.
Toer said in the same interview:
“I don’t write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.”
Reading great literature from around the world, reading the stories of the oppressed, the forsaken, the ignored, accumulates in the mind, helps form soft, luminous layers for the soul. Reading gets us closer to the crux of the matter, to the heart of the human. Reading the best that’s been said, regardless of culture, geography, or time, lifts the conscience, expands it, accelerates it.
Literature has many uses, purposes, roles. The writer of literature can hope for few greater results than adding soul layers around the globe.