Saturday, November 9, 2013

Indonesia: "This Earth of Mankind" by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Our household is heavily influenced by my spouse's work as historian of France, so my "contact" with Indonesia consisted of stories from friends -- one played the gamalon on the island of Bali for a time; a few dive in region -- and the Kurt Weill song, Surabaya Johnny. Reading this book pushed me to study up, in part because of the roles played in the book by the multiple cultures and historical ties within this complex nation.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer narrated This Earth of Mankind in the 1970s while imprisoned after a 1965 coup attempt alleged to have been incited by the Indonesian Community Party. Toer had friends who were members of the party, so he was in prison for 14 years. Max Lane, the translator, worked in the Australian Embassy until relieved of his duties in Indonesia for making the work available in English in 1981.

This is the first novel of a quartet that Toer narrated, then wrote, about Indonesia's move from Dutch colony toward independence. The language is direct--as befits a story told aloud--and the book is dense with specific scenes that engage the listener/reader and move the story along, including dialogue and description, whether from a train window or the interior of a wealthy person's home.

To provide a bit of the back story, people on these many (many!) islands had established trade links with India and China "several centuries BCE" per Wikipedia. Before the Roman Empire, residents were Buddhist or Hindu. Islam arrived centuries later, in the 1200s. The Portuguese started colonizing in 1512, bringing Catholicism to some, then the Dutch and Protestantism took over around 1800 and stayed until World War II. So, now, this nation has residents of at least four main religions and heritage that includes people from various islands of the region, Malaysian, Javanese, Madurese, and others, plus European from various countries, Chinese, Japanese, and many other languages, cultures, and traditions.

The narrator of This Earth of Mankind is a young high-caste Javanese man, who starts the tale around 1890. He begins with stories of the wonders of science and learning, which he experiences at the elite Dutch school he attends because of his abilities and his social status. He speaks "high Javanese," school-style Dutch, Malay, and more. At various turns in the story, the language used is specified, as it indicates social relations and status held by the speaker and listener.

The young man is called Minke, and the book explains the origins of that nickname. He lives in lodgings in Surabaya, far from his family.  He is also a budding entrepreneur, securing commissions for European-style furniture from area residents and paying a retired French mercenary to make the pieces. He is liked by many in his orbit, including his landlady, the furniture maker, his teachers, but not necessarily by the European classmates or by those of "mixed" heritage because he is full Javanese.

Minke first loves, based on her image on the postage stamp, the young (10 years old) Queen of the Netherlands, who is also queen of Dutch East Indies, as the country was known at the time. Shortly after we learn all this, he meets an "Indo" girl, Annelies, whose mother is a strong-willed and very smart, largely self-educated woman called Nyai (equivalent to concubine, and how she wants people to address her). Later we learn Nyai's story, sold by her parents to be the mistress of a Dutch merchant, who is Ann's father. Indo is the term for people whose genetic heritage includes Europe and "native" (the narrator's term).

All of these threads--the French furniture maker, Annelies and her family, her father's life before Indonesia, Minke's schooling and teachers, his parents and their status, the Dutch colonial administration, the landscape and cityscapes, and more--are deftly blended into a rich image of life there in the early 1890s. Rather than a tapestry, a better metaphor is batik, where wax is used to prevent dye from adhering to the fabric, then removed, and other wax designs and dye added: Layer after layer carefully applied, dyed, removed.

The last color applied in this design is black. Based on "beautiful documents written by expert scribes and clerks with their indelible black ink, that soaked halfway through the thickness of the paper" (p, 327), Minke learns that Ann (whom he has married) is to be sent away by order of far-distant Dutch courts that did not, of course, consult anyone in Indonesia. She will be sent to her father's legitimate son in Amsterdam, whom the courts have appointed as her guardian and notably, financial trustee. Their marriage is declared invalid because Ann is still very young and her "guardian" did not approve ... and all of this because Ann's father acknowledged her as his child, so that she would inherit from his mercantile success (which is actually the result of Nyai's business acumen, but she is native and has no rights).

The legalities get convoluted, but the feelings are raw. When confronted by Dutch power in the face of the complete lack of "native" rights, Minke asks himself how delicate, fragile (mentally unstable -- but that is my judgment) Ann, raised as an Indo in Surabaya can survive cold, hard intolerant, Protestant (as shown in the novel) Amsterdam, with no one she knows and loves around her? Maybe if I read book 2 in the quartet, I'll learn. For now, "The sound of the carriage wheels grinding over the gravel could be heard faintly fading away into the distance, finally disappearing. Annalies was setting sail for where Queen Wilhelmina sat on the throne" (p. 359). To quote Minke's prologue, "That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there--willing or unwilling, with all our soul and body...whether the future is a kind or a cruel god is, of course, its own affair" (p. 15).

Quotations from translation by Max Lane, Penguin Books, 1990.

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