If you have an interest in Indonesian history and culture then THE BURU QUARTET must be on your reading list!
THE BURU QUARTET
PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER, who died in 2006 at the age of 81, was one of Indonesia’s leading intellectuals and the celebrated author of over thirty works of politically-charged fiction. He is, without a doubt, the most famous and influential author ever to emerge from Indonesia, and is widely regarded as one of best writers the country has ever produced.
Pramoedya's life often seemed more incredible than the stories he created. At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and subsequently enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists. Later, his books and outspoken politics led him to be imprisoned for 15 years, first by the Dutch colonial government (which ruled Indonesia for 300 years), and then by the government of Suharto (Indonesia's second President after independence).
Pramoedya's most celebrated works are four novels collectively known as the BURU QUARTET, which follow Indonesia’s political struggles through colonisation and postcolonial authoritarian regimes. Together, the novels provide a comprehensive account of the early history of Indonesian nationalism, and constitute one of the great classics of decolonisation in world literature.
THIS EARTH OF MANKIND (Buru Quartet, Book 1)
Book 1 takes place during the Dutch colonial era in Indonesia. The protagonist, Minke, is a young Javanese boy of royal descent, and the first "local" to ever be admitted to the Dutch Hoeger Burger High School. He is a talented writer, but hated by many simply for being a ‘native.' Living equally among the colonists of 19th-century Java, he must battle against the confines of colonial strictures and find the strength to embrace his world.
CHILD OF ALL NATIONS (Buru Quartet, Book 2)
Book 2 is a story of awakening, as an older Minke struggles to overcome the injustice he sees all around him. Pramoedya's full literary genius is evident in the brilliant characters that populate this world: Minke's fragile mixed-race wife; a young Chinese revolutionary; an embattled Javanese peasant and his impoverished family; to name just a few. The reader is immediately swept up by a story that is profoundly feminist; devastatingly anticolonialist; and full of heartbreak, suspense, love, and fury. Pramoedya immerses the reader in the cultural whirlpool that was the Dutch East Indies of the 1890s.
FOOTSTEPS (Buru Quartet, Book 3)
In Book 3, the world moves into the twentieth century, and Minke, one of the few European-educated Javanese, optimistically starts a new life in a new town: Betawi (today, Jakarta). With his enrollment into medical school and the opportunity to meet new people, there is every reason to believe that he can leave behind the tragedies of the past. But Minke can not escape his past, any more than he can escape the fact that he belongs to an oppressed class of people living under foreign rule. As his world begins to fall apart, Minke draws a small but fervent group around him to fight back against colonial exploitation, and, in the process, grows from a man wanting to understand his world to a man wanting to change it. Pramoedya's depiction of a people's painful emergence from colonial domination and the shackles of tradition is nothing short of remarkable.
HOUSE OF GLASS (Buru Quartet, Book 4)
The final book of Pramoedya's epic quartet provides a spectacular conclusion to a series hailed as one of the great works of modern literature. Minke, now a writer and leader of the dissident movement, is imprisoned. Therefore, the narrative switches to a man named Pangemanann, a former policeman who is tasked with spying and reporting on those who continue the struggle for independence. But the hunter soon becomes the hunted, as Pangemanann falls victim to his own conscience and comes to admire his adversaries. He must decide whether the law is in place to safeguard the rights of the people or to control the people. Although he fears the loss of his position, his family and his self-respect, Pangemanann comes to see that his true opponents are not Minke and his followers, but rather the dynamism and energy of a society awakened.
The origins of these stories are an incredible feat in themselves, as they were completed during Pramoedya's 15-year incarceration. Pramoedya was already an established writer prior to his imprisonment and his increasingly critical political works led him to become a government target. He was eventually imprisoned, and, as part of his punishment, he was denied writing implements. Undeterred, and fearing he would never again be able to write, Pramoedya composed his Baru Quartet orally, telling the story in installments to an audience of fellow-prisoners over the course of a decade and a half.
In light of the circumstances under which Pramoedya created these stories, implicit in his writings is a distinct criticism of Suharto (Indonesia's second President after independence) and his regime. But, while the novels explore the darker aspects of humanity, Pramoedya's message is ultimately a positive one - a belief in mankind’s compassion, dignity and potential for greatness in the face of immense hardship.
Miraculously, Pramoedya is able connect directly with the world outside Indonesia, even as he speaks to a readership inside Indonesia. He is critical of European enlightenment ideas (particularly as embodied in the American and French revolutions), but, at the same time, he is critical of Indonesia's transformation of those ideas in the inaugural stages of decolonisation. His revolutionary style of storytelling seems to address issues in an 'all-round sense,' challenging preconceived notions that exist on all sides, both inside and outside of Indonesia.
The Buru Quartet may be of particular interest to Japanese, Dutch and Indonesian readers, But, in a world where all but 2 countries were once colonised, it is a story for all of us - one that can help us understand our past as we move forward.
Pramoedya was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature several times and was bestowed with the PEN Freedom to Write Award in 1988. At age 74, he received the Fukuoka Prize for outstanding contributions by Asians in 2000.
For those planning to visit Indonesia, the BURU QUARTET by PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER is a must-read that will shed much light on the gentle people of Indonesia and the exotic culture of the world's largest archipelago.
The Books, published by Penguin, are readily available in many languages.
(Should an online search not turn up results for 'The Buru Quartet' simply search for the books by their individual names.)