The first volume of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet is probably a novel that young Filipinos will find themselves comfortable reading if they want to learn more about their neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. My mentor Dr. Dumol pointed out that the novel bears a remarkable resemblance to the first of the two novels by our national hero Jose Rizal, which is apparent even on the book’s back summary, which includes (describing the protagonist): “The son of a noble Javanese, he moves easily among the Dutch and their ideas and language but is prevented from enjoying their rights.” He is not the only one. The girl who figures prominently in this novel is an Indonesian Maria Clara, oblivious to the goings-on around her but the infallible object of many affections. Even her parentage is considered controversial by the community at large. While Elias is not as easily recognizable here, and neither is Sisa, This Earth of Mankind should still stand out as a counterpart to Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere because their similarities transcend the novels’ superficial details and connect thematically instead.
For starters, Toer’s novel deals largely with the meaning that arises from the experience of lost causes. This is not to say that the cause of this novel should be considered lost (neither should we say that of the Noli‘s); the main characters of Toer’s novel recognize the threat posed to them by forces that only appear stronger because of their deep ties to colonial authority. Though defeat seems inevitable, they struggle anyway, and by the end, they emerge not so much unscathed but alive nonetheless and in possession of greater motivation and deeper meaning in their lives. In the middle of the novel, the protagonist-narrator Minke witnesses an argument between his friend the Frenchman Jean Marais and his landlord Mr. Telinga, who had previously been Marais’ superior officer when they fought for the Netherlands Indies army against pockets of resistance across Indonesia. Their argument centers on the ends of war, which Telinga argues is merely the victory of the stronger side. Marais however suggests:
“… there has never been a war conducted for its own sake. There are many peoples who go to war who have no desire to be victor. They go to war and die in thousands… because there is something they want to defend, something more important than death, life, or defeat and victory.” (224)
Minke brushes them off, having had gone to them in the first place in search of an answer to an unrelated question. At this point, he (and perhaps the reader) has no idea of that argument’s later significance in his own life. As the novel progresses, he experiences hope and despair in alternating doses. Towards the latter half, he learns to take control of his emotions, knowing very well that he is becoming more and more responsible for the fates of others. At the very least, Minke may have walked away from all this with an inkling of the significance of his friend’s argument to the nationalist movements which Minke shall fuel with his writing, pointing out the social stratification and the disadvantages posed by being non-European. Inasmuch as the novel is a coming-of-age story for Minke, it is more strongly a story about recognizing social responsibility, especially given the talents and privileges one comes to possess.
Curiously, Minke becomes aware of the prejudices that permeate Indonesian society when his own erroneous prejudices are exposed. Minke’s preconceived notions of the concubine Nyai Ontosoroh and her daughter Annelies are immediately shattered in the first few chapters. Once again, Marais serves as Minke’s guide in this matter when he tells him: “An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds” (56). Unlike the earlier quote, this piece of advice more explicitly recurs in Minke’s narration, underlining his awareness that, if he wants to emerge as good as his European peers, the refinement of his thinking must trump his most immediate emotions. Throughout the novel, we often see Minke succeed in keeping this resolve, and to us in a post-colonial setting, it is abundantly clear that he does turn out morally better than the Dutch who control the lives of his loved ones as if they were less than human. Minke falls a step short of finishing his studies abroad, much like the Filipino ilustrado, but Toer also makes it apparent that the quality of education in colonial Indonesia allowed for Minke to equal his peers without having to leave.
Naturally, the Dutch colonial presence is not presented by Toer as an absolute evil and he does note the merits of seedling globalism as a result of their coming. Echoing Rizal’s sentiments of the Spanish colonial government, Toer has it that Minke desires not so much a complete separation between the Netherlands and Indonesia but instead reform of the colonial government. It is easy to see how much European education has exerted influence on Minke for the better, and time after time, Minke uses that education to elevate Indonesian national identity. Minke marvels at the advancement of technology and welcomes its capacity for cultural exchange. He also weeps when one of the assistant resident’s daughters expresses her hope that he should become a leader among his people in the cultural sphere rather than the political. This motivates his courage to write against what injustices do exist in their society as it is and call for reform.
Young Indonesians who come to know Toer’s and Rizal’s novels have a lot to talk about with young Filipinos who know the same. I do not want to sound too idealistic by saying that it would be already a dream to have the Minkes of the 21st century shaking hands with the Ibarras of the same age. After all, it is already happening. It is a matter now of planning and execution, and then, greatness.
It is unlikely that I shall finish any more novels before the end of the year, especially given that the three other books I’ve brought home with me are rather thick. The next post on the blog will dwell on my favorite reads of 2014, as well as something of a manifesto for the blog and the direction I’d like to take it in with regard to these reviews. Stay tuned!