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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: An Obituary

By Geoffrey Cook

Riverside (Calif.)—Toer’s English language translator— Max Lane—presented a lecture on April 28th at Berkeley on the day after Indonesia’s greatest prose writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer entered the hospital.

Besides putting his tropical islands on the worldwide fictional landscape, the great “Muslim rebel” for his country’s independence from the Dutch and later for social reform had gone into the sanatorium on the night before (April 27th) and died at 81 on the last day of April to the profound sorrow of his countrymen.

In my Bohemian Days in San Francisco, when I too had literary pretensions, a colleague of mine gave me a copy of a translated novel from his Islamic archipelago, and I can attest why he is considered Indonesia’s greatest writer of the post-World War II period. I found his work most different from what we consider literature in the West. For him, social commitment dominated his words. Fighting for human good in a large but poor Muslim population found him consigned to prison for his beliefs for over 15 years of his life.

Toer found the strength of his literature in the sad fact that “the United Nations [U.N.] rates the Indonesian economy beneath Bangladesh’s!” Of a workforce of ninety million, only ten million had stable jobs.. During Toer’s life, his progressive politics dedicated him to the improvement of his developing commonwealth, and, thereby to improve the material benefit of his countrymen. This would give each individual citizen an opportunity to develop a spiritual presence as well.

In Pram’s political work and stories, one aspect of his life was methodologically merging improvement from the suffering Third World masses and granting individual hope to their anguish as well. His rural traditional Islamic background did not prevent him from welding Islam to modernism without detracting from either.

To understand Pramoedya, one has to recognize he was an Islamic secularist, and often was at odds with the Islamists. “To understand his vision of Indonesia, we have to … to understand his idea of Insular Southeast Asian history.” In fact Ananta Toer (Indonesian Islamic names often are not from Arabic roots) invigorated his native language through separating the nation’s curriculum of history from the oppressive armed forces’ control over its curriculum. Students were forced to learn by rote instead of linking the spoken and written word to past cultural revolutions and contemporary innovative ideas. Toer introduced the concept of Indonesia (both Muslim and non-Muslim) into his modern literature. In his words, “the name Indonesia has to be thrown away, for it is a European invention!”

Although a Muslim, he believed — both through his writing and political work — revolutionary changes in his society were required to recreate his vision of the nation. His letters reconnected the people to their land.. He was a Leftist Nationalist, which philosophy he adapted to his Islamic tradition and society, and this Nationalism was part and parcel to a liberal Islam. His novels provided the framework to cut a pathway through the crises of his burgeoning contemporary country, and to reconnect its terrain with its islands and seas. He applied a poet’s sensitivity to direct political action to counter the chaotic social protests during his life.

Millions of individual copies of his books were printed during his lifetime, but few received a second publication because the state found them and him dangerous, and the current government still formally bans them although some of his narratives are in their fifteenth printing in the West. Still, Toer’s influence will outlive Indonesia’s petty tyrants, and his realm will retain our novelist’s imprint longer than their oppression. His literary work has prevented Islamic hardliners from retaining the state. Although Muslims of all persuasions dominate from Jakarta, there is room for non-Islamic diversity, and much of that comes out of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s foresight. Men such as Ananta essentially overthrew the military without arms.

In his dying days, he began to speak out against privatization that he felt was being forced on Indonesia and the world’s poor. For Toer, reconnecting with the soil’s history could defeat it.
May Allah preserve his soul for the Resurrection Day, because of his life and sacrifice and sensitivity. Islamic Southeast Asia is a much better place, and through his work, we in the West have come to know its tropical terrain so much better.


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