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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Pramoedya Toer

Escaping Indonesia's Iron Fist in Fiction, But not in Life

June 06, 1999|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

On Monday, June 7, Indonesians go to the polls to select a new government in what some see as the first truly free election in that nation's history as an independent state. Last year, Indonesia's President Suharto resigned under pressure after 32 years of iron rule. Though many Suharto supporters remain in positions of power, there are indications that voters may back opposition parties determined to reform a government that is, by almost any standard, exceedingly corrupt and oppressive.

Indonesia, long a Dutch colony, won independence shortly after World War II. Its first leader, President Sukarno, was a fiery nationalist who was overthrown in a murky coup in 1965. The coup was followed by a purge of leftists and violent outbursts resulting in the deaths or imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. Suharto, who took power from Sukarno, established what he called a "new order" for Indonesia, a Western-friendly policy that emphasized economic development. Supported by funds from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Suharto was able to transform Indonesia into an economic tiger, while lining his own pockets and those of his supporters and brutally suppressing opposition voices. This came crashing down last year, when the Asian financial collapse emboldened Indonesian students and other reformers who succeeded in their demands for Suharto's resignation.

Many in Indonesia suffered under the autocratic rule of the Suharto regime, but few more than that country's leading novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He was imprisoned without charges or trial for 14 years and has been held under town arrest in Jakarta since 1979. Pramoedya's books are banned in Indonesia to this day, even under the reform government of the current president, B.J. Habibie. Still, Pramoedya's works, including four novels he wrote in prison that are collectively titled "The Buru Quartet," are circulated and prized by many in Indonesia.

Now 74, Pramoedya recently completed a tour of the United States, his first visit to this country and his first trip outside Indonesia since 1959. His memoir of his years in prison, "The Mute's Soliloquy," was recently published here in an English translation. The book includes letters he wrote to his wife, Maimoenah Thamrin, and eight children, three of whom are from an earlier marriage. A native of Java, Pramoedya sees his work as a writer as part of the process of building a sense of nationhood in Indonesia, a land of some 13,000 islands and 350 languages. In a conversation during the author's visit to Los Angeles late last month, translated by expatriate Indonesian Aya Ratih, Pramoedya talked about the plight of the Indonesian people who suffered first at the hands of the colonial Dutch and then at the hands of their own leaders, about the interplay between art and politics and of his concerns for the future of his nation.

Question: What should the role of politics be in literature, and can you imagine writing if you were not so intensely interested in politics?

Answer: Politics is about power, and everyone is affected by those in power. There are some who say literature should be free of politics. The irony here is that by taking that position, one is, in fact, making a political statement. When we accept, or reject, citizenship in a nation, that is a political act. Paying taxes is a political act, because it is an acknowledgment of political power. It is impossible to separate politics from literature or any other part of human life, because everyone is touched by political power.

Q: In Indonesia, power is concentrated in Jakarta, on the island of Java. How has Javanese culture affected the development of Indonesia as a country?

A: Java and its culture have been very influential in Indonesia. One reason for this is geographical. Java has many rivers, and these rivers were the main routes for travel, commerce and communication. Java has also traditionally been the largest supplier of rice in the region. These are two reasons why Java has been the most densely populated island in the area since before the colonial era. This, too, is why the Javanese culture is the most developed in Indonesia. Javanese Indonesians have been the most influential members of the military structure in Indonesia. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch colonists, established their headquarters on Java. The Dutch colonized the area by operating with the rulers of Java and actually exported local rulers from Java to rule the entire archipelago. Thus, under the Dutch, all power became centralized in Java, with the capital, Jakarta, as its center.

This Java-centric policy continues to exist in Indonesia today. The power structure in Java has extracted resources from the rest of the country for the benefit of those living in Java.

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