This Earth Of Mankind by Promoeyda Ananta Toer
Translated from Indonesian by Max Lane
Penguin, New York, 1996
Born in 1924 of Javanese parents Promoedya
Promoedya Ananta Toer was born in 1925 of Javanese parents. Java is one of the largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Toer began writing around the time of the armed struggle for Indonesian independence, in 1945. After being arrested and spending time in a Dutch jail he began writing novels and short stories. In the 1950’s he took up the serious study of Indonesian history and lectured in journalism and history at acadamies and universities in Jakarta. He planned a series of novels that would take place around the time of the awakening of Indonesian national consciousness, 1890 to 1910.
In 1965 there was a coup attempt. The Indonesian army took control of the country and during that time almost all progressive and left-wing political groups were persecuted. It is estimated that as many as 500,00o people where killed in the purge. Promoedya Ananta Toe, along with thousands of others, was arrested and thrown in jail where he was held for 16 years. He was never tried. Originally Toer told the story of This Earth Of Mankind to fellow prisoners so that the story would not be lost. He began writing it down in 1973 and finished it in 1975. It is the first section of his Buru Quartet.
This Earth Of Mankind follows the life if Minke, the native son of a nobleman, as he finishes school, becomes a journalist and meets his future wife. Annalise is the daughter of a Dutch dairyman and his concubine, Ontosoroh. Minke lives in the midst of the colonists and the colonised. He struggles against the confines of Dutch rule, colonialism and the all pervasive social hierarchy of Javanese society. All of Toer’s characters are richly drawn but the one I found most fascinating is Ontosoroh, the concubine with no rights, who has adapted to her circumstances, become self-educated, a sharp business woman and is incredibly strong and knowledgable. It is she who teaches Minke about life and helps him begin to thrive in the political, cultural and social turmoil that is Java at the turn of the twentieth century.
Having watched the political struggles in Indonesia over the last decade reading the first book of the Buru Quartet has been quite a history lesson. I hope to finish the rest of the quartet.