One of the most revealing sections in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s powerful memoir The Mute’s Soliloquy is also its starkest: a list of the dead and missing political prisoners on the Indonesian penal colony of Buru Island. The list stops at number 315, terminated in 1978, when the authorities learned of its existence. Alongside the names are the causes of death, such as hepatitis, hepatic coma, and “shot dead” or “suicide,” two of the most frequent. Coming close to the end of this chilling account of the writer’s ordeal at the hands of the Suharto regime, the list rescues these names from official anonymity and indicts the state’s immoral hold on power. Pramoedya, as Indonesians know him, is his country’s most celebrated writer (often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel), and was the regime’s prisoner from 1965 to 1979, on charges that until now have never been
His arrest came in the midst of the 1965 coup led by Suharto against President Soekarno, the leader of the independence movement against the Dutch, and who had begun to lean toward friendlier relations with Mao Tse-tung. The coup resulted in the wholesale slaughter (depicted in the film The Year of Living Dangerously) of leftists, real and imagined, and of ethnic Chinese, believed to be sympathetic to Communist China. Approximately a million lives were lost.
Released in 1979, Pramoedya was hardly a free man. Confined mainly to his Jakarta residence for longer than a decade, only recently has the writer, now in his seventies, been allowed to travel outside the country. But in a post-Suharto Indonesia where the military remains the most powerful institution, his books remain banned, even though (or precisely because) the author is venerated by his countrymen. He wrote this memoir partly as a series of letters to his eight children who grew up in his absence, partly as reflections on the human (and too often inhuman) condition, but “primarily as a dialogue with myself.”
Pramoedya dispenses with artifice. The book may seem hodgepodge and the language simple, but in fact it stands out as a piercingly vivid, extraordinarily eloquent work without
being ornate. Speaking of a small mirror he finds in the rubbish heap, he writes: “My mirror is a pitiful thing, nothing more than a foggy and scratched shard, yet it can still hold an image— even if on its backside is death. And though all of us will one day make our way to the back side of the mirror, for now, there is still incentive to go on living, something that continues to goad me, perhaps that I might do something of significance before I die.” Ever aware of death, Pramoedya wants to get as close to the bone as possible so we can understand fully what happened on that remote island, an accurate symbol for the repressive Indonesian state. The resulting unsentimental narrative gives us a compelling sense of Buru’s hellish rigors.
Disease, starvation, and the guards’ brutality take their psychic and physical toll on the inmate population. Forced to build roads, clear rainforests— at times with their bare hands— and grow their own food, the prisoners are driven to despair and often straight over the edge. On one occasion the prison guards, furious at an escape attempt, gather all the men in a field and beat them like “rats trapped in a gutter . . . not stopping until their weapon of choice had broken or been shattered.” Another time, Pramoedya recounts in a letter to his daughter, a group of starving men working in the forest espied what they thought to be some meat floating down a nearby stream:
They caught it, roasted it, and when they thought it was done, began to eat it, but still there was blood inside. Surprised, they took a better look at the thing and do you know what they discovered they were eating? A baby’s placenta! One of the locals must have thrown it in the river. All of the men threw up immediately, right then and there, and started to curse and swear. But that’s how it is, Rita, when you’re trying to stay alive and healthy.
Inevitably Pramoedya starts to view death as a welcome refuge. But his mental toughness and writerly vanity are what get him through: “A voice rebels inside me: Just look at you! Not only have you not finished your work, what you have done is shoddy and poor. You lack imagination. You must stay alive! . . . So put up with it and be its witness!”
Indeed he does, not only compiling the material for this memoir but also the Buru Quartet— four novels that deal with the life of Minke, a Javanese young man much like the author who grows up during the last two decades of Dutch colonial rule. It was composed mainly in his head; writing implements were denied him until 1973, when he was finally permitted to use a typewriter.
Just as important as his account of prison life are his memories of growing up, giving us a sense of the man behind the public persona. While his fierce nationalism can be traced to his late father’s activism, it’s his mother’s memory that inspires him. Dead of tuberculosis when Pramoedya was only 17 years old, she never lost her serenity and generosity of spirit even when in dire economic straits and faced with an ever-increasing circle of needy mouths.
There is a young Dutch woman who plays an important role in his development whom he befriends. That she doesn’t assume a stance of superiority surprises him. And this provokes an epiphany, that “I was not a colonial underling, that Asians and Europeans are equal.” This makes him see that “one’s psychological and historical burdens can actually be turned around to become our sources of strength, not of weakness”— a lesson that applies not just to the daughter to whom this is written, but to himself and his fellow Indonesians.
Pramoedya has used these “burdens” well— imposed by force of circumstance, not to mention the circumstance of force— creating a great and passionate but clear-eyed work, shaped as much by a humanist/rationalist outlook, a writer’s iron discipline and, above all, by the desire to not forget. Suharto and his minions had every reason to fear him. More than armies on the march, a free mind, especially one as sharp as Pramoedya’s, is still what makes tyrants tremble and empires collapse.