Review of This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

My review on Bookwyrm:

Toer was an Indonesian intellectual imprisoned by the Dutch during the struggle for independence in the 1940s, after which he set out to write about the birth of Indonesian nationalism. He began a decades-long research effort, but after the 1965 coup he was imprisoned on the island of Buru for suspected communist sympathies and all his work destroyed. He composed his greatest work, the “Buru Quartet” orally while imprisoned, and then published it later. The works were seen as subversive, and banned in Indonesia from their publishing in the early 80s until 2000.

This is the first work in the series and is fully as powerful as its origin story suggests. Its narrator Minke comes of age in 1890s Java, and due his high birth is educated at the top European school in the “Dutch Indies”. But his place in the racial hierarchy is clear: he is a “Native”, below both the “Indos” and “Europeans”. His immense talents as a writer bring him some renown by Dutch liberals – sometimes in a tokenizing way as a “credit to his race”, showing what Natives are capable of. But his mother laments that he doesn’t write in Javanese, so she cannot sing his poems in her native tongue. Minke is trying desperately to escape into the European world, but events keep dragging him back to acknowledge his heritage.

The story centers around Minke’s relationship with Nyai Ontosoroh, a native concubine to a Dutchman, and her two children. Nyai is lowly birth, with no formal education and no formal power or legal standing, but she is astonishing. Brilliant, wrathful, upstanding and a business tycoon, Nyai is more alive than anyone else in the story and this contrast provides the potential energy which powers the breakdown of young Minke’s pro-Dutch worldview.

This is a political novel, sure, but the main historical events and movements are mostly in the background. There’s a passage on the rise of Japan and what it means for the self-worth of other Asian nations; there are allusions to nationalist movements and even the deportation of a liberal “agitator”. But I was reminded most strongly of Jane Austen.

The atmospherics are there: grand country estates, heartfelt letters from brilliant sisters, dark rooms in which beautiful maidens fall ill with lovesickness. More importantly, politics are expressed here mainly through etiquette. Javanese is a notoriously hierarchical language, and characters moving between that grammar and the Dutch racial caste system must always be exquisitely sensitive to their own status and that of their interlocutors. They cannot, for a moment – just live.

Nyai, in fact, is not the woman’s name, but the legal title for a concubine. She cannot be called miss, or ma’am and she corrects anyone who makes that mistake, as if to remind them of the absurdity of the system: she is haughty, ashamed, but unbowed.

Our characters move in their private lives for most of the story, but are drawn inexorably into contact with the formal system, where its contradictions and cruelty become more and more obvious. We are left weeping, left chewing bitterly on the inhumanity not just of Dutch colonial law but of all law, all “impartial” systems of power which do not make room for love.