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Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1950s
Born February 6, 1925
Blora, Dutch East Indies
Died 30 April 2006 (aged 81)
Jakarta, Indonesia
Occupation Novelist, Essayist
Nationality Indonesian
Ethnicity Javanese
Notable works Buru Quartet


Pramoedya Ananta Toer (EYD: Pramudya Ananta Tur) (6 February 1925 – 30 April 2006) was an Indonesian author of novels, short stories, essays, polemic and histories of his homeland and its people. His works span the colonial period, Indonesia's struggle for independence, its occupation by Japan during the Second World War, as well as the post-colonial authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and Suharto, and are infused with personal and national history. The Dutch Government imprisoned him from 1947 to 1949, the Suharto regime from 1965 to 1979.

Pramoedya's writings sometimes fell out of favor with the colonial and later the authoritarian native governments in power. Pramoedya faced censorship in Indonesia during the pre-reformation era despite the fact that he was well known outside Indonesia. The Dutch imprisoned him from 1947 to 1949 during the War of Independence (1945-1949). During the changeover (coup) to the Suharto regime Pramoedya was caught up in the shifting tides of political change and power struggles in Indonesia. Suharto had him imprisoned from 1969 to 1979 on the Maluku island of Buru and branded him a Communist. He was seen as a holdover from the previous regime (even though he had struggled with the former regime (Sukarno). It was on the Island of Buru that he composed his most famous work, the Buru Quartet. Not permitted access to writing materials, he recited the story orally to other prisoners before it was written down and smuggled out. Pramoedya opposed some policies of founding President Sukarno as well as the New Order regime of Suharto, Sukarno's successor. Political criticisms were often subtle in his writing, although he was outspoken against colonialism, racism and corruption of the Indonesian new Government. During the many years in which he suffered imprisonment and house arrest (in Jakarta after his imprisonment on Buru), he became a cause célèbre for advocates of human rights and freedom of expression.


  • Early years 1
  • Post-Independence prominence 2
  • Imprisonment under Suharto 3
  • Release and subsequent works 4
  • Awards 5
  • Major works 6
  • Notes 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Early years

Pramoedya was born on February 6, 1925, in the town of Mecca.[2] As it is written in his semi-autobiographical collection of short stories "Cerita Dari Blora", his name was originally Pramoedya Ananta Mastoer. But he felt that the family name Mastoer (his father's name) seemed too aristocratic. The Javanese prefix "Mas" refers to a man of the higher rank in a noble family. Consequently, he omitted "Mas" and kept Toer as his family name. He went on to the Radio Vocational School in Surabaya but had barely graduated from the school when Japan invaded Surabaya (1942).

During World War II, Pramoedya (like many Indonesian Nationalists, Sukarno and Suharto among them) at first supported the occupying forces of Imperial Japan. He believed the Japanese to be the lesser of two evils, compared to the Dutch. He worked as a typist for a Japanese newspaper in Jakarta. As the war went on, however, Indonesians were dismayed by the austerity of wartime rationing and by increasingly harsh measures taken by the Japanese military. The Nationalist forces loyal to Sukarno switched their support to the incoming Allies against Japan; all indications are that Pramoedya did as well.

On August 17, 1945, after the news of Allied victory over Japan reached Indonesia, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence. This touched off the Indonesian National Revolution against the forces of the British and Dutch. In this war, Pramoedya joined a paramilitary group in Karawang, Kranji (West Java) and eventually was stationed in Jakarta. During this time he wrote short stories and books, as well as propaganda for the Nationalist cause. He was eventually imprisoned by the Dutch in Jakarta in 1947 and remained there until 1949, the year the Netherlands recognized Indonesian independence. While imprisoned in Bukit Duri from 1947 to 1949 for his role in the Indonesian Revolution, he wrote his first major novel The Fugitive.

Post-Independence prominence

In the first years after the struggle for independence, Pramoedya wrote several works of fiction dealing with the problems of the newly founded nation, as well as semi-autobiographical works based on his wartime memoirs. He was soon able to live in the Netherlands as part of a cultural exchange program. In the years that followed, he took an interest in several other cultural exchanges, including trips to the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, as well as translations of Russian writers Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy.

In Indonesia, Pramoedya built up a reputation as a literary and social critic, joining the left-wing writers' group Lekra and writing in various newspapers and literary journals. His writing style became more politically charged, as evidenced in his story Korupsi (Corruption), a critical fiction of a civil servant who falls into the trap of corruption. This created friction between him and the government of Sukarno.

From the late 1950s, Pramoedya began teaching literary history at the left-wing Universitas Res Publica. As he prepared material, he began to realise that the study of Indonesian language and literature had been distorted by the Dutch colonial authorities. He sought out materials that had been ignored by colonial educational institutions, and which had continued to be ignored after independence.

Having spent time in China, he became greatly sympathetic to the Indonesian Chinese over the persecutions they faced in postcolonial Indonesia. Most notably, he published a series of letters addressed to an imaginary Chinese correspondent discussing the history of the Indonesian Chinese, called Hoakiau di Indonesia (History of the Overseas Chinese in Indonesia). He criticized the government for being too Java-centric and insensitive to the needs and desires of the other regions and peoples of Indonesia. As a result, he was arrested by the Indonesian military and jailed at Cipinang prison for nine months.

Imprisonment under Suharto

In an October 1965 coup the army took power after alleging that the anti-Communist purge, he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned by Suharto's government and named a tapol ("political prisoner"). His books were banned from circulation, and he was imprisoned without trial, first in Nusa Kambangan off the southern coast of Java, and then in the penal colony of Buru in the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

He was banned from writing during his imprisonment on the island of Buru, but still managed to compose - orally - his best-known series of work to date, the Buru Quartet, a series of four historical fiction novels chronicling the development of Indonesian nationalism and based in part on his own experiences growing up. The English titles of the books in the quartet are This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. The main character of the series, Minke, a Javanese minor royal, was based in part on an Indonesian journalist active in the nationalist movement, Tirto Adhi Surjo.

The quartet includes strong female characters of Indonesian and Chinese ethnicity, and addresses the discriminations and indignities of living under colonial rule, and the struggle for personal and national political independence. Like much of Pramoedya's work it tells personal stories and focuses on individuals caught up in the tide of a nation's history.

Pramoedya had done research for the books before his imprisonment in the Buru prison camp. When he was arrested his library was burned and much of his collection and early writings were lost. On the prison colony island of Buru he was not permitted even to have a pencil. Doubting that he would ever be able to write the novels down himself, he narrated them to his fellow prisoners. With the support of the other prisoners who took on extra labor to reduce his workload, Pramoedya was eventually able to write the novels down, and the published works derived their name "Buru Quartet" from the prison where he produced them. They have been collected and published in English (translated by Max Lane) and Indonesian, as well as many other languages. Though the work is considered a classic by many outside of Indonesia, publication was banned in Indonesia, causing one of the most famous of Indonesia's literary works to be largely unavailable to the country's people whose history it addressed. Copies were scanned by Indonesians abroad and distributed via the Internet to people inside the country.

Pramoedya's works on colonial Indonesia recognised the importance of Islam as a vehicle for popular opposition to the Dutch, but his works are not overtly religious. He rejected those who used religion to deny critical thinking, and on occasion wrote with considerable negativity to the religiously pious.

Release and subsequent works

Pramoedya was released from imprisonment in 1979, but remained under house arrest in Jakarta until 1992. During this time he released The Girl From the Coast, another semi-fictional novel based on his grandmother's own experience (volumes 2 and 3 of this work were destroyed along with his library in 1965). He also wrote Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (1995); A Mute's Soliloquy, an autobiography based on the letters that he wrote for his daughter from imprisonment in Buru but were not allowed to be sent, and Arus Balik (1995).

Pramoedya's grave in Karet Bivak Cemetery, Jakarta

He wrote many columns and short articles criticizing the Indonesian government. He wrote a book Perawan Remaja dalam Cengkraman Militer (Young Virgins in the Military's Grip), a documentary written in the style of a novel showcasing the plight of Javanese women who were forced to become comfort women during the Japanese occupation. They were brought to the island of Buru where they were sexually abused, and ended up staying there instead of returning to Java. Pramoedya made their acquaintance when he himself was a political prisoner on the Buru island in the 1970s.

Pramoedya was hospitalized on April 27, 2006, for complications brought on by diabetes and heart disease. He was also a heavy smoker of clove (Kretek) cigarettes and had endured years of abuse while in detention. He died on April 30, 2006 at the age of 81. Pramoedya earned several accolades, and was frequently discussed as Indonesia's and Southeast Asia's best candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Pramoedya's writings on Indonesia address the international and regional currents caused by political events in history and how these events flowed through his homeland and buffeted its people. Pramoedya also shares a personal history of hardship and detention for his efforts of self-expression and the political aspects of his writings, and struggled against the censorship of his work by the leaders of his own people.


Major works


  1. ^ Gogwilt, Chris (1998). "PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER 1925- (INDONESIAN)". In Schellinger, Paul. Encyclopedia of the Novel. Chicago, London: Fitzroy Dearborn. 
  2. ^ Vickers, Adrian (2005). A History of Modern Indonesia. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 53.  

Further reading

Books on Pramoedya Ananta Toer

External links

  • On the Death of Pramoedya Ananta Toer - by Tariq Ali
  • Pramoedya Ananta Toer information page
  • Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 81, Indonesian Novelist, Dies (The New York Times, April 30)
  • Equinox Publishing
  • Pramoedya and Politics
  • Pramoedya Ananta Tour digital illustration portraits
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