Dark side mars portrait of Indonesia's steely survivor
Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Born: February 6, 1925
Died: April 30, 2006
Pramoedya Ananta Toer used to joke that smoking kreteks - Indonesia's spicy clove cigarettes - kept him alive. But it wasn't enough to save Indonesia's grand old man of letters last Sunday, when he died of complications from diabetes and heart disease, aged 81.
Pramoedya was often dubbed 'Indonesia's Solzhenitsyn' for the literary masterworks that he produced over his 14 years incarcerated by Suharto on the penal colony of Buru Island. In October 1965 - Indonesia's so-called 'year of living dangerously' - Pramoedya was kidnapped, beaten and sent to the island gulag, in the purge of 'communists' estimated to have claimed more than a million lives.
He was editing a book of short stories by the left-leaning president Sukarno, on the night of the raid. The thugs burned his manuscripts and library and struck him over the head with a rifle, deafening him in his right ear.
During Sukarno's reign, Pramoedya was a key player in 'Lekra', the cultural wing of the Communist Party, but he denied he was ever a communist. Along with the 12,000 other inmates at Buru, Pramoedya was forced to clear jungle and construct roads with his bare hands, while often driven by starvation to forage for worms. Allowed neither pen nor paper, he drew on the Javanese oral storytelling tradition, composing tales aloud to his fellow inmates when out of earshot of the guards.
Exchanged by prisoners during roll calls and showers, his stories told of the revolutionary exploits of Minke, a high-born journalist who awakens to the injustices of colonial rule to become active in the anti-colonial struggle. Although taking place in the dying days of Dutch rule, Minke's persecution paralleled the plight of suspected communists under Suharto.
After a decade on Buru, he was finally provided with writing materials. Prisoners took turns completing Pramoedya's tasks in order to free him to write.
Over his remaining four years on Buru - before he spent another 13 years under house arrest - the stories that had built up in his head were written down with a demoniacal intensity. He also kept a list of Buru's dead, which was published in his prison memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy.
The book consisted largely of letters that he wrote to his children on Buru, but was never allowed to send. The manuscripts that weren't destroyed by the guards were smuggled off the island by missionaries. They were published by Joesoef Isak, founder of the publishing house Hasta Mitra, devoted to clandestinely disseminating Pramoedya's writings. The circulation of his books reached the hundreds of thousands, despite being banned.
While on the international stage, Pramoedya continued to be garlanded with prizes - he was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature - but in Indonesia, his stature as a cynosure for the pro-democracy movement remained contested. Few Indonesian intellectuals were prepared to forget his role in the persecution of other writers in the 1960s, when he was a leading culturecrat.
In 1962, he published an article: Those Who Should be Encouraged and Those Who Should be Cut Down, calling for a crackdown on bourgeois artists who refused to observe the dogma of Marxist social realism. Many of the figures whom Pramoedya named were later imprisoned or exiled. Even after surviving Suharto's tyranny, Pramoedya was unrepentant.
When Pramoedya won the Magsaysay Award - Southeast Asia's 'Nobel' - in 1995, 26 of Indonesia's most prominent intellectuals signed a petition in a bid to boycott the prize. The late literary giant Mochtar Lubis, a former recipient of the prize, returned his medal and some of his prize money to the Magsaysay committee.
Despite the growth of Pramoedya's international renown, he continued to be ignored by the Jakarta elite. In 1998, when his work was still officially banned in Indonesia, the Jakarta Arts Council decided against awarding a first prize in its annual literary competition, lamenting that 'Indonesia has never produced world-famous writers and looks set to retain that status'. That even after the fall of Suharto, Jakarta officials treated him like a non-person confirmed Pramoedya's belief that Indonesia's experiment with democracy was a sham.
He would have been unsurprised by the silence that now meets his death in Jakarta's official quarters. As John McGlynn, Pramoedya's translator, says: 'The government - as shown by the paucity of government officials who visited Pramoedya when he went into hospital and who paid their respects to his family after his death - appears to continue to treat this author as a political pariah.'
In February 2005, I interviewed Pramoedya in his villa in Bogor, 60km from Jakarta, which he purchased with the proceeds from his US speaking tour in 1999. (It was the first time that the authorities had permitted him to leave Indonesia.) Pramoedya was a tense, wiry man, who chain-smoked kreteks and stared with unblinking attention as he was interviewed, cupping his hand to his left ear to make out the interpreter's words.
Pramoedya wasn't known for his sense of humour, on or off the page. Indonesia's leading poet, Goenawan Mohamad, described him as 'a bundle of inner strength supported by pride and anger, with a voice that can touch you because of its strange tremor'.
Yet, over our two-hour conversation, Pramoedya displayed an impish streak. At one point, the interpreter - wearing a heavy, jewel-adorned white headscarf, despite the heat - flushed and erupted with laughter. Pramoedya had asked her what it was like to wear a tablecloth on her head. After telling a joke, his mouth would expand into an almost cartoonishly wide grin, which shook with silent laughter.
Pramoedya was no Nelson Mandela, determined to reconcile with his former enemies. He was bitter until the end - an anger that he expiated through his daily pastime of burning rubbish, after he stopped writing in 1998.
His steely side showed when I asked about Mr Isak. I had heard that Pramoedya recently withdrew the publishing rights of Hasta Mitra, due to allegedly squandered royalty payments.
'He's a parasite on my work. I don't want anything to do with him,' Pramoedya snapped, sitting suddenly upright. The allegations - regarded as falsehoods by Pramoedya's friends and colleagues - were probably fabricated as a pretext for Pramoedya to shift his books to his daughter's publishing house, ensuring that the full proceeds remained within his family after his death. Aggrieved that I brought the spat into the public eye, his English-language publisher in Jakarta wrote to me that he 'wholeheartedly regretted' facilitating our interview. 'An 80-year-old man, who has spent his life fighting oppression, does not need this as an epitaph,' he wrote.
I think that this is the wrong approach to remembering Pramoedya; the flip side of his strength must be acknowledged. His capacity for survival stemmed from the same unyielding nature that enabled him to cast off his one-time greatest ally and friend and decimate Hasta Mitra - internationally recognised as a symbol of resistance against oppression - in the pursuit of financial ends.
The same temperament that enabled him to survive was also expressed in his ruthless intolerance of dissent during his period of influence under Sukarno. Mr Isak himself generously conceded that 'his stubbornness is also his greatness, because it means they could never crush him'.
Pramoedya remains Indonesia's most potent emblem of the struggle against tyranny. But if he is going to endure as a meaningful peace symbol, the injustices that he committed must not be forgotten.