PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER has a secret to impart, having just entered his ninth decade. The grand old man of Indonesian letters recommends smoking for longevity - preferably two packets daily, of the clove-scented Indonesian variety. 'I'm still living because I'm still smoking,' says Pramoedya - as he's commonly known - through a near-perpetual fog of smoke. 'Two packets of kreteks a day is the best thing for my lungs.' His face breaks into an unexpectedly broad grin, revealing the tremors of silent laughter. Often regarded as Southeast Asia's chief contender for the Nobel Prize, for his epic dramatisations of Indonesia's historical torment, Pramoedya is equally famous for the chronicle of Indonesian history that is his own life - in particular his refusal to be muzzled by the country's three successive autocratic rulers. He was first incarcerated in 1947 by the Dutch for carrying 'anti-colonial' documents. Under Sukarno, he was jailed for inveighing against the anti-Chinese pogroms. Then, after a nationwide purge of so-called communists after the failed coup of 1965, he spent 14 years in the forced labour camp of Buru Island. He was editing a collection of short stories during Sukarno's reign at the time the thugs arrived to drag him from his home. When he pleaded with them not to burn his manuscripts, a soldier struck him over the head with a rifle, permanently deafening him in one ear. Pramoedya was shunted between Jakarta prisons before being exiled to Buru, still untried, along with about 10,000 other political prisoners. His wife, Maimunah, was told that he was dead, but she never believed it. 'I always knew he was alive,' she says. Before being packed off to Buru, Pramoedya urged his wife to remarry, but she refused, supporting their eight children on her own by selling pastries at the local market. The inmates on Buru were denied pen and paper. One prisoner was drowned for being found with a scrap of newspaper. With recourse to the Javanese oral storytelling tradition, Pramoedya composed narratives in his head before reciting them aloud to his fellow inmates to preserve their morale. The stories were passed between prisoners during roll calls and showers. In the late 1970s, the regime started bowing to US pressure and eased the conditions of some political prisoners. A decade into his incarceration, Pramoedya was provided with writing tools and permitted to write instead of clearing jungle and building roads. The stories he'd accumulated in his head were committed to paper with a feverish intensity. 'It felt like a flood in me was being unleashed,' he says. Of his 10 manuscripts, most were seized and destroyed. Fortunately, his masterpiece, the so-called Buru Quartet, survived after being smuggled off the island by missionaries. The manuscripts reached Joesoef Isak, a former journalist and political prisoner who had just been released after a decade in a Jakarta jail. Founding the Hasta Mitra publishing house, Joesoef published the first two volumes of the tetralogy in 1980. The story of an aristocratic youth who emerges to lead the anti-colonial struggle, the books were banned, like all of Pramoedya's works, shortly after publication. But clandestine copies circulated through the universities in the tens of thousands. 'The reports of bannings and the suppression of the author operated as effective free publicity,' says Joesoef. The military interrogated Joesoef for a month before outlawing the first instalment, This Earth of Mankind. When the cross-examiners endeavoured to bully him into conceding that the book contained Marxist propaganda, Joesoef proposed a scholarly symposium to debate the issue objectively. 'I told them Hasta Mitra would meet all the costs and that the attorney-general could invite whoever he liked as participants, so long as they were scholars in the fields of sociology, political science or cultural studies,' says Joesoef. His interrogators rejected the proposal, and repeated their demands that he highlight the Marxist content for them. 'I said that, as the accusers, they should be able to produce the evidence themselves,' he says. 'They said, 'We can't, but we know it's there.' After a month, I had to sign the transcript of all the interrogations. As soon as I signed, the face of the interrogator lit up with a smile. He whispered, afraid of other prosecutors hearing him: 'Pram's books are fantastic! Do you have another copy?'' Although officially freed in 1979, Pramoedya was subjected to municipal arrest for the next 13 years and his books remained illegal until the fall of Suharto in 1998. Pramoedya's creative well dried up on his release from Buru. 'There was so much information flowing through my head that I couldn't process anything,' he says. 'When I was on Buru, all I encountered was myself.' In the wake of Suharto's decline, Pramoedya attempted to reclaim his erstwhile home, annexed by the junta when they jailed him in 1965. Yet even though Maimunah had held on to the ownership documents, the courts rejected the claim. 'It was proof that nothing had changed,' says Pramoedya. He attributes his desire to write to his feelings of inferiority, suffered at the hands of his father, the headmaster of the local school. 'After I finished high school, I wanted to go to university,' he says. 'My father said, 'Dumb kid, go back to high school'. The next year, my teacher asked me, 'Why are you back here? You've already graduated'. I ran to the cemetery, near the school, and grabbed hold of a tree and cried.' Pramoedya's eyes fill with tears at the memory: 'I became a writer to show him. I didn't open my mouth. I put my thoughts down on paper.' At the age of 24 he wrote his debut, The Fugitive, while imprisoned by the Dutch. The story of a rebel searching for his fiancee in the closing days of the second world war, The Fugitive was smuggled out of Pramoedya's cell by a Dutch priest, establishing Pramoedya as a nationalist and literary hero. Yet it wasn't until Pramoedya went to Holland on a scholarship, shortly after the Dutch exodus, that his leftist political beliefs fully formed. In Holland, he fell under the influence of prominent Indonesianist W.F. Wertheim, who convinced him that the revolution was unfinished, and that power had merely been transferred from the Dutch to the Javanese elite. Through his romance with a Dutch girl, Pramoedya jokes, he overcame the shyness resulting from his father's abuse. 'It made me feel powerful, like the coloniser,' he says. Although often described as a communist, Pramoedya denies subscribing to any ideology. 'I am a Pramist,' he says with a twinkle. Yet if Pramoedya was never a formal member of the Communist Party, he was nevertheless an eager beneficiary of its rising power. From 1958 onwards, he was the public face of Lekra, the cultural wing of the party, which monopolised intellectual life in Indonesia until the 1965 putsch. Pramoedya visited China and returned as a champion of its so-called 'guided democracy'. As the ideological tumult of the Sukarno years intensified, Pramoedya's career soared. During that period he wrote eight novels, three story collections and three literary-political polemics - The Intellectual Community in the Third World, Socialist Realism and Indonesian Literature - as well as the work that earned the ire of the authorities and resulted in him being jailed, The Chinese in Indonesia. He also completed 15 translations of novels by politically engaged writers that his work resembled, such as Tolstoy, Gorky, Pascal and Steinbeck, while railing against the translation of the 'anti-revolutionary' Dr Zhivago into Indonesian. Of Asian writers, Pramoedya says: 'They were never important to me.' If Pramoedya isn't always venerated as a martyr to intellectual freedom, that's because many of his fellow intellectuals hold him responsible for the vilification of other writers during his reign as an influential thinker. Pramoedya angrily denies the allegations. 'I never persecuted anyone,' he says. Yet in an editorial headed 'Those Who Should be Encouraged and Those Who Should be Cut Down', Pramoedya launched a call to arms against so-called bourgeois artists promoting art for art's sake - those refusing to align their craft with the nationalist cause. Many of the writers he demanded be 'crushed' were subsequently jailed. When Pramoedya was honoured with the Magsaysay Award in 1995, 26 of Indonesia's foremost intellectuals signed a petition of protest. Mochtar Lubis, a former recipient, returned his plaque in outrage, accusing Pramoedya of burning his library. For Willem Samuels, Pramoedya's English translator, the accusations ignore the politicised nature of public debate under Sukarno. 'In the late 1950s and early 60s everyone attached himself to one camp or another, and felt free to attack people who were not in their own camp,' says Samuels. But Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesia's leading dissent journalist publishing under Suharto, says that Pramoedya's scapegoating rhetoric tarnishes his status as an emblem of political freedom. 'When Mochtar was jailed for nine years under Sukarno's regime, Pramoedya said no word of defence,' says Goenawan. 'Yet Mochtar's charge was made after he did very little to attack Suharto's regime in prosecuting Pramoedya. Both writers were victims of prosecution, both were persons of great courage, but neither expressed regret at being complicit in the repression of writers politically they disagreed with.' On the international stage, Pramoedya's stature as a political figure tends to overshadow his literary reputation, which Samuels regards as unfortunate. 'As a political symbol, Pramoedya is problematic,' he says. 'What is he? A communist? A capitalist? So individualistic is Pramoedya that no one has ever been able to tell.' Samuels regrets not having translated Pramoedya's work earlier. 'If Pramoedya had been presented as a world-class author, and not a political symbol at an earlier time, he would now have the international recognition he deserves.' Former president Abdurrahman Wahid visited Pramoedya shortly before he was impeached, to apologise for what he endured under Suharto's 32-year rule. It seemed that Wahid, recognising Pramoedya's influence over the student movement, was attempting to bolster his waning political fortunes. But Pramoedya would have none of it. 'It's impossible to forgive,' he says. 'Fifty per cent of those in power are from the Suharto regime. I told Wahid: 'If there is justice, these people will be put on trial. I don't need empty talk.'' Goenawan wrote an open letter to Pramoedya, urging him to emulate Nelson Mandela by reconciling himself with his former adversaries. 'Wahid was then the hope of our national reconciliation, somebody who showed open sympathy with former political prisoners. It was wrong to reject his admirable gesture,' says Goenawan, who describes Pramoedya as 'a tense person, a bundle of inner strength supported by pride and anger, with a voice that can touch you because of its strange tremor'. Pramoedya says he doesn't hold Suharto and his minions solely responsible for his incarceration. 'A large amount of the blame must rest with the intelligentsia,' he says. 'The Indonesian intellectuals allowed themselves to be silenced by Suharto. There's no tradition of speaking out in Indonesia. We are a nation of 'yes men', accustomed to bowing to colonial masters.' He says colonialism is the root of Indonesia's problems. 'We're the biggest maritime country in the world, but we're still run by the army, just as we were in the colonial system,' he says. 'With the army in control, the water between islands is inevitably seen as creating obstacles. But if Indonesia were run as a maritime nation, the sea would not create barriers, but be a means of communication. As long as the army is in power, the islands will be seen as separate, and there will be no hope for Indonesia as a nation.' Pramoedya sees no potential for leadership among the current crop of Indonesian politicians. 'They're all clowns,' he says. 'There's no genuine leadership now, just men with power. Sukarno is the only true leader Indonesia ever had.' But he denies feeling pessimistic about Indonesia's future. 'I have hope because of the youth,' he says. 'It's the young people, whose hands are not bloody and whose pockets are not lined with dirty money, that must become the leaders.' Yet Pramoedya is dismissive of Indonesia's boldly experimental young writers, often characterised as a new wave: 'All they write about is themselves and sex.' Pramoedya laments that none of his children ever became interested in writing. 'I don't have much in common with them,' he says. 'I was not there when they were growing up. You can't make up for 14 years of no contact.' Pramoedya recently withdrew the rights of Hasta Mitra to publish his books, after accusing Joesoef of stealing his royalties. 'He's a parasite on my works,' he says of Joesoef, the recipient of this year's Australian Pen Keneally Award for courageous publishing. Oey Hay Djoen, an essayist and friend of Pramoedya, has no doubt that Pramoedya knows his accusations are 'blatantly libellous'. Oey says that the charges were fabricated as a pretext for Pramoedya to switch to a publishing house run by his daughter, ensuring the profits remain within the family. 'Pram is concerned about what will happen to his family when Pram is 'not any more', but he took the most unjustified way - false accusations. Pram is not only betraying a real friend and comrade in arms, but also his own self. Joesoef's only request is, 'Do not kill Hasta Mitra, because it's the most living and important symbol of our resistance against Suharto'.' Having faced two decades of persecution for publishing Pramoedya's books, Joesoef isn't about to return the fire. 'Pram has two weaknesses,' he says. 'One is money, the other is women. But these are normal. I have these weaknesses, too. And they have nothing to do with his literature.' Yet Pramoedya's uncompromising nature was precisely what enabled his triumph. As Joesoef says: 'His stubbornness is also his greatness, because it means they could never crush him.' Pramoedya now spends his days sorting clippings for an encyclopedia of Indonesian geography, and engaging in his favourite pastime: burning rubbish. When there's no refuse to burn, he creates it, felling trees for the sole purpose of setting them aflame. Pramoedya has previously described burning rubbish as a means of expiating his bitterness towards the military, and his frustration at no longer being able to write. But Maimunah now laughs away this idea. 'He was always burning rubbish - before he was sent to Buru, too,' she says.