If the last book I reviewed here was straightforward to get my head around, this one is the exact opposite. Fluffy Sherlock Holmes homage vs. Indonesian political drama? I don’t think you could get much different.
I have had This Earth of Mankind on my to-read list for quite a while. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is probably one of Indonesia’s most well-known authors, and I always had the intention of picking up one of his novels. (Translated, of course; as the best I could manage in the language these days would be a handful of children’s stories.) But a few months ago, I learnt that this novel was actually being adapted to film, under the original title Bumi Manusia. So this was the impetus I needed to finally make a start with, in the hope the film eventually finds an international release.
This Earth of Mankind centres around Minke, a young Javanese man who sits at the crosspoints of Dutch Indies society at the turn of the 20th century. Minke is in the unusual position of being the only ‘Native’ at his prestigious Dutch high school, and as a result, he is quite apt at navigating Dutch society. However, he’s keenly aware that his native status means he frequently disrespected by many of his fellow students and teachers, and by the start of the novel, this has started to chafe on him.
Despite his unusual status, Minke is an excellent student, and as the novel unfolds, you slowly realise that he’s being groomed as a leader: both by his more encouraging teachers, who see him as a model for other ‘Natives’, and his family as well, who turns out to be quite high ranking. However, Minke seems less politically minded than the people around him and would rather focus on his writing instead.
Minke’s life takes a turn one day when a fellow classmate invites him back to his house, and it’s here he meets two people that alter the trajectory he takes for the rest of the novel – Nyai Ontosoroh, his classmate’s mother and concubine to a wealthy Dutch businessman; and Annelies, her pretty half-Dutch daughter.
Nyai Ontosoroh is one of the more impressive characters in the book. Sold by her parents when she was fourteen, she originally came to respect the dutch businessman she was now in service to; who, unusually, encouraged her to study language, business and literature. But the respect she had developed for him over the years of their relationship rapidly evaporated once she saw him fall apart on being confronted on leaving his first family in the Netherlands. So she decided to eject him out her life, her children’s lives, and his own business – quite a feat for a concubine. A thoroughly modern woman for the late 1890s, Nyai Ontosoroh mentors Minke in the kind of things his formal education cannot necessarily help him with, encouraging him to be more open-minded.
Almost inevitably, Minke and Annelies fall for each other. And while Nyai Ontosoroh is fond of him, almost everyone else is scandalised. Having mixed blood ‘Indo’ daughter of a concubine marrying a high ranking ‘Native’ Javanese boy would be difficult enough on its own, but things take a turn for the worse when the Dutch decide not to recognise their traditional ceremony, and Annelies’ nationally comes under question. The whole affair causes Minke to question not just the worst parts of Dutch colonial society – but his own as well.
Now the difficult thing about reviewing This Earth of Mankind was deciding whether or not I should assess it just on its merits as a coming of age novel. And I decided that there’s no way that’s possible – you cannot divorce the story from its politics. Because while it makes for quite a fascinating novel in and of itself, the overreaching story arc is not complex, and most of the characters are morally quite back or white, which are both decisions I think Toer made in order to make pushing his political views easier. Most of the novel is also strongly dialogue-driven, but there is another reason for that, which I will expand on shortly.
If you’re interested in approaching this book, I strongly suggest you start reading about Toer’s background first. This book is the first of four in a series known as the Buru Quartet – so-called because Toer was imprisoned on Buru Island when he first started working on the story. Writing may be the wrong descriptive term for much of the process – initially denied pens and paper, Toer narrated the story to his fellow prisoners instead. So perhaps conducted might be a better term to describe how the books came to be, and it possibly explains why the book is so dialogue-heavy.
The publication of the original, Bumi Manusia, was a deliberate political act, and the subsequent translation into English was so controversial it got the Australian diplomat responsible, Max Lane, into hot water. And while I did know some of Toer’s history before reading this book – it was part of the reason I was interested in his works in the first place – what I didn’t realise was that Minke was roughly based around a real-life figure: journalist Tirto Adhi Suryo.
So if you’re willing to explore this book as a historical and ideological piece, I think it becomes more interesting than just assessing it as a novel alone. The Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia is not something that gets explored much in English language media. (Especially embarrassing as an Australian – these people are our neighbours, damn it.)
I happen to find particular time period is extremely fascinating – the Dutch were in the process of liberalising ‘The Indies’, which is why we see a boy like Minke attending Dutch school and Nyai Ontosoroh acting as the head of a business. But it’s also in the period just before the growth of Indonesian nationalism, which in turn lead to the independence movement.
I haven’t read the other 3 books in the Buru Quartet yet, but I think I have a good idea where they might be headed – but I’m going to have to read them too to see if I am right.
As a final point, this book is going under ‘Banned’ for bingo, because Indonesia banned the shit out of it for years.