HIGHLIGHTS

  • Although never a member of Indonesia’s large and legal Communist Party, he affiliated himself prominently with its cultural institute and became editor of the literary page of a left-wing newspaper.
  • Pramoedya pursued privately an intense study of Indonesian history and wrote The Girl from the Coast, a novel inspired by the unfortunate life of his grandmother.
    Pramoedya was arrested in the immediate wake of the September coup attempt of 1965, which ushered in Indonesia’s New Order.
  • This Earth of Mankind became the first of his innovative Buru tetralogy: four linked novels depicting the dawn of Indonesian national awareness.
  • The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his illuminating with brilliant stories the historical awakening and modern experience of the Indonesian people.”

 CITATION

As a youth in Java, his birthplace, Pramoedya Ananta Toer completed a few years of grammar school and briefly studied radio repair. He was just seventeen when, in 1942, the Japanese invaded and overtook the Netherlands Indies, of which Java was part. In the limbo of wartime he studied stenography and, fixing early on his life’s work, wrote a first novel that was subsequently lost. As a prisoner of the Dutch during the ensuing revolution, he drew upon the turmoil of the times to compose The Fugitive and Guerrilla Family, novels that established his reputation. Following independence, Pramoedya wrote prolifically about the corrosive influence of poverty, social confusion, and corruption in the new nation of Indonesia and emerged as the modern fiction master of its national language.

In Indonesia’s bitter Left-Right power struggle of the early 1960s, Pramoedya chose the Left. Although never a member of Indonesia’s large and legal Communist Party, he affiliated himself prominently with its cultural institute and became editor of the literary page of a left-wing newspaper. He clashed openly with writers and intellectuals of differing views. At the same time, Pramoedya pursued privately an intense study of Indonesian history and wrote The Girl from the Coast, a novel inspired by the unfortunate life of his grandmother.

Pramoedya was arrested in the immediate wake of the September coup attempt of 1965, which ushered in Indonesia’s New Order. As other left-wing Indonesians were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, he was detained by the army on Java. His library was looted and burned. Later, the military-led government transferred him to a work camp for political prisoners on remote Buru Island. Denied writing materials until 1975, Pramoedya embarked upon an ambitious historical saga by telling stories out loud to fellow inmates. This Earth of Mankind became the first of his innovative Buru tetralogy: four linked novels depicting the dawn of Indonesian national awareness.

Pramoedya was released in 1979 to the custody of military authorities in Jakarta, where he has lived under “town arrest” ever since. This Earth of Mankind and his other Buru books enjoyed brisk sales when they were ultimately published. But the Indonesian government quickly banned them. Branded as subversive, they remain illegal in Indonesia today, along with all of Pramoedya’s writing.

Yet Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s fiction is not political in any narrow sense. It dwells on themes of humanity and social justice. Ranged against the aspirations?indeed against the full humanity?of his characters are the historical evils of foreign rule and indigenous feudalism as well as the immediate circumstances of war, poverty, and tumult. His stories are imbued with a painful awareness of the moral frailty of human beings in the face of such domineering forces and extreme conditions. Yet they also celebrate the resilience and dignity of men and, notably, women who survive honorably amidst humiliation, privation, and danger. A master storyteller, Pramoedya writes with compassion but not sentimentality. And although his stories are quintessentially Indonesian, and rooted especially in the Javanese tradition, they speak with eloquence to the universal human condition?the reason, no doubt, that they have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Despite the potentially crippling losses of a turbulent lifetime?including countless unpublished manuscripts?Pramoedya carries on today compiling a social geography of Indonesia, the land he loves. Still officially a pariah in his own country, he claims to have no clear political ideas. He says, simply, “I am a writer.”

In electing Pramoedya Ananta Toer to receive the 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his illuminating with brilliant stories the historical awakening and modern experience of the Indonesian people.

 RESPONSE

It is a great honor to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award; moreover, my family and I consider it a great personal privilege. This award has also helped to illuminate the fate of hundreds and thousands of people like myself.

The winds of global change continue to blow on a global level as well as regionally within our own shores. Indeed, the dream for a better society rarely comes true smoothly and easily; the challenges to our human creativity and our resilience are great and manifold. Still, we discern the pulse of progress. The people of the Philippines, as also the people of Indonesia, through their own history, are very much aware of this.

I salute the Magsaysay Foundation, which is playing an active role in, and making an invaluable contribution to, this process of change.

The 1995 award more especially commends us all; it highly commends the Foundation. To me, this award is a sign of moral courage and support, as it is to all those who sincerely endeavor to uphold human dignity and human rights, who serve truth and justice, and who earnestly strive for the emancipation of all, at home and in the whole wide world. I am proud to receive this award and shall always hold it in high esteem. I will do my best to keep it with dignity and gratitude, fully aware of my calling as a writer and as a human person, and, most importantly, as an Indonesian citizen in this year of my beloved country?s golden anniversary, Indonesia Emas.

May this award help to bring about a historical shift in the journey of humankind in order to reduce and even to do away with whatever difficulties or obstacles there may be.

I am convinced that this award will broaden the road of friendship between the Indonesian people and the Filipino people, the people of Japan, Pakistan, and Taiwan?indeed, of all the peoples of Asia.

May God in God’s mercy grant that only the very best will happen to us all.

 BIOGRAPHY

Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born on 6 February 1925 on the island of Java, one of the many thousands of Southeast Asian islands comprising the Dutch East Indies-albeit the richest and most populous one. By this time, the Dutch had dominated the area of Pramoedya’s birthplace near Java’s north coast for more than three hundred years. This was Blora, a small town and district capital located adjacent to Java’s famed teak forests and otherwise a place with relatively few resources. A poor place, in other words. Pramoedya’s parents, Toer and Saidah, moved there from the nearby town of Rembang two years before he was born. In Blora, Toer became a schoolmaster, beginning as director of an elementary school affiliated with the Javanese nationalist organization Budi Utomo. For her part, Saidah embarked upon a life of work, as head of what would become a large, money-strapped household; eventually, she and Toer had nine children. Pramoedya was their first born. The name-as Pramoedya has recorded in his memoirs-reflects “the revolutionary spirit of the time” and “was constructed from the phrase ‘Yang Pertama di Medan,’ or ‘First on the Battlefield.'”

Their’s was an elite family. Both of Pramoedya’s parents were literate in Dutch, the result of privileged educations accorded to only a few Natives in the colony. Toer had attended a Dutch-run teacher’s college in Yogyakarta and Saidah, after attending a Dutch-medium primary school in Rembang (where Toer was her teacher), was provided private tutors at home. Her father was a prominent Muslim cleric and haji whose large stone home with its spacious grounds faced the Town Square of Rembang and stood directly across from its Grand Mosque. Pramoedya has written that “she was raised like a feudal princess and was never allowed to sweep the floor or cook.” In Blora, Saidah’s high-born status and Toer’s position as schoolmaster placed them securely among the local families to be looked up to. Moreover, Toer was a natural leader.

But they were not rich. Indeed, in the years of Pramoedya’s youth, as his brothers and sisters were born and as his parents also took in a number of poor relations and wards, the family’s economic circumstances steadily declined. This was due in part to the times, especially as the Depression took hold in Java and, later, as the ravages of war reduced nearly everyone to near subsistence. But it was also a consequence of politics. Toer and Saidah were outspoken nationalists. They believed in the cause of “Indonesia,” a free nation to be born from the body of the Dutch colony. When Sukarno formed the Indonesian Nationalist Party in 1927 to advance this revolutionary cause, Toer became leader of its local branch in Blora, where the Dutch kept an eye on him. Subsequently, he jettisoned the government-approved curriculum at his school in favor of one that privileged Indonesian history and culture and that extolled as heroes those who struggled against the Dutch. Because of this, his school-and many others like it across the Indies-lost its license and was later closed. The police seized Toer’s “subversive” textbooks, something the boy Pramoedya witnessed personally. When Toer was subsequently permitted to reopen the school, enrollment dropped dramatically, since graduates of unlicensed schools did not qualify for government jobs. All of this left Toer and the family with very little income and considerable debt. But for his father, writes Pramoedya, “teaching was not just a job, it was a cause.” So even as the family began to sell off its possessions one by one, and as corn replaced rice as the family’s staple food, he says, “neither my mother nor my father was willing to accede to pressure.” Toer kept his head held high and Pramoedya remembers him walking barefoot to work daily, “dressed in a homemade head cloth, a white long-sleeved shirt with a narrow collar, and batik sarong” and carrying himself “with noble bearing, his body erect, his eyes not looking right or left but focused straight ahead.”

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)