Monday, September 28, 2015

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane

Translated by Max Lane (from Indonesian)
Originally 1975, I read 1996 Penguin edition
367 pages, historical novel, political, love story, psychological
Found: $1 rack at Half Price Books, Hamilton, Ohio, USA

Pramoedya Ananta Toer originally composed this remarkable novel and its three sequels while he was imprisoned by the anti-Left Suharto regime. Since he was denied writing materials, he orally recited the stories for the other prisoners, only writing them down several years later! 

My interest in this book is primarily literary and cultural. Pramoedya Ananta Toer has masterfully combined a devastating critique of colonialism with a poignant love story, set in the late 1800s before Indonesia had even been named.  

Minke is the only Native Javanese student in the H.B.S., one of the best high schools in the Dutch Indies. Despite his obvious academic abilities, he would not have gained admission to this prestigious school if it were not for his grandfather's status. It turns out that Minke is descended from Javanese royalty! But his high position in Javanese society doesn't help much in his school or when mingling with the Europeans. Due to his race, all of his western education and ideas, his ability to speak and read fluent Dutch, and his dreams of being a journalist or writer cannot gain him real admission to colonial society. He is inherently a lesser being because he is a pure-blooded Native. The Indos, or part-natives, will always be higher than him, and of course the Pure Europeans will always have the most authority of all.

This is the world that Minke inhabits. While he recognizes and chafes against these restrictions from the beginning, he doesn't quite grasp their full implications until he falls in love with Annelise Mellema, an Indo girl who is the daughter of a wealthy Dutch businessman and his concubine, or nyai. For the last five years, the Nyai has run her master's company single-handedly, only assisted by her daughter. The Nyai is incredibly well educated and a wonderful leader and administrator, self-taught and educated by her master. But because she is a pure-blooded native and, even worse, just a nyai, she has no real power over anything in this colonial society – not even the company that she built from scratch or the land purchased in her name.

When Minke and Ann fall head over heels in love, both colonial and Javanese society see their relationship as scandalous. This is especially so when rumors begin to spread about how Minke is staying at their house. And then there is the controversy of Minke’s Dutch writings being published to critical acclaim in the papers…

Critique of Colonialism

This book is, first and foremost, a devastating critique of Colonialism, specifically Dutch Colonialism in the Indies.

Time and again, Minke highlights the Europeans' hypocrisy: the same people simultaneously teach him about the vast benefits of European society and systematically debase Native Javans for no reason other than their race. He is reminded again and again that, although he is mostly treated as an equal in school, he can be completely cast aside at a moment’s notice. Although his family is powerful in Native society, he is only allowed admission to colonial circles due to the good nature of the Europeans. 

This becomes particularly clear when the main characters go to court at the end of the novel, after the death of Annelise's father. Minke and the Nyai are only permitted to enter the European court due to the grace of the court officials, and this permission can be revoked at any time. Their mere presence cannot help, either (except as moral support), because they have no legal standing in this colonial court. At the end, the Amsterdam high court places Annelise – who at that point is officially married to Minke, but is still considered underage by the Dutch government – under the custody of her half-brother, her father’s son by his legal wife in the Netherlands. Because of her age, Annelise has no say in this decision to place her under the control of a half-relative who she has never even met. And of course Minke and Ann's mother have no say in this decision because they are Native.  There is nothing they can do, and the government takes Annelise away from her husband and her home to send her abroad to people and places she doesn't know. The incredible inhumanity of this action is underscored by the threat that Minke faces: if he tries to stop what is essentially the kidnapping of his wife, he, a Native, will be accused of raping an Indo minor - a crime punishable by death.

What an incredibly poignant and powerful condemnation of the colonial social and political order. 

Psychology and consent

One of the strangest aspects of this novel is the semi-Freudian psychology that Ann’s primary care physician spouts on a regular basis. He has taken it upon himself to comment on Ann’s mental state, and even assigns Minke, as the man she loves, to be her temporary “doctor.” It does seem that some of what the doctor says is true: Ann has been completely reliant on her mother, and the time has come for her to explore her own identity (or personality, as the doctor says). It also seems that she may have some kind of anxiety disorder: after Minke is taken away by the police, she develops a fever and falls ill, and she often becomes so anxious that she can't function normally.

However, the doctor really doesn’t know how to treat someone who is suffering from these symptoms. He drugs her so that she will sleep through all of the difficult happenings, which will only prevent her from being active and exploring her identity. I’m sure that a large part of her problem is feeling helpless because of her dependency, and the only way to get over that kind of problem is by taking charge and choosing to do what she wants. But the doctor, Minke, and her mother all collaborate to prevent her from doing that, in the name of caring for her. 

Because the doctor has ordered Minke to become Ann’s doctor, and to never say anything that could hurt her, it is unclear whether Minke actually made the decision to marry her or not. The doctor essentially informed him that she would die if he left her, so he is forbidden to leave her. But where does that leave Minke? He has no option but to stay with her, regardless if he really wants to do so. And he isn’t even allowed to contemplate that action or examine his feelings to determine what he actually wants. This is a terrible way to begin a relationship, and (if they have a future together) I hope that he has the time and opportunity to decide what he wants for himself.

Languages and Translation

Max Lane, the translator, was working at the Australian embassy in Jakarta when he translated this book. Because of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's political situation, Lane was sent home after the Australian government found out about his translation. In other words, he chose to translate and publish this book even though it lost him his job. While I appreciate his sacrifice, unfortunately his translation is not very good from a literary perspective. This is not entirely Lane's fault: this is evidently an extraordinarily difficult book to translate.

Many of the political and social nuances of this tale are indicated by the language used by the characters. These people are astoundingly multilingual: Minke can fluently or partially speak Dutch, Malay, Javanese, Madurese, and more. It is an incredibly multilingual environment. Minke’s French friend and business partner somehow communicates with others, despite not knowing any of the local languages except some broken Malay. In the original, I’m sure that this combination of languages is wonderful. But how difficult to translate into English! 

I would love to see a new translation of this novel, preferably done by one or two people who are poets or authors themselves, and who can figure out how to convey some of the significance expressed through the different languages. In this translation, everyone's speech, in any language, sounds the same.  It should be easy to at least change the level of formality used in the English translation to indicate the formality of the language in the original. It might even be possible to incorporate some of the idiosyncratic aspects of each language into the translation.

While this translation does its job – making this book accessible in English – it is time that a new translation appears to make the full impact of the original work accessible to the English reader.

I do recommend this book, if only for its depiction of the profound consequences of colonialism. And I want to hunt down the rest of the quartet to find out what happens next. 

This Earth of Mankind is available wherever books are sold. Except maybe in Indonesia. 

Further Reading: 

"Blora," a short story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Harold Merrill (PDF)
"In Twilight Born," a short story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by John H. McGlynn

"Pramoedya Ananta Toer Interview" from The Progressive (1999)
An Interview with Max Lane" by Fadli Fawzi and Nazry Bahrawi (from Asymptote)
Watch this Documentary on Pramoedya Ananta Toer on Youtube
Watch "Back to Linggajati," a documentary on the Dutch in Indonesia, on Youtube

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