GABY RUSLI WRITES – Faith teaches us that all men are created equal, yet we choose to enslave one another. European empires have colonized almost every country globally, and while colonialism has been linked to progress, it has left nations scarred and changed. For Indonesia, the foreign occupation has inspired a romantic and patriotic generation. A youth that fought back through warfare, inspiring literature, and original political ideals, all of which are reflected most authentically by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the classic novel, This Earth of Mankind (1996).
Minke is an exemplary student of Javanese descent studying at the prestigious Dutch school at the turn of the 19th century. He meets Annelies Mellema, an innocent girl of Javanese and Dutch background from a wealthy family, and her progressive Javanese mother, Nyai Ontosoroh, a concubine who oversees the Mellema estate. Minke faces personal and societal challenges, being a highly educated Native exposed to foreign ideals in a place that implements a caste system and utilizes language as a tool of oppression and slavery. His love for Annelies and association with the Mellema family further complicates his position and helps him find his identity.
This Earth of Mankind is the first book of Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his series of books known as the Buru Quartet. It was written when Toer was a political prisoner on the island of Buru under the Suharto administration after the 1965 failed Communist coup d’etat. Toer was not a communist but faced censorship from the native government. They feared that Toer would spread foreign ideals to the people of the newly formed Republic of Indonesia. He was not permitted pen and paper while imprisoned. That did not stop Toer from reciting the stories orally to fellow prisoners in the Buru Island (hence the name Buru Quartet) until the stories were eventually written and smuggled out. His works were banned in Indonesia until 2000 but were translated into numerous languages and considered classics outside Indonesia.
This Earth of Mankind is as extraordinary as the lengths it took to be written. No one can more beautifully capture the solidarity among Indonesians than Toer. In the face of systemic oppression and separation, Minke and Annelies’ story embodies the Indonesian peoples’ arduous struggle for independence in a land that is rightfully theirs. One witnesses the spreading support by Dutch, mixed, and natives alike at a time when colonialism was rapidly coming to an end as modernization was inevitable.
The residual effect of colonialism remains in the culture of Indonesia today, where separation of races continues to exist in covert forms, and selfish abuse of power is conducted by those left in charge. Toer’s imprisonment, censorship, and exposure to other political ideals made him an outsider in his own country but allowed him to see Indonesia in a brutally honest light. He reminds one that victory is not always necessary to advance. Toer’s legacy remains the quintessential example of Indonesian ingenuity, which makes one honored to be an Indonesian.
New Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an LMU International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.