This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1975
- Indonesia, #9
- Paperback (received as a gift)
- Read May 2017
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: guys who think #metoo is just a witch hunt
This was a pretty good book. I can’t say that I greatly enjoyed reading it—it wasn’t a page-turner or anything—but I can see its literary merit and I’m not going to challenge the conventional wisdom that this is one of Indonesia’s great literary classics (and especially given my last post, which was about another Indonesian classic which I also did not greatly enjoy; I’m trying hard to balance cultural sensitivity with writing my own honest reviews).
Plenty has been written about the book in general and the circumstances of its composition (pretty much every single description I’ve ever read about this book, including the blurb, describes how Pramoedya—in the Javanese tradition, he did not have a surname, so is referred to by the first of his given names—composed the book orally, as a political prisoner on Buru Island, and related it to the other prisoners years before he had the opportunity to write it down), so I’m not going to bother rehashing it here. If you’re interested in reading a thorough and contemplative review, with relevant history and autobiographical information, there was a good one in The New York Times in 1992.
So instead of a general review, what I would like to talk about is the part of the book that really didn’t work for me—the central “romance” which I found unbelievable, exploitative, and frankly horrifying. The paragraphs below contain spoilers, and also potentially troubling content (sexual violence, coercion, and incest), so feel free to bail here and read the more neutral, and certainly better-written, criticism linked above.
The book’s narrator, Minke, is the son of a noble Javanese family, and his relationship with the Indo (of mixed European and Indonesian heritage)1 girl Annelies provides the core of the book’s narrative. It’s not, however, really a story about love. Minke’s relationship with Ann is a tool for Pramoedya’s careful exploration of the intersections of various layers of racism, classism, and colonial law and custom in turn-of-the-century Java. This aspect of the book is interesting and carefully crafted. Java already had a complex social hierarchy before the Dutch invasion, and colonialism only made it more so. There is, for instance, Minke’s confusion about how to interact with Annelies’s mother, the concubine of a Dutch businessman; her title is “Nyai,” the title for all concubines, but he is embarrassed to call her that to her face. Annelies and her brother are both Indo, but Annelies identifies as Native while her brother (an entirely unsympathetic character) yearns to be purely European. Similarly, Minke’s friend Robert Suurhof, himself an Indo, considers Indo girls to be beneath him, vowing to marry only a pure European girl (whether a European girl would have considered him an acceptable mate is a question that is not answered in the book; the implication, though, given his character, is that his ego is running away with him). Minke, because of his noble birth, is given privileges not accorded to most Natives. He attends a European school (he seems to be the only Native in his class, and there is an episode early in the book where Robert Suurhof tries to embarrass him by forcing him to explain repeatedly that he has no last name; at first both Ann and her brother think that he might be the unacknowledged Indo son of a European, and it is only after he states, again, that he has no surname, that they get it. Even though their own mother is Native, it seems to be the farthest thing from their minds that a wealthy and educated boy of their own age could be anything but European or Indo). There is also a scene in which Minke is arrested, and he protests that he has the right to be tried in a European court. The police are clearly uncertain of their relative social status and are gruffly accommodating; they turn out to be executing orders by Minke’s own father to bring him home for a visit.
All ambiguity and relativity are cleared away, though, in a series of events designed to reveal just how little power any Indonesian had in the face of Dutch occupation. When we meet her, Nyai has already been abandoned by her partner/master, who prefers to spend all his time at the brothel next door, and is dying of alcoholism and/or syphilis. According to her, he had once been a good partner, and it is implied that they would have been married if the law had allowed it. She has been running his estate and his business, and doing it well, living a life of wealth and privilege that few Native women could enjoy. But when he dies, it turns out that he had another wife and family in the Netherlands, and they are entitled to all of his wealth and lands. She does not even have the right to her own children, and the book ends with Annelies being shipped off to the Netherlands against her will. Minke, who has married Ann, fights against her deportation, but even his noble status does not win him the right to a part-European wife.
Ann is just a pawn, more a symbol than a character. We are supposed to accept her relationship with Minke as a destined, tragic love in the tradition of Sitti Nurbaya. And yet Ann, as she is written, is clearly emotionally disturbed, codependent and fragile. When Minke goes away for a few days she goes into hysterics and has to be sedated by the family doctor, who then literally keeps her in a medically-induced coma until Minke comes back, at which point he emotionally blackmails Minke into promising to marry her. Seriously. Also she’s like fifteen, but whatever.
All the adults in Ann’s life make terrible choices for her: Nyai and the doctor both urge Minke to marry her, telling him that he pretty much has to commit to never leaving Ann’s side for the rest of her life because she’s just too fragile to be without him. Then we find out that the root of Ann’s psychological disturbance is the trauma of being recently raped by her own brother; she tells Minke this in between the first and second time they have sex, when he’s giving her shit for not being a virgin. And I guess it works, on the level of metaphor—there are two halves of Indonesia, the Native (symbolized by Annelies) and the European (symbolized by her brother), and even though they are irrevocably mixed, the European element continues to brutalize and plunder the Native half. But it’s just so disgusting on the level of the story (not to mention that Nyai echoes the sibling-romance conceit of Sitti Nurbaya wherein Minke is urged to treat Ann like a sister; it was icky in the first place but these circumstances take it to a whole new level). The girl needs a strong support network and a good therapist, not involuntary sedation and a hasty teenage wedding.
So when the Dutch government steps in and puts Annelies on a boat to the Netherlands, refusing to recognize her marriage to Minke or her mother’s claim on her, we’re supposed to see it as a tragic and criminal overreach of a racist, colonizing government that doesn’t recognize its subjects as fully human. But it’s hard for me to fully get behind that sentiment, because while shipping her off to Europe is fairly extreme, it also doesn’t really seem optimal for Ann to stay in the care of a mother who allowed a fragile teenager to be drugged for days on end before guiding her into cementing a wildly codependent relationship, without even inquiring into the nature of her emotional problems. Personally, I would hope that if my obviously troubled teenage daughter came to me and said, “my boyfriend went away for a day and I miss him so much I’m actually going to die,” my response would be less, “ok, let’s talk wedding venues,” and more, “it’s time for a conversation about maintaining healthy boundaries within a relationship and hey, while we’re at it, maybe we could start cultivating a few hobbies or something.”
Lately, of course, I’ve been thinking a lot more than I ever wanted to about governments taking children away from their families. It ought to go without saying that family separation as a matter of government policy is absolutely horrific. And while there are obviously some parents who are not fit to care for their children, I would argue that history has offered abundant evidence that colonizing governments cannot be trusted to make decisions about the best interests of the people they have subjugated. Look to Australia’s Stolen Generations, for instance, not to mention America’s own history of kidnapping indigenous American children and deliberately divorcing them from their culture, language and people. So in the abstract, it’s very clear that the Dutch government should not have the right to take Annelies from her mother and husband and send her off to a country she’s never seen.
However, Pramoedya undermines some of the moral outrage this incident is supposed to evoke by his own misogynist and dehumanizing treatment of Annelies. We’re supposed to believe that being separated from Minke will literally kill her, but you know, that’s just not how human beings work. We can only accept Nyai’s and Minke’s behavior toward Annelies if we see her as nothing more than an empty vessel, with no capacity to grow and become an independent person. She doesn’t have any agency or sense of self, and that isn’t a problem for her mother or for the author because she is only a device, written to serve two purposes: to symbolize the victimization of Indonesia, and to further the development of the main character. Ann’s impending deportation is the kindling that lights Minke’s revolutionary and journalistic fervor—her pain is his motivation. Pramoedya gives Annelies trauma but no redemption, no purpose or even potential beyond being Minke’s love interest, and I for one am entirely over female trauma being used as a device for motivating the growth of (obviously more important) male characters.
1. I am following the author’s terminology here, whereby “European” refers to a white person, usually either from the Netherlands or of unmixed Dutch descent, “Indo” refers to someone of mixed European and Indonesian heritage, and “Native” refers to a person of only Indonesian descent. There are many indigenous ethnic groups in Indonesia, but This Earth of Mankind takes place on the island of Java, and most people referred to as “Native” in the book are Javanese.↩