GABY RUSLI WRITTEN – Faith teaches us that all men are created equal, but we choose to enslave one another. European empires colonized almost every country in the world, and although colonialism was linked to progress, it marked and changed nations. For Indonesia, foreign occupation inspired a romantic and patriotic generation. A youth that retaliated with war, inspiring literature and original political ideals, all of which are most authentically reflected by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the classic novel, This land of mankind (1996).
Minke is an exemplary student of Javanese descent who studied at the prestigious Dutch school at the turn of the 19th century. He meets Annelies Mellema, an innocent girl of Javanese and Dutch descent 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 uses language as a tool of oppression and slavery. Her love for Annelies and her association with the Mellema family further complicates her position and helps her find her identity.
This land of mankind is the first book by 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 failed communist coup of 1965. Toer was not a communist but faced censorship from the native government . They feared that Toer was spreading foreign ideals to the people of the new Republic of Indonesia. He was not allowed to have a pen and paper while in detention. This did not stop Toer from reciting the stories orally to other prisoners on Buru Island (hence the name Buru Quartet) until the stories were finally written down and smuggled. His works were banned in Indonesia until 2000 but have been translated into many languages and considered classics outside of Indonesia.
This land of mankind is as extraordinary as the length it took to write it. No one can capture the solidarity among Indonesians better than Toer. In the face of systemic oppression and separation, the story of Minke and Annelies embodies the arduous struggle of the people of Indonesia for independence in a land that is rightfully theirs. We witness the spread of Dutch, mestizo and native support at a time when colonialism was rapidly coming to an end while modernization was inevitable.
The residual effect of colonialism remains in the culture of today’s Indonesia, where racial separation continues to exist in covert forms, and where selfish abuse of power is practiced by those who remain in control. . 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 us that victory is not always necessary to move forward. Toer’s legacy remains the quintessential example of Indonesian ingenuity, which makes it honored to be an Indonesian.
The new book reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an LMU international relations graduate and an environmentalist with a passion for Indonesian and South Asian political affairs.
Edited by Book Review Editor Ella Kelleher.