A riveting tale of Indonesia's awakening


By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Translated by Max Lane
Penguin. $14.99.
Reviewed by Stephen Robson

Like its predecessors, the third volume of this quartet of novels is riveting reading. Through the character of Minke, the narrator of the stories, we follow the initial stirrings of Indonesian nationalism at the turn of the century.

The books — banned in Indonesia — describe in moving detail the events that shaped the political consciousness of the leadership of the nationalist movement.

Max Lane, who has translated all four novels, has done a tremendous service to literature and to the Indonesian people, by allowing us a chance to begin to appreciate their history and culture.

The first two novels, This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, have been available in English for several years now. These have recently been republished together in Awakenings.

The Glass House, the completion of the quartet, is due to be released by Penguin in June.

In Footsteps, we join Minke, the central character throughout the novels, as he leaves the East Javanese port town of Surabaya and arrives in Batavia (Jakarta), then the capital of the Netherlands Indies and the intellectual and political centre of the colony.

Here Minke for the first time begins really to understand his country, as he sees the desperation of its people and culture and the oppression carried out by the Dutch colonialists and their collaborators. He starts to develop the vision that would unite the different oppressed peoples and give birth to the nation Indonesia.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in central Java in 1925. The series of novels emerged from a period as a political prisoner on Buru island, where Pramoedya was imprisoned without trial for 14 years following the military takeover of 1965.

Like many other prisoners, Pramoedya was beaten and suffered torture. Many died during their imprisonment. Pramoedya obtained writing materials only in the last few years of his time at Buru. Prior to this, he memorised the stories by narrating them to his fellow prisoners.

Two years after his release, as the novels were published, they were banned by the government, but not before they became best-sellers. Pramoedya himself is still forbidden to leave Jakarta without permission of the local military command.

The accusation was that the books spread "Marxist-Leninist teachings". Their real "crime" is to capture the spirit of the genuine Indonesian nationalist tradition with its strong and > a powerful current that is feared by the government.

Footsteps can be read by itself, but appreciation is greatly enhanced by reading the novels in sequence. Take the time to read the series; you won't be disappointed.