Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006, was an Indonesian author and political prisoner. He protested first against the treatment of the native Indonesians by their Dutch colonizers, then the World War II occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, and then against the authoritarian regimes that replaced them. His political beliefs — which tended towards the socialist end of the spectrum — were not popular, and when his writing seemed to criticize the regime in power more directly, he ended up imprisoned. Many of his works, including this one, the first volume of the Buru Quartet, were written (or composed) while he was either in prison or under house arrest. This one was recited orally to fellow prisoners prior to being written down and smuggled out for publication.
Minke (which, I believe, is Dutch for “monk,” and a nickname) is a young man just before the turn of the 20th century, towards the end of his schooling, when, on a random invitation from a friend, he meets the most famous concubine in Indonesia and her family. Nyai Ontsoroh has been running a business empire for years, and she has been teaching her daughter Annelies — who is, of course, half Indonesian, half Dutch — how to run a business herself. Minke himself is entirely Indonesian and the son of a man with some political power, but he attends the Dutch school in a different town. There are all sorts of racial tensions going on, because Minke has fallen in love with Annelies and her with him, and she is considered significantly too good for him, being half Dutch — although she is the daughter of a concubine, which complicates things. How will their love survive?
Just as a warning and a reminder, there are spoilers after the cut, and some rather frank discussion of unsavory topics.
Obviously the main strength of the book is the fact that it’s a dissection of another culture in another time. There are essentially three castes in Indonesia at the time — the Dutch, the mixed-race (almost always half Dutch, half Indonesian, called Indos), and the pure Indonesians, called natives. The Dutch almost universally feel that the natives are of a significantly lower order — generally stupid and untrainable, despite significant evidence otherwise. The Indos, being half Dutch, are significantly better — not, of course, quite good enough, but better. There are other foreigners in the land — one of the significant secondary characters is French, and there are many Asians — but the Dutch rule the roost, and their laws supersede all other laws. It is, of course, completely barbaric, being that the Indonesians had not only their own social structure but many thousands of years of history. Apparently all they didn’t have was gunpowder, and that was enough to justify their subjugation in the minds of the oppressors.
While I enjoyed the dissection of colonization and castes, I hated — HATED — the ‘love’ story. Minke is about eighteen when the book starts and maybe 19 or 20 when he and Annelies get married, and at that point, she’s still considered underage. (I don’t know how old that would make her, but I was under the impression that she was somewhere between fourteen and sixteen when the book starts.) Minke falls in love with her primarily because she is so beautiful, and secondarily because she’s so child-like and delicate, which he loves. I hate that with a passion. I am completely aware that we’re talking about a different culture AND a different time, but the main reason that Annelies is so childlike (her age aside), with (essentially) a broken psyche, is that her brother raped her about six months before the story began. This is apparently a common reaction to sexual abuse — a kind of reversion — and — ugh. It does not make Annelies proper sexual-partner material, let alone spouse material.
Of course, Minke discovers the rape with a lot of horror and victim-blaming (autre temps, autre mores, I keep reminding myself, but the first words out of his mouth after she says that her brother raped her are “You lie!”) after they have sex, which is so amazing that he has no ability to control himself and describes both of them as “raped” by their animal natures. (This is another old romance-novel trope that drives me crazy — a man’s ability to detect the presence of a hymen while having passionate, out-of-control sex. Secondarily, if this was Annelies’s first time having sex other than the rape, even if she loved and trusted Minke with her entire life and soul, she would still most likely be flinching with pain the whole time — even if it’s just psychic pain. People don’t recover from rape overnight.) Overall, I didn’t find Annelies a strong enough character to have ANYONE fall in love with her, let alone consider as a proper life-mate. She seemed more like a little-sister sort of figure that Minke should have felt the need to protect, not marry.
Obviously I’m having a lot of trouble separating my twenty-first-century morals and feminism from my enjoyment of the book. I cannot think of any other non-Western literature that I’ve read from the middle of the 20th century, well, period (I think I’ll rectify that later), so I don’t know if I’m just being overly sensitive, but in general, I tend to avoid books that fetishize victim-like and overly childish behavior in women who are sexual objects. It should also be pointed out that the other factors as to why Minke fell in love with Annelies are the fact that she’s Indo but would rather be a Native and treats Minke like an equal; and her mother is an extraordinary woman. I suppose they do spend some time together talking, but Annelies never demonstrates any great capacity for depth of conversation or knowledge. I would even postulate that she falls in love with Minke because she wants a protector — one who is Native, like her mother — against the lighter-skinned inhabitants of their world. Therefore, although they may be ‘in love’ and all, I find the love story partially unconvincing but mostly repulsive. Other readers may be less sensitive and disagree; some people do consider Romeo and Juliet a love story, after all.
It is absolutely, entirely possible to be non-Western and from prior to 2000 and to write novels that involve strong female characters — ones who do not capitulate completely when the going gets tough, and ones who are not sexually appealing due to mental illness. I’m certain of this, despite a lack of examples coming readily to hand. I absolutely will do my best to find these novels in the near future.
That having been said, I wasn’t terribly fond of any of the characters in the book, either. The Nyai (Annelies’s mother) was okay, but I didn’t see what was so compelling about her. Even attempting to ignore my 21st-century notion that those sold into slavery are not different from those who are not, I still cannot find any character traits — other than perhaps directness, generosity, and some mild infamy — that would cause Minke’s near-obsession with the woman. Obviously, that aspect of the narrative didn’t work for me. Minke himself was moderately interesting; a quiet rebel, what he mostly appeared to want was to be left alone to produce his political writings and to live with Annelies. I can respect that, and I found that everything he did was clearly in line with my expectations of his character. Nearly everyone else in the book was unlikeable for one reason or another — being obviously racist, a past history of rape, the need to force Minke into roles he didn’t want, etc.
I am completely willing to own up to the fact that my lack of enjoyment of the book is entirely the fault of my privilege and culture, and not Mr. Toer’s writing. It is, of course, a fascinating view into another world and another time, one of which I knew next to nothing. Some books, I understand, should not be pleasant to read, and since I am definitely in a very high position of privilege compared to all the characters in the book (other than a few Dutch men), I probably should read the rest of the books. I definitely respect Mr. Toer’s dedication to his cause and his willingness to sacrifice so much for that in which he believed. I absolutely understand that his works are very important and that under no circumstances should they (or any other work of literature, for that matter) be censored — in fact, one of my core beliefs is that no work should be censored. However, when it comes down to it, I did not find Mr. Toer’s story enjoyable to read, and although I would recommend it as an important work, I would not suggest that anyone reads it merely for the pleasure of the story. This is a book to read to force one to think about the effects of colonization and consider how those effects might still be affecting countries today. So, 5/5 stars for importance, but 2/5 stars for my personal enjoyment.