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Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Translation by Willem Samuels), 'The Mute's Soliloquy'

Hyperion East, 1999. ISBN 0 7868 6416 8, 375 pp

On the night of 13 October 1965, the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer was working at home; his family had already moved, for their own safety, to his mother-in-law's house.

Around 10.30 pm, a crowd gathered outside and began to throw stones at the house. Police officers and soldiers arrived, telling Pram that they had come to “take him to safety”. Instead, he was taken to the Army Reserve Strategic Command Post.

He was held in a variety of prisons until 1969, when he was shipped to the prison island of Buru - an island which was effectively a giant concentration camp for political prisoners. He would not leave the island for another ten years. Even after his release, he was kept in Jakarta under “town arrest” until 1998.

Pram's only crime had been to write books and articles which offended General Suharto and the others who had plotted the 1965 coup, in which at least half a million people would be killed. Pram was no stranger to causing offence; a man whose loyalties are to no political party but only to what he believes to be right, he had already been imprisoned by the Dutch colonial authorities and by Indonesia's first president Sukarno. His fourteen years of imprisonment under Suharto, however, were an experience of unmatched brutality.

He was tortured severely (he has permanently lost most of his hearing as a result), and forced to watch the torture of others. On Buru, the prisoners were driven into forced labour gangs, working on a variety of bizarre “development” projects, under constant surveillance by armed guards. Many died of torture, others of malnutrition. Many were shot dead.

And yet Pram, already one of Indonesia's most noted novelists, somehow continued to write. At first he could only tell stories to the other prisoners late at night; but later, with the help of a German priest and his fellow inmates on Buru, he was able to obtain paper.

Others took over his share of the physical labour so he would be able to write; the priest smuggled his work out the country. Under these conditions, Pram somehow produced his masterwork, the Buru Quartet - four novels about a political activist during the colonial period, which are also profound reflections on oppression, complicity and resistance.

In one of the truly startling moments of literature, we discover only in the fourth novel that the entire story has been told by a secret police officer who has been surveilling Minke, the activist, and who is now beginning to question his own place in the system. The Buru Quartet has won Pram serious consideration for the Nobel Prize.

This was not all that Pram wrote during the Buru years. He also produced a number of incidental pieces, which have now been translated and collected as The Mute's Soliloquy. Though fragmentary, it is a powerful and moving book.

Some of the essays are accounts of life on Buru - simple and shattering stories of the deaths of his fellow prisoners, and blackly comic accounts of his sessions with the “Inter-University Psychology Team” who had come to “learn the prisoner's true feelings and thoughts”. Others are fragments of autobiography.

About half of the book is made up of letters to his children - letters he knew he would never be able to send, but could not help writing. They are filled with details of his life on Buru - in one letter to his daughter he talks about eating worms and raw mice - fretful fatherly advice (“You don't have a boyfriend, do you? You're too young for that”), frank confessions about the failure of his first marriage, and intense expressions of love.

Near the end of The Mute's Soliloquy, when he is about to be moved from Buru back to Jakarta, Pram is permitted to speak to a young reporter, who asks him what he intends to do after his release. “As a father,” the writer says, “I wanted nothing more than to lift up my son, my youngest child, and throw him in the air. I had done that with his sisters when they were children but not with him for he was too young, only two months, when I was taken away. Now he's 12, going on 13. I might not have the strength to do it, but I wanted to try.”

Topics: Prison | Culture