‘The Buru Quartet’ (Pramoedya Ananta Toer): A Portrait of Indonesia’s National Awakening Period

The Buru Quartet (Penguin Books)

“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)

The Buru Quartet is a historical fiction tetralogy by an internationally acclaimed novelist from Indonesia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. This quartet was written during Toer’s 14-years imprisonment as a political prisoner during Indonesia’s New Order Government in Buru Island of Moluccas, after being accused without a trial. Before his writing rights was given, Toer orally told the story to his fellow prisoners. But shortly after the manuscripts were completely written and being published, the quartet was banned by Attorney General and majority of the published copies were withdrawn from circulation and burned. Fortunately, several survived copies were circulated outside Indonesia to be translated and internationally published.

The four books of this quartet: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass were being considered as a timeline of the protagonist’s footsteps toward his goals. The background of this quartet is Dutch East-Indies (now Indonesia) in the late 19th until early 20th century, where Indonesia’s national awakening has started to arise. The protagonist named Minke (not a real name), an aristocratic Javanese young man who gained an exceptional privilege to obtain an European education.

Toer depicted the first three books to be personal notes of Minke. Minke was described as a talented young student who has a great interest in science, history, politics, and journalistic writing. His admiration for the greatness of European civilization and their advance in science turned to a disappointment after he experienced a racial discrimination by European descent (especially the Dutch) and discovered a systemic injustice of Dutch-Indies colonial government to his fellow Indonesian natives. He decided to fight against colonialism, not by physical actions, but educating and enlightening people through his writings that dismantle the wrack of colonial government on his newly established newspaper “Medan Priyayi” (means Aristocratic Field). His encounters with remarkable characters such as Nyai Ontosoroh, a concubine of a Dutchman, an Aceh War veteran from France Jean Marais and his only daughter, a young activist of Chinese democratic movement, and even the Governor General of Dutch East-Indies, being an important part of his struggle against injustice. The story also tells Minke’s dramatic love live.

A major breakthrough happened on the last episode of the tetralogy, House of Glass. The narrator switched from Minke to a native police commissioner named Jacques Pangemanann. In contrary of his admiration to Minke, Pangemanann was assigned to monitor Minke’s journalism and organization activities by Dutch-Indies government until Minke was considered dangerous for Dutch-Indies. He was then being captured and sent to exile where he spent his life ever after. His newspaper agency was then closed and his organization lose its direction. Not such a happy ending.

This tetralogy is a story of an intellectual struggle, an unique romance, and a remarkable journey of a young man trying to release his nation from colonialism shackles. It was beautifully written the readers would feel the background become alive and being involved within the story. Toer deeply explored the characters’ emotion they became memorable and he effortlessly captured every moments in the story with a great detail. I believe this epic quartet will be one of the most memorable and most loved Indonesian classic in the future. Highly recommended for those who desires a historical and realistic story.

This post is a part of:

Indonesian LiteratureIndonesian Literature Reading Challenge

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