Max Lane was working for the Australian embassy in Indonesia in the 1980s when he began translating Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s “This earth of mankind”, a book banned by Indonesia’s military dictator Suharto. He was pulled back to Australia for having the audacity to translate a banned book. Lane went on to translate the book’s three sequels: “Child of all nations”, “Footsteps" and "House of glass”. The works are now known as the “Buru Quartet”.
Pramoedya’s body of work, which covered colonial life in Indonesia under the Dutch and the authoritarian regimes that had followed, had been a thorn in the side of all three. He was sentenced to prison by the Dutch from 1947 to 1949, and again from 1969 to 1979 by the Suharto regime. He was imprisoned on the Maluku island of Buru in Eastern Indonesia.
It was in Buru that Pramoedya created “the Quartet”. Initially forbidden access to writing materials, Pramoedya recited the stories; vivid tales of the creation of Indonesia, a time of national awakening and rebellion against the colonial rulers, orally to other prisoners. When Pramoedya and two of his fellow prisoners, Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman, were released in 1979, they set out to have the stories published. Max Lane’s “Indonesia out of exile”: “How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet killed a dictatorship” is the story of what happened next.
As Lane has said, Indonesia's “Out of exile”: “How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet killed a dictatorship” is no normal story of publishing books. Their story is a novel in itself, a political drama, an adventure epic, and a thriller.
Pramoedya created “the Quartet”, and four other works, locked away in a prison camp on a remote and harsh island, never having been charged, never having a trial. He worked “in barracks built by the bare hands of 14,000 male prisoners, on an old typewriter and using scant paper and only after almost ten years of being denied any reading materials. The novels took shape in his mind as he told them to his fellow prisoners waiting for roll call or as they lay on their mats after lights out in the prison hut in the land cleared from the jungle on Buru Island. And never has a writer typed with so absent upper, lower, left and right margins.”
On their release from Buru, Pramoedya, Isak and Rachman defied the regime and established a publishing company, Hasta Mitra (Hand of Friendship) despite having been forbidden to do, with Pramoedya as the novelist, Joesoef as the editor, and Hasyim as the businessman responsible for securing financing. “This earth of mankind”, the first work of “the Quartet”, was the publisher’s first release. Emblazoned on the cover were the words: “written on Buru island”.
At the time Suharto’s new order regime was reaching the zenith of its power. Pramoedya’s works were not only at variance with the official version regarding the history and official accounts of the development of the nation; they struck a chord with a younger generation.
In the first twelve days of publication, “This earth of mankind" sold 5,000 copies. Indonesia’s attorney general prohibited the distribution of the book because it was disseminating communist teachings. Pramoedya, Isak and Rachman were summoned and interrogated, and copies of the book were seized. The men persisted and continued to publish virtually to their deaths in the early 2000s.
Harassment, interrogations, jail and, of course, bannings followed, according to Lane:
Again and again after each publication. There was no surrender. Their new publishing company defied the odds, working with other former prisoners, with students, with readers, and resisting every move by police and prosecutor.
As each of the four books appeared, despite being separately banned, the books of “the Quartet” continued to appear and circulate among pro-democracy activists, intellectuals, students, and Indonesia’s cultural creatives. They risked arrest and conviction for discussing or circulating the work.
Their voices, which Pramoedya gave life to were heard, often by students reading in secrecy. New spirits were stirred. “Indonesia is back from exile,” they said, to confront what the nation had become under military rule.
Max Lane met the three men in Jakarta in the early 1980s, beginning a series of informal discussions and later, in-depth interviews that were filmed by Australian filmmaker “Gil Scrine” in the early 1990s. The result is an inspirational chronicle of a process given embryonic form by Pramoedya, and one still continuing today: the rediscovery of a nation and the hopes and ideals founded on it.