Country Focus: Indonesia
All That Is Gone
By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Translated by Willem Samuels
Originally published in Indonesia as Cerita dari Blora, 1952.
Originally published in America by Hyperion, 2004.
My edition: Penguin, 2005.
Acclaim: Pramoedya won awards not only for his writing, but also for being freedom of speech incarnate.
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Time period: 1920s-1950s
To make a long story short: Some are these eight tales are told in first person, others in the third, but all speak in the same soft, comforting voice that offsets their frequently grim storylines. Wistful remembrances of childhood unfold in the titular “All That Is Gone.” “Inem” becomes an unsuspecting child bride. “In Twilight Born” tells of a dream of a free Indonesia deferred. A boy toughs out a Muslim ritual in “Circumcision.” “Revenge” describes a soldier’s horrified reaction to the savage beating of a spy. A severely wounded veteran decides not to burden his family on “Independence Day.” “Acceptance” is the key to a girl’s and her siblings’ survival during Indonesia’s political turmoil. The light-hearted “The Rewards of Marriage” breaks the fourth wall, describing a story’s creation and ending to the reader.
“I wish Mother and Father were here,” Hutomo softly cried.
A loud creaking and then a cracking sound drew their attention back to the house. The timbers that had once supported the house were caving in.
“Who can we turn to?” Diah asked sadly.
“Nobody,” Sri told her. “Not the Republicans, not the Dutch, not even our neighbors. We’re going to have to accept that,” she added. “If I’ve learned one thing from all that we’ve gone through, it’s that you can overcome anything if you can learn to forget about yourself. Pretend you’re not even there, and all the suffering vanishes.”
Sri looked again toward the site of their former home. All that remained was skeleton of what it had been before. And all that Sri could do was sigh.
The armchair travel experience: The preface to All That Is Gone states that Pramoedya’s stories are semi-autobiographical. Most take place in Blora, Pramoedya’s hometown on the island of Java. The tales are steeped in Indonesian history and Muslim as well as local customs. By the time I finished reading, I had learned that Indonesians were long oppressed by a series of occupiers and insurgents including the Dutch, the Japanese and home-grown Communists.
The author’s relationship to Indonesia:
Known as Pramoedya (prah-MOO-dee-ya), Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) authored over 30 books and is Indonesia’s best-known novelist. His parents were ardent nationalists and much of Pramoedya’s writing critiqued the Dutch occupation of his country. Pramoedya was imprisoned for his political beliefs on three separate occasions. He devised his masterpiece, the Buru Quartet, during the 14 years that he was jailed on the island of Buru. These highly acclaimed four novels chart the rise of Indonesian nationalism. Upon his death, his daughter, Tatiana Ananta, told the AP that her father “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work.”
My opinion: The musician Tom Waits once said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In All that Is Gone, Pramoedya displays his like-mindedness. He presents us with stories written in beautiful prose that tell us about the most wretched of people – people who are bereft of even themselves. Pramoedya makes clear that his characters are Muslim, but I think that the recurring themes of suffering and impermanence imbue these tales with a strong Buddhist feel. I won’t soon forget the tragic plights of the child bride in “Inem” and the heavily burdened Sri in “Acceptance.”
In my book (or what Indonesia means to me and maybe you, too)
Coffee has been called Java since the early 1900s, when the United States began importing most of its coffee beans from that Indonesian island. Nowadays, corporations export coffee from many different countries, but I doubt that Americans will ever name our coffee huts after Guatemala’s or Colombia’s beans. In Missoula alone, we have shops called Hooked on Java, Java U, Java Junction Espresso, Java Depot…
Until 2002, I had envisioned Bali as a land of backpackers and beaches. A place completely untouched by real-world type stuff like manager’s meetings, alarm clocks and…Islamic terrorists. I had not ever put much thought into which religion held sway in Indonesia, but in order for my guess to correspond with my imagination it would have needed to include Rastafari, animism and the philosophy of “Hakuna Matata.” The bombings in 2002 and 2005 made me realize that I shouldn’t judge a country entirely on its tourist brochure cover.
There’s no place like (an Indonesian) home
Vernacular architecture fascinates me, and in my opinion Indonesia is ground zero for some of the world’s most fantastical home design. The traditional homes below may not have indoor plumbing, running water or a place to charge your iPad, but they sure do get points for style.