Reading Response to This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
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Exactly like what Frederic Jameson has argued on colonial and postcolonial literature that “individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as a prominent writer who used to be imprisoned for decades for political reasons, unsurprisingly demonstrated his strong political inclination in forming the major characters in This Earth of Mankind. As the story unfolds, it is not difficult to notice plenty of evidence how Pramoedya intentionally made his novel as a national allegory of Indonesia through the depiction of the major characters. This article aims to briefly discuss such kind of relationship between the individual destiny and the destiny of nation by analyzing Minke, Nyai, Annelies and Robert Mellema.
Ostensibly, the four characters can be classified into two categories: Native Javanese or the so-called pribumi such as Minke and Nyai, as well as the Indos—Annelies and Robert whose blood is half European, half Javanese. In one way or another, all these four characters shared a mixed yet quite a common identity in colonial Indonesia, which vividly formed each of them as a combination of both local traditions and European impacts through education, marriage, family background and blood lineage. Parallel with individual identity, Indonesian society in the colonial era was also deeply ingrained in such kind of combination—while the European influence had inevitably penetrated to every minor aspect of the society, local traditions still tenaciously existed as foundations where people based their beliefs and worldviews upon.
The two tendencies did not necessarily clash with each other, nor did they always mutually exclusive. Instead, the European rules sometimes fitted in with the local values neatly. For instance, the Dutch colonial authority took advantage of the Javanese concept of social hierarchy and thus, extensively cultivated the concept of European superiority through its colonial indoctrination. Consequently, the natives’ obedience should not only be attributed to the top-down suppression but also their traditional perception of power, which was manipulated by the Dutch. Similar to Edmund Leach’s insightful research on Burma, the pursuit of power and wealth in This Earth of Mankind too largely depends on the bottom-up efforts to make European-related identities artificially. This is exactly where the major debates of the novel centered.
Either directly or indirectly, Dutch education contributed to Minke and Nyai’s social prestige to a great extent. Apparently, it is the Western education that helped Minke to gain immense popularity on various occasions. The identity of being an H.B.S. student objectively enabled Minke to mingle with people from the upper class and get easier access to resources that might not be available to locals. Undoubtedly, it is also the Western education that changed Nyai from an ordinary Javanese concubine to an independent and charismatic woman, although the education was firstly imposed. The personality of Nyai was eventually reshaped by her informal yet highly intensive Western education, which made her capable of shouldering the responsibility of maintaining the family business, or even expanding it when Mr. Mellema became mentally disordered.
Most importantly, it is the Western education that made Minke realize the backwardness of his race, the significance of freedom, and the urgency of embracing the outside world. In contrast, Nyai noticed the fragility and vulnerability of the Dutch by applying the informal Western education to her own life experience—it is not the Natives who have to rely on the West, but instead, it is the Europeans who can hardly survive without the Natives.
The idea of Western education in this book also tightly related to terms such as “modern,” “civilized,” “pioneer,” etc. For Indonesia in its late-colonial era, both Minke and Nyai’s perspectives were essential to the struggles for obtaining national independence. On the one hand, Indonesia needed to build the new country by egalitarian concepts and modern technology from the West rather than proceeding its traditional society with distinct social hierarchy. On the other hand, the nation should not depend on the West by all means. Through the depiction of Minke and Nyai, Pramoedya promoted a sheer nationalist idea that well-educated Natives can be smart, open-minded, self-reliant, and charismatic without relying on either the West or the out-dated hierarchical system.
To look at the other dimension of the national allegory in This Earth of Mankind, it is also quite interesting to make a comparison by juxtaposing Annelies and Robert Mellema regarding their respective destiny. The brother and sister shared the same blood lineage of half European and half Native Javanese, but each of them held the completely opposite understanding of their own identity. Annelies always deemed herself a pureblood Javanese who never looked down upon the Natives, never flattered the Dutch and never actually cared about her other half of the European blood. As a caring and sympathetic child, she was so obedient to Nyai. On the contrary, Robert persistently tried to legitimize his European identity by denying the Javanese blood in his vein. He was such a weird combination of arrogance and ignorance with the blind adulation of the European way of life. No doubt, Robert was intentionally depicted as a peremptory, rebellious and ungovernable Indo, whose characteristics were not only typical and representative in colonial Indonesia, but have been broadly presented in other colonial/postcolonial literature throughout the world as well.
Ironically, both Annelies and Robert are depicted as weak, dependent and even tragic characters despite the fact that there was a significant divergence between their personalities. For example, Annelies relied on Nyai so heavily in all respects. Her obedience to Nyai seemed to be unconditional even after becoming emotionally dependent on Minke—it is Nyai and Minke who truly dominated Annelies’ innermost being. Not surprising at all, Annelies would fall ill easily without having the presence of her “dominators.” Robert too, was an extremely vulnerable person although he seemed to be physically strong and tough. Deep in his mind, Robert was an enthusiast who firmly believed that people should embrace everything that related to Europe. He was so proud of being a half European while having an extreme grudge against the Natives—he hated himself for being a half Javanese. Sadly enough that Robert just took his privilege for granted and he never thought of making real efforts to improve his life. Robert dreamt of becoming “his father’s son,” yet his father did not even give heed to his existence. Mr. Mellema did not recognize Robert, nor did his mother and sister after they were repeatedly disappointed by Robert’s annoying behavior. He did have his dream of sailing far away, but his inability, cowardice plus the cruel reality that nobody cared about him just prevented Robert from doing so. It is particularly distressing that Robert eventually embarked the road of degeneration and sank to such incredible depth.
In this regard, we may look at the social context in the late-colonial and early postcolonial period that Indonesia inherited a tremendous colonial legacy from the Dutch rules, exactly like how Annelies and Robert were born to be mixed Indo with half-European blood. How to deal with the connections with the previous metropolitan state was a dilemma commonly faced by colonies all over the world. Should people cut off all the links with Europe and thus being isolated just like Annelies? Or should people fully embrace Europe, by all means, to completely “modernize” the country like Robert?
Pramoedya’s answer is neither. He called on Indonesian people to adopt the model of Minke which equipped people’s minds with Western knowledge while strictly made people loyal to their “Native” identity. Compared to Nyai who was imposed to “modernization” by the Dutch through fruitful yet informal education, Minke received his formal Western education more intensively and systematically. Thanks to the thorough schooling, local people like Minke could not merely realize the importance of Western technology, but also the power of the Western idea such as egalitarianism, freedom, independence as well as open-mindedness. As a distinguished nationalist fighter, Pramoedya had been making life-long efforts to strive for individual emancipation and egalitarianism from the late-colonial era and throughout Suharto’s New Order. His advocates have apparently gone far beyond the original ideas of anti-colonialism, and somehow inevitably touched on the dictators’ sensitive nerve after the independence of Indonesia was obtained. This might be the fundamental reason why Pramoedya was imprisoned for so long.