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This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

August 25, 2013

This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  Penguin Books (1996), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 368 pages.  (First published in 1979, the first volume of his Buru Quartet.)


Superb historical fiction, set in the Dutch East Indies in the 1890s, and addressing the complex costs of colonization.

Pramoedya Toer has set his story in the city of Surabaya, a thriving trading city in East Java, where diverse peoples and products from around the world came together at the end of the nineteenth century.  Complicated social and intellectual distinctions, created by the colonizers, organized individuals according to race and caste.  Major categories included Pure Europeans, Indos or Mixed people of various linages, and Natives. The translator capitalizes these terms to indicate how sharply they defined peoples’ lives.  Within each group there were further subdivisions.   Pures were from a variety of European nations and included Dutch who supported colonial rule as well as those who sought better treatment for the people whose country was occupied.  Natives included the traditional Java aristocracy, those Javanese who worked to enforce the dictates of the Dutch, and those who provided the labor and protection for all the rest.   And then there were individuals who did not fit smoothly into their assigned places.

The narrator in the novel is Minke, the son of an aristocratic Javanese family, the descendant of those who had once ruled the nation.  He is in Surabaya where he is the only Native attending the prestigious Dutch high school.  He denies having a surname to hide his true identity.  Still he is rejected and often dismissed because of his race.  As the novel opens he is singing the praise of science and technology which the Dutch have brought to the East Indies.

Power was no longer the monopoly of the elephant and the rhinoceros.  They had been replaced by small manmade things: nuts, screws, and bolts.

When he is forced to return to his family, he claims his individual rights, as defined by Europeans, should override the traditional deference with which his parents expect.

He claims allegiance to higher values than those practiced by those around him.

My world was not rank or privilege, wages and embezzlement.  My world was this earth of mankind and its problems.

The rest of the book reveals his disillusionment as he comes to see that European practices are not the perfection he once believed.

Minke falls in love with Annelies, a strangely passive and dependent young woman.  She is the daughter of a Native concubine, called Nyai, a disdainful name which identified her as belonging to a Dutch or European man.  Yet she had proven herself to be an effective businesswoman by running the business her Dutch master had started. In addition, she is an extremely cultured woman, highly educated in the Dutch language and literature.  She is very supportive of her daughter’s love of Minke because she believes he can take care of her daughter as she herself had not been protected.

My child may not be sold to anyone, no matter what the price. Mama will make sure that such a thing does not happen to you. I will fight to preserve the dignity of my child.  My mother was incapable of defending me, so she was not fit to be my mother.  My father sold me like the offspring of a horse; he wasn’t fit to be my father.

Her power is limited, however, because Dutch law never recognized her as the mother of her children.

Through his love of Annelies, Minke discovers the inhuman face of colonization and the ways in which Europeans could use it in unjust ways for their personal gain.  He becomes a popular writer, expressing his rage at the colonial regime.  As those he loves are endangered, he has his words translated into other languages so that all could join his fight.

All their lives Natives have suffered what we are suffering. No one raises their voices—dumb like river stones and mountains….What a roar there would be if they all spoke out as we will now speak out.  Perhaps even the sky itself would be shattered by the din.

He challenges the abstractions of European law that could be used for personal greed and questions the values of his Dutch education as failing to teach what is good.

How can human beings be looked upon purely from the point of view of official documents and without considering their essence as human beings?

The friends and supporters who gather around Minke reveal a wide spectrum of customs and backgrounds.  His French neighbor had joined the Dutch army to put down rebellion in Aech, but later came to admire his supposed enemies for fighting on even when eventual defeat was inevitable.  Minke broke with his father, although his mother continued to treat him as a traditional Javanese knight with all the rituals of that position.  Although Minke rejected colonization, he had Dutch friends who believed that the future of the country should rest with natives like Minke.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel although it differed from the westernized style that I am accustomed to reading.  Toer’s characters in his book seemed stylized and not designed to inspire empathy as much as understanding of the pressures under which they lived.  I found Annelies particularly troubling because of her extreme dependence, but perhaps she eventually finds inner strength. The translator is also worth commenting upon.  His historical introduction in the preface of the book helped me understand things that had remained riddles for me in earlier books I had read on the Dutch East Indies. Both he and Toer love the variety of languages used in Java; languages that were used to define racial and caste status.  They are carefully noted to give readers the sense of when respect is being shown and when it is being denied.

The story of the author and this book are also noteworthy.  As a young man, Toer was jailed for his involvment in the movement to remove the Dutch from the region and some of his early works were written from prison.  After independence, he was again jailed, this time by the Indonesian government.  While in jail the second time, he wrote This Earth of Mankind. Each day he read what he had written to his fellow inmates in case his jailers destroyed his book as they had his earlier writings.  His books were long banded in Indonesia.

 This Earth of Mankind  is a world classic that deserves to be widely read.  Like other classics, it addresses universal issues of loyalty, identity, and oppression through the lens of a particular, little-understood time and place.


The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, by Arthur Japin.  By a Dutch author also confronting Dutch colonization.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    August 26, 2013 9:05 pm

    This sounds fantastic! I have such a weakness for tales that share the other side of colonialism. Beautiful cover, too!

    • August 27, 2013 10:47 am

      Obviously I share your desire for tales told from the other side of colonialism. And your appreciation of the cover. This is the first of four books following these characters. I will be looking for the others. Want to join me in reading them?


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