Indies Literature: Thoughts on ‘This Earth of Mankind’ by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

The Dutch lack of awareness of its colonial past has almost become a cliché. Anticolonial activists clamouring for compensiation and pundits nostalgic for a past where the Netherlands once dared to dream of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council both lament the uneducated state of the public. Their oft repeated complaint has actually much truth to it. Limited knowledge of the Netherlands East Indies is eclipsed by a general disinterest that seems to have set in as soon as the colonial army was disbanded.

Besides historians, only the sizeable part of the Dutch population with family ties to old Insulinde keeps its spirit alive. Besides the cuisine, and the annual pasar malam you will find in most cities, the flavours and fragrances of a world now gone have been preserved in the literature of the Netherlands. What is referred to as the Indische Letteren—or Indies Letters—is a well-curated part of Dutch literature looked after mostly by those who were originally born there.

However, this contains of course a coloured perspective, often drawing mostly from the experiences of a colonial upperclass that generally led privileged lives in their clean, well-staffed white villas. Attempts to portray the inlandse or native perspective are there—from the revolutionary Max Havelaar by Multatuli to the melancholic Oeroeg by the grande dame of the Indies Letters, Hella Haasse—but they remain colonial works.

After years of Dutch books, I therefore much enjoyed reading something from the Indonesian perspective. There is probably no better place to gain some understanding of the development of Indonesian nationalism than the literary masterpiece that is the Buru Quartet of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was until his dead perhaps Southeast Asia’s biggest chance for the Nobel prize. Born in 1925, this Indonesian nationalist suffered much in jail. He was first interred by the Dutch for anti-colonial sympathies, and later under Suharto for a much longer period because of suspected communist sympathies, and perhaps too much support for the Chinese-Indonesians.

In the labour camp on the rugged island of Buru where the military regime had put him, deliberately deprived of pen and paper, Toer wrote the first three of the four books in the tetralogy, composing orally. Fellow prisoners took on extra shifts to give him time, and saw to it that the voluminous tale was written down. They would finally be published in the eighties, then officially still banned in Indonesia itself.

I want to talk about the first book, because so far that is the only one I have read, in the Dutch translation, a few years back already. It is an incredibly interesting tale and I would recommend everyone interested in Indonesia’s modern history or literature to read it.

This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) to someone with an experience with the Indies Letters at first reads almost like another book from that genre, especially in the Dutch translation. The setting is familiar, the hierarchies and roles of the different races are all there. The main character is one of the rare none-whites admitted to the prestigious HBS-level secondary school, just like the eponymous main character of Haasse’s Oeroeg. The Dutch still have the absolute certainty of the correctness of their views and position that was typical of pre-Second World War Europeans. A mysterious Chinese baba runs the nearby brothel. The native rulers are as self-centred and inept as always.

However, soon you notice the stark difference in narrative style. The Indonesian landscape invites great literary descriptions. However, Toer provides a strong contrast with the Dutch writers. An example is Louis Couperus, the great naturalist. Most distinctly, in The Hidden Force (De Stille Kracht) he spends the first two pages beautifully setting the stage. However, like others, he shows something more akin to the admiration of something extraordinary and alien, the teeming forests and hazy hills contrasted against the empty flatness of the Dutch landscape.

This might be attributed to the fact that Toer’s work was composed orally. But it is also a sign of a more important difference: Toer has taken the Dutch narrative and turned it into something Indonesian. He takes it apart. When he sees the trees, he sees not the mysterious darkness, but the familiarity of his childhood. This Earth of Mankind breathes the idea that this part of the earth is home. It has in common with The Hidden Force that the land rejects the Dutch impositions, but for Couperus that turns it into something frightful rather than a source of power.

The first book of the four is not that martial yet. It describes only the first phase of nationalism, a gradual awaking by the main character and those around him to the unfairness of the colonial system. The main character, Minke, is a descendant of Javanese royalty, but in spite of his high status in indigenous society is despised by the arrogant Europeans. While in school he lives on a plantation in the household of an Indonesian woman and her daughter by an incompetent white Dutchman, Annelies. The women actually expertly run the plantation, but the mother’s knowledge and experience counts for nothing in the face of the colonial state. The main conflict arises when Minke marries the underage Annelies in a Islamic ceremony not recognised by Dutch law. Her legal, Dutch, guardians try to take her back and Minke rallies the Indonesians incensed by this insult to their religion.

This plot is in many ways the inverse of many conventional plots that focus on Dutch planters. The concubine and the appendages to heir household become the main focus, the white planter a supporting role. From inhospitable and mysterious, the kampongs become the place where family lives. The preoccupation with polite Dutch society is absent from Toer, which would make him less suitable for the costume period dramas so in vogue right now.

Most books from the Indies Letters let Islam play a role, but in most books it plays the role of a dark, unknowable power. For Toer it is not a negative force, but the source of the mobilising power that would eventually sweep away Dutch rule. Still, in the case of Islamic marriage law versus Dutch civil law I found myself instinctively agreeing with the Dutch court, or at least understanding of its position. It is hard to sympathise with the plight of a frustrated marriage to a minor. It is interesting how this case echoes Dutch fears about the violation of Maria Hertogh, the Dutch girl whose case caused race riots in Singapore in 1950. The Malay family that had adopted her while her white parents were locked away in Japanese concentration camps refused to give her up, and betrothed the underage girl to an older boy. Another echo is the important love story of Saïdjah and Adinda in Max Havelaar, which was also frustrated by Dutch colonial authorities.

Despite the different perspectives adopted by the Indonesian and the Dutch writers, I do see another parallel between This Earth of Mankind and Oeroeg, the tiny book from 1948 condemned by the representatives of a government fighting a war against the fledgling Republik Indonesia. In both, we have a ‘native’ boy gaining national consciousness as he learns to see the colonial system for what it is and understands Indonesia’s place in the world. This often painful process reminds me of the similar struggle I have read so much about that went on in China in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was this process that would determine the future shape of the postcolonial state. This is what makes This Earth of Mankind so rewarding to read: it is almost a meditation on nationalism. In the struggle for freedom of your community, it is one of the strongest weapons.

Closed meritocracy in a segregated Dutch society

It must have been a news article on the occasion of a report from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau; SCP) where I read this interesting observation: the Dutch upper class is both very open and closed. This outwardly nonsensical statement could be rephrased by saying that the Netherlands has ‘closed meritocracy’. It is very possible to join the elite, but once you have been allocated to a group, the borders close. Subsequently, there is very little interaction amongst the different groups. This is the direct consequence of the Dutch educational system.

Our school system in the Netherlands has three (four) tiers. After an optional stint at nursery school each child has to go to primary school for eight years when they turn four years old. An exam and the opinion of your teacher determines to what kind of secondary school you will go; your educational level is determined when you are twelve. In theory you can stack levels, but that rarely happens. Only the highest level, VWO, grants you direct access to an academic Bachelor.

The consequence is that once you get into the right secondary school and manage to stay in, your membership of the middle or upper class is virtually assured. Starting from puberty Dutch children are socialised into their stations in society. This allows everyone, even those from humble backgrounds, to learn ‘proper’ behaviour and keeps them on track to finish with the rest of their cohort. It also clearly demarcates the boundaries between the classes. People who are part of the elite not because of inalienable birthright constantly have to signal and stress their belonging.

My background is not humble, but it is also not spectacular. I come from a countryside family, and my brother and I are the first to go to university. In the Dutch system this is perfectly possible. Once we will graduate with a master’s degree, we will be part of the upper middle class. With that comes a set of thoughts, behaviour and social spheres that are very different from those of the world in which we grew up. Our meritocracy is open, because everyone can be selected, but closed, because the separation seals the groups off socially at a very early stage.

Dutch society in the past was plagued by what is called the verzuiling, the ‘pillar-isation’. Everyone was part of their own group. You had the labourers, the Catholics, myriads of Protestant denominations, the urbanite left-wing, and so on. These groups had their own news papers, public broadcasters, social organisations, political parties, and even shops. Even though the other was better, my grandparents would only shop at the baker who went to their church.

These denominational pillars are gone now. But commentators argue, and I agree, that a new kind of pillar system has come up: education. Whereas in the past people with different educational levels could be found in one pillar, these days different educational classes lead different lives. Papers and political parties seem now to be speaking to the world views of distinct educational groups—de Volkskrant used to be the Catholic daily, is now the paper of the centre-left elite—rather than of different religious or political convictions. If you have money, you go to concept stores, if you need to watch every penny, you shop at Aldi or Lidl.

There is very little exchange between the educational classes. SCP research showed that people marry within their class, have friends within their class and live amongst their class. When I leaf through the country’s main tabloid I see a different country.

The SCP argued that one important change with the past is that there are less people in the lower educated group that are there because they missed out on educational opportunities. Where I come from it was not uncommon in the past for parents to send their children to lower-level secondary schools than possible, because that was what befitted their station. Nowadays that would be unthinkable. Study finance and the growth of universities and polytechnics have done the rest. In other words: it seems that our meritocracy is working well, but because of that is only making inequality worse.

The current situation of deep cleavages is not conducive to the solidarity that is necessary to keep up our welfare state. If there is no interaction amongst the classes, there is no understanding of what matters to people outside your own group. A clear example was the public outrage against salary increases for the directors of state-owned (because state-rescued) bank ABN AMRO of €100,000 a year. When the bankers appeared before a parliamentary commission they were incredulous. To them it seemed very reasonable.

Worse is that empathy is necessary for the good functioning of our government. Policy makers need to have some relation to the life world of all classes in our society. If voters all live in their own world, they will drive their parties to different extremes and be estranged from politics when inevitably compromises have to be made that seem inconceivable from the voter’s perspective.

Another issue is that the meritocracy is not entirely fair. The primary school teacher’s advice matters more than the final exam when it comes to your secondary school level. It is a well-known fact that non-white pupils get lower advices than white pupils. When I tried to find the recent newspaper article to support this claim, I instead found one from 2007; this issue has been playing for a while.

Moreover, social mobility is never absolutely blind to background. Children from parents with an academic background have higher changes of making it to university too. This is in part related to natural selection, but has also to do with their environment: better family life, more stimulation, better neighbourhoods with better schools, and so on. As the educational classes become more physically concentrated, this disparity will only become more pronounced.

What can be done against this? Discrimination is obviously something that has to be eradicated via action. But if besides that our meritocracy works well, the education system ought to be left alone. Instead, we should look carefully into ways to weaken the walls between the groups. Perhaps one solution can be gleaned from officially multiracial Singapore.

There, around 80% of all housing is public and the government uses that to enforce a policy whereby every flat has to reflect the ethnic composition of the population. The Netherlands, whose urban planning was a source of inspiration for Singapore, could be inspired in its turn: the government ought to make neighbourhoods a reflection of the educational composition of our population.

Kurhaus and apartments at the beach in The Hague.
Kurhaus and apartments at the beach in The Hague.

Ironies of history captured in photo

Bijeenkomst presidentieel paleis

The above picture shows the delegation of the Dutch prime minister, who is currently on a trade mission in Indonesia, meeting with their Indonesia hosts inside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The irony here is that Merdeka Palace—named after the slogan of the Indonesia struggle for independence, ‘freedom’—was built as Paleis Koningsplein, the residence of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies.

Where now hang portraits of former presidents, once were the solemn gazes of Dutch kings caught in paint. The very red and blue flag standing proudly in this room stands for everything that was prosecuted from here.

The Delftware in the back and the Dutch colonial architecture show there is a historical link that cannot be forgotten. But it is clear that the tables are turned. Where the power of The Hague was once on display, the Dutch prime minister is now a humble guest, hoping to be noticed amongst other possible trade partners. This is the irony of history.