09, May 2006 14:29
Here in this land of beauty
The People, in millions, drenched in blood
Workers’ children without school
Village youth without work
Evicted and hungry
The phrases are blunt and angry, but this song, Patriot’s Blood (Darah Juang), is more melancholy than strident: “Mother, let this patriot’s blood be”. What was the mood that gave birth to this song? Was it one of gloom, like this afternoon?
Some young activists whispered to me that the song was composed by two students from Gejayan in Yogyakarta, one night in 1991 after an action meeting, when the Suharto regime was still powerful, when fear was rampant and the strength of the opposition, where it existed at all, was exhausted and confused.
Optimism felt forced in this climate, but not hope. From hope secretly harbored—in language declaring pain and poverty, longing and revenge—literature and politics are born. Heroes too. To young people striving to make Indonesia more just and free, Pramoedya was the right hero; the author of an epic who was an epic himself: in a distant cruel detention camp he wrote a quartet of novels of Indonesian history at the time that thousands of people were being wiped out of collective memory, and when the word “freedom” made times critical.
From there, Pram could be a beacon.
In this, Indonesia is tragic yet fortunate: so many people have been exterminated and forgotten in this country, yet a generation not only replaces the preceding one; it also becomes inspired. And so a natural transition (some going, some coming) becomes the connection of the movement of history. Pramoedya was the connecting force.
Perhaps the beginning was Blora. In his Cerita dari Blora (Tales from Blora) published in the early 1950s, he presented an “I” who reminisced about his “father”, someone who truly nursed the seed of freedom, and who was convinced that freedom meant “Indonesia”, someone who bore witness to the fact that the unborn “Indonesia” was already a spiritual driving force.
In the 1930s of which he was writing, Blora was changing. “I could see…in those days that there was a sense of restlessness touching the life of our small”, says the child, remembering. People were busy establishing football clubs and arts associations, even though actually this “restlessness” was political “restlessness”: the sound of “Asia awakening” could be heard, and nationalist activists like Sukarno came to speak, and scouts sang, “In the east the sun begins to shine”.
In this climate, father built a school and our house became a hub for the movement. People came around just to ask questions, or to learn to read and write, or to take “politics courses”, or “teaching courses”, preparing themselves to become educators. “Suddenly our home was like an office. Typewriters all clicking away.”
But not for long. The colonial police already had them under surveillance. Eventually a letter came from the “government”: the activities had to stop. Books were seized, the electricity in the teaching rooms was cut off. And the house went quiet. From that time on, father’s face was glum. He rarely came home, spending all his days gambling—just like the father in the novel Bukan Pasar Malam (Not a Night Fair). When the next infant was born, the father was not there. When he finally appeared to see the baby, the mother said: “He will get nothing from you. And nothing either from his place and time. He will grow by himself.”
That time was the “twilight of rocking and occasional shocks”. The last sentence is like a cliché: “But the sun will rise again in the eastern horizon”.
But doesn’t the cliché show that the child did not yet have his own language to overcome the sense of gloom of his memory? Pramoedya remained dejected until his death. Many of his last interviews give this impression. But his tone of anger was probably resolve: the voice of someone who “got nothing from his place and time”, and yet believed that “he would grow by himself”.
He certainly bequeathed a solid humanism—the humanism of Ontosoroh, the main character in Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind). In Pram’s prose, thoughts, emotions and human movement take up almost the entire scene; nature makes only minimal appearance. Each sentence seems to be a grappling between “I-mankind” who battles resolutely with the “prison-house of language”, a tussle that often makes Pram’s expression feel stiff, yet determined.
That tussle can produce freedom, even though the humanism that glorifies human dignity often fails in the end to free people. But those who fail are not necessarily in the wrong. “If nothing but bad comes along, then this is no longer our affair,” the mother says to her husband the disillusioned freedom fighter.
"If nothing but bad comes along…” Maybe she was aware of human limitations.
That afternoon, the rain began to fall on the cemetery, but people raised their left hands and gave the final salute to Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The ‘Internasionale’ was sung.
It turns out that history does not stay forever gloomy, but nor is it always joyful. These days, people are free to sing that “communist” song, even though it may produce a sense of pain: the song that was once a symbol of promise for the future now seems just part of the past.
But there is always something deeply moving in nostalgia. Always something moving in stories of struggle unaccomplished, yet of great worth.