Literature / Buru Quartet
The Buru Quartet
(Indonesian: Tetralogi Buru
) are a four-part epic by Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Originally dictated to his fellow prisoners
during his term in the political prison island of Buru, Toer labored to ensure its survival and eventually managed to have the publishing house Bintang Timur put forth the first book, This Earth of Mankind
(Indonesian: Bumi Manusia
) in 1980, only to have the ruling New Order ban it from circulation
shortly afterwards for "Marxist-Leninist subversion
". Subsequent books, Child of all Nations
(Indonesian: Anak Semua Bangsa
, 1981), Footsteps
(Indonesian: Jejak Langkah
, 1985) and House of Glass
(Indonesian: Rumah Kaca
, 1988) similarly met swift banning, threatening to prematurely rid the Indonesian language of what would become perhaps one of its most well-known works. Fortunately however, foreign publishers were quick to take notice:
Australian Embassy staff Max Lane worked on an English translation, and soon enough, the series gained more relative fame in a myriad of foreign lands than most of its local counterparts could have imagined. Long story short, awards poured in through Toer's metaphorical doorstep, regional PEN societies took the writer as their own, and somewhat recently, the series finally began to regain its place in the Indonesian public consciousness.
The story itself begins in colonial East Java, as the nineteenth century draws to an end. Minke, the main character, is a teenage son of a wealthy Javanese aristocracy and a successful HBS student, a rare feat among natives. Minke grows up in awe of European might
, fostering an appreciation
for Dutch literature
and spending his spare time writing for a Dutch-language newspaper
under the pseudonym "Max Tollenaar". All seems well enough until he runs into Nyai Ontosoroh, the nominal
concubine of wealthy Dutch businessman Herman Mellema
who in reality runs his entire company together with their beautiful Indo
daughter Annelies while her elder son Robert
looks upon his presence with great suspicion. Soon enough, Minke's previously innocuous life ends up in a tangled web of romance, rejection and race politics, setting him on a journey of self-discovery between differing cultural realms.
This series provides examples of:
- Asian Babymama: To some extent. Throughout This Earth of Mankind, Minke's neighbor, French ex-soldier Jean Marais works on a painting of a Dutch colonial soldier standing over a helpless Acehnese moment with bayonet fixed. The painting, in fact, is of himself and the mother of his Indo daughter May, who supposedly asked him to kill her to preserve her purity and was later killed by her own brother for their affair.
- Black and Gray Morality
- Broken Pedestal: Nyai Ontosoroh lost all respect for Herman Mellema after his biological son confronted him and his subsequent falling apart.
- Brother-Sister Incest: Well, not voluntarily, but still.
- Bus Crash: After being taken away, Annelies lost her will to live and died in the Netherlands shortly after arriving.
- Category Traitor:
- Minke's family, especially his mother, repeatedly chastise him for being indifferent toward Javanese traditions and insisting on writing in Dutch instead of Javanese.
- His Dutch Literature teacher Magda Peters, meanwhile, is mocked for her liberal beliefs regarding the natives of Dutch East Indies and eventually pressured by the colonial government to leave.
- Khouw Ah Soe, the Chinese nationalist, who rejected his old customs and tried to wake his people from their backwardness. He was killed by the Tongs for his radical ideas.
- Character Development: When Jean Marais suggested Minke to start writing in Malay, the lingua franca of the majority of the population, he flatly refused and even felt offended, preferring to write in Dutch. A few years later he started publishing a Malay-language newspaper, the Medan Prijaji.
- Character Filibuster: When Minke met Ter Haar for the first time on the ship to Betawi, the latter launched a 40-page rant about colonial politics, and many other things. Minke was later apprehended at Semarang and shipped back to Wonokromo because of another trial.
- Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: At the climax of the second book, Mauritz Mellema, the decorated Boer war hero, came to kick our heroes out of Wonokromo. But our heroes gave such a verbal beating on him for leaving his half-sister to die that all he can do is sulk away in shame. He still kicked them out in the end, but they made sure they didn't go quietly.
- Downer Ending: The first book.
- Embarrassing Nickname: Minke's name originated from a Dutch teacher's Last-Second Word Swap on a racist insult (monkey).
- Foreign Culture Fetish: At the start of the story Minke is completely enamored by European culture and progress, to the point of rejecting his own culture and language. His experiences in the first two books made him realize the reality of European colonial rule and the suffering it caused to the native population, tampering his enthusiasm considerably.
- The Gay '90s/The Edwardian Era
- Grade-School CEO: After her father's descent into the slippery slope, Nyai Ontosoroh pulled Annelies out of school to help run his company, postponing her own childhood until their encounter with Minke.
- Heel Realization: Jean Marais, at Aceh.
- Historical-Domain Character: A number of important Indonesian historical figures are mentioned and featured, using false names:
- Ernest Douwes Dekker, first mentioned as the boyfriend of Miriam de la Croix. Later shows up as Douwager.
- Kartini, only known in story as "the girl from Jepara".
- Ki Hajar Dewantara is Wardi.
- Minke himself was a real person, Tirto Adhi Soerjo, an Indonesian journalism pioneer.
- Iron Lady: Nyai Ontosoroh.
- Jerkass / Jerk Jock: Robert Suurhof.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: Minke was apparently compelled to document the story during his wedding with Annelies, which is quite understandable.
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- Man Child: Annelies acts like this in front of her mother and Minke.
- The Mistress: During colonial times, "Nyai" is a title for an Indonesian mistress of a European man. The common perception during the time is that a Nyai is promiscuous and uneducated, but Nyai Ontosoroh is a subversion of this trope, to Minke's astonishment.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Pramoedya Ananta Toer's own sentiments regarding the state of literary appreciation in Indonesia is blatantly obvious throughout, as evidenced by Minke's inexplicable intention to work as a writer instead of a government official.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Nyai Ontosoroh, AKA Nyai Buitenzorg, after Buitenzorg Boerderij, Herman Mellema's company. Her real name is later revealed to be Sanikem. Minke also counts.
- Poor Communication Kills: Jan Tantang, the fat officer who has been stalking Minke in the first two books. The whole mess with Ah Tjong and the trial wouldn't have happened if he hadn't stalked Minke around and instead just went up and introduced himself.
- Race Fetish
- Roman à Clef
- Sanity Slippage: Herman Mellema started out as a caring master and patient teacher to his teenage mistress Sanikem, gaining her respect over her own power-hungry parents, only to descend into the slope soon after his legitimate Dutch son, a renowned engineer, confronts him for running off and starting a new life with a native woman. By the events of This Earth of Mankind, he has grown rather distant.
- Pangemanann was once an upstanding police officer, but after stamping out remnants of Si Pitung's band of outlaws and realizing what the colonial government had done to the villagers, hallucinations of Pitung began to show up as his guilty conscience. He drives these visions away with his trademark sigh: Zihhh!
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Minke's Indo landlord Telinga and Jean Marais fought together for the colonial government in Aceh prior to the events of the story. It was a very bloody conflict, and neither liked to talk about it.
- Taking You with Me: Surati did this to Plikemboh, by infecting herself with chickenpox and then giving herself up to him. It worked, but ironically she survived, albeit with scars from the illness.
- Tragic Keepsake: The old, beat-up suitcase, accompanying three different characters on a journey they might not return from.
- Nyai when she was sold to Herman Mellema.
- Ann when she was taken against her will to the Netherlands.
- Minke when he was exiled to Ambon.
- Translation Convention: Even though various languages are spoken in the novel, everything is translated for the benefit of the reader. The weird thing is, the Indonesian language didn't even exist at this point in time.
- Villain Episode: The fourth book is told from the perspective of Pangemanann, the police officer later government adviser responsible of exiling Minke and later other key national figures.
- Wedding Day: Minke and Annelies' wedding, also counts as a Breather Episode.
- White Man's Burden: Sarah and Miriam de la Croix grew up with this belief and are quite eager to act as Minke's mentors.
- Yellow Peril: Babah Ah Tjong, the owner of the pleasure house next to the Wonokromo mansion. Khouw Ah Soe might be viewed as this in-universe, but he's actually a sympathetic character from our point of view.