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Literature / Buru Quartet

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Covers of the current Indonesian edition. Left to right 

"An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds. That is what it means to be educated."
Jean Marais, ch. 3 of This Earth of Mankind

The Buru Quartet (Indonesian: Tetralogi Buru, literally: the Buru Tetralogy) is a four-part Historical Fiction 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.


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 aristocrat 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.


One of Indonesia's quintessential contributions to the literary genre of postcolonialism, the books have spawned numerous adaptations. The most notable of these are Bunga Penutup Abad (English: The Flower that Closes a Century), a theatrical adaptation of select events from the first book and the prologue of the second book which starred A-list Indonesian actors Reza Rahadian, Chelsea Islan, Happy Salma, Lukman Sardi, and ran from 2016 to 2018 in Jakarta and Bandung, as well as a 2019 3-hour film adaptation of the first book directed by Hanung Bramantyo.

This series provides examples of:

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     Tropes that apply to the entire quartet 
  • Anyone Can Die: Expect sudden passages about the deaths of characters you've gotten comfortable with popping out here and there.
  • Beige Prose: The series actually has a significant amount of sex scenes scattered throughout each book, but the unprecise and ambiguous way in which they were written makes them rather easy to miss.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: See Jean's quote above? Remember that very well. Most of the books' characters have their own period-appropriate prejudices and misleading beliefs, including Minke himself who is portrayed as condescendingly naive for a very good chunk of the first and second books.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Several characters, particularly those of indigenous descent whose racial as well as social positions granted them varying degrees of comfy privileges over other marginalized communities, have a bad habit of dehumanizing as well as looking down on their own. Minke clearly isn't exempt from this; his classist and internally racist prejudices are shown to be at their particular worst in This Earth of Mankind as well as the first half of Child of All Nations.
  • But Not Too Foreign: To name several, Annelies, Mevrouw Tèlinga, Kommer, May, Rientje de Roo, as well as the two Robert, who have mixed European-native parentage and/or ancestry. The cultural ambivalence and detachment these characters experience as a result of their upbringing is one of the first book's central points of discussion.
  • Cartwright Curse: Despite constantly proclaiming himself to be something of a Casanova (or, as Pram put it, "philogynist"), in a darkly humorous twist, none of poor Minke's love interests ever actually lasted long enough in his company, either separated by death, cruel circumstances, or both.
  • 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.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Averted. Pramoedya is quite honest and raw in describing the horrible illnesses his characters suffer.
  • Doorstopper: The Indonesian version of each book is at least more than 300 pages long and therefore is this trope when combined.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Several in the books. In his works Pramoedya was outspoken regarding the plight of sexual violence against women and their presence serves to demonstrate the horrible treatment sex workers suffered under colonial patriarchy, which many history books neglected to mention.
    • Ah Tjong views the prostitutes working under his brothel as this, regularly beating them up and discarding them once they're discovered to be harboring STD. The working conditions there was so horrible to the point where it's implied that Maiko views arrest for being an accomplice in the murder of Herman Mellema as a preferable alternative to the life she's suffered as a victim of human trafficking.
    • Rientje de Roo, Suurhof and Pangemanann's favorite Indo-European High-Class Call Girl, meets her untimely end at the hands of a client. Unfortunately Truth in Television, as her character was based on a half-Dutch prostitute who got murdered in the mid-1910s.
  • Historical Domain Character: A number of important Indonesian historical figures are mentioned and featured here in slightly obscured variations of their real-life names. These characters double as genius bonuses if one is observant enough to connect the parallels between their Real Life and In-Universe counterparts:
    • 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 (mostly) based on Tirto Adhi Soerjo, considered to be a pioneer of national journalism.
    • Pangemanann, the protagonist of House of Glass, is partly based on the now-obscure Minahasan journalist and prolific author F.D.J. Pangemanann. It can't be said, however, that the real Pangemanann is actually the Villain Protagonist he was in the novel, as there are only a few known historical sources mentioning him. This real-life counterpart also died 8 years earlier.
  • Ill Girl: Both of Minke's first two wives, Annelies and Ang San Mei, share this trait. None of them make it to the end of the quartet, either.
  • Iron Lady: Many, including the one and only Nyai Ontosoroh.
    • Minke's mother (of the more demure, yet firm Javanese Grande Dame variety).
    • Surati, Nyai Ontosoroh's niece, who is so intent on fighting against her impending fate as a Sex Slave that she killed the Jerkass Dutch new owner of the factory by making herself a bearer of smallpox so he can catch it while having sex with her.
    • Prinses van Kasiruta, Minke's last wife, who fatally wounded all members of the hate group who's been giving her husband as well as Medan Prijaji a lot of flak for its rapid growth. She can also be considered a Silk Hiding Steel because it took some time for Minke to realize that his small, diligent wife won't hesitate to put other people's lives on mortal peril for his very sake.
  • 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: Several characters. Lampshaded as Minke notes that he deliberately changed the name of several real people in his writings for privacy reasons.
    • Nyai Ontosoroh, a nickname derived from what would've been Nyai Buitenzorg, after Boerderij Buitenzorg, Herman Mellema's company. (It's difficult for the native tongue to pronounce the word Buitenzorg correctly in the Dutch fashion, hence the corruption.) Her real name is later revealed to be Sanikem.
    • Minke also counts; throughout the quartet his real name is never explicitly revealed beyond its acronym. Subverted in the movie adaptation, as the cast and crew explicitly identify him as Tirto Adhi Soerjo in BTS videos, his father calls him Tirto, and the full extent of the name is also clearly displayed in several scenes.
    • House of Glass has Pangemanann reveal that the character we've known as "Jean Marais" throughout nearly the entire quartet is actually named Antoine Le Boucq in real life.
    • Minke also said in the beginning of This Earth of Mankind that "Robert Suurhof" is a pseudonym, but unlike Jean Marais above his real name was never revealed and Pangemanann even keeps referring to him with that name despite the entire fourth book being written in his perspective.
  • Purple Prose: The books' original Indonesian diction crossed over this territory many times, likely because Pramoedya was trying to evoke the setting's Antiquated Linguistics. This aspect is perceivably lost in the English edition of the series, but it makes them arguably easier to digest for English-speaking beginners.
  • Race Fetish: The books' male characters, or perhaps even their narrative as a whole, have a rather unhealthy obsession with Indo-European women, with several pages found voyeuristically describing them as involuntary Ms. Fanservice.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Robert Mellema as he's dying from syphillis in Child of All Nations. Also Pangemanann as his age as well as years' worth of pent-up remorse towards fellow natives catch up to him at the end of House of Glass.
  • Roman à Clef
  • Shown Their Work: The entire tetralogy is a product of years, or perhaps even decades' worth of dedicated research on modern Dutch East Indies history and boy does it show. Many historical references alluded throughout the book are notoriously hard to find in your average go-to resources, even by today's standards. It helps that Pramoedya was a historian himself. Also to his credit he managed to recall the entire thing he'd learned in captivity, with only an abysmally scarce amount of resource at his disposal.
  • Tragic Keepsake: The old, beat-up suitcase, accompanying three different characters on a journey they might not return from.
    • Nyai Ontosoroh 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.
  • 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.

     This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) 
  • Adapted Out:
    • Bunga Penutup Abad features only 4 of the main characters in its entire runtime but this is justified due to it being a limited theatrical adaptation.
    • The 2019 film impressively managed to avoid this as much as its time constraint allows (at the cost of greatly reducing the screentimes of characters who have a more significant presence in the source material).
  • Adaptational Personality Change: Happens to a number of characters in the movie.
    • Adaptational Jerkass:
      • The officer who escorted Minke to his father's residence is ruder and harsher compared to his counterpart in the book, who treats Minke with the (unnerving) courtesy and respect which fit his privileged position as a native nobleman more.
      • Maiko, who in the book is more of a neutral character, gets reinterpreted in the movie as a far more confident woman almost akin to a Femme Fatale, an image further exacerbated by the entirety of her Dark and Troubled Past getting Adapted Out. In the book, she resignedly told the court that afflicting Robert Mellema with the syphillis she has been carrying is a fatal circumstance Ah Tjong forced her into, while in the movie, she told the whole thing while smiling and giggling inappropriately as if the whole inquiry was a fun little gossip corner. She also nonchalantly snitched Ah Tjong's murder of Herman Mellema afterwards (way earlier than the novels' timeframe), making her to some degree shadier and slimier than the meek Maiko from the novel.
    • Adaptational Nice Guy
      • To fit its more idealistic portrayal of anti-colonialism, Minke's snobbish attitude and inferiority complex as a Javanese get quite the hefty toning down in the movie. For starters, he openly challenged Suurhof's mockery of native politicians as lustful primitives and unabashedly spoke Javanese to Annelies during their first meeting, even though in the novel he mocks indigenous Javanese beliefs right at the start of the book and finds the idea of speaking Javanese to a European woman revolting.
    • Adaptational Villainy: Robert Mellema, on top of being less socially awkward, is portrayed as being more openly antagonistic and racist towards his own mother and Minke in the movie, whereas in the novel he at least knew how to be outwardly polite to Minke when possible and is implied to be very intimidated by his mother's presence (largely thanks to Darsam) that his attempts to talk back to her often come across as meek and wimpy. He also goes out of his way to wound Darsam during his attempt to escape from Babah Ah Tjong's brothel and Surabaya altogether.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Annelies is described as being usually competent and level-headed as an overseer of her father's business, but behaves like a child around people she is emotionally dependent on and family-related problems could upset her so badly she'd cry or even fall badly sick and faint at the drop of a hat. In Bunga Penutup Abad Chelsea Islan playing as her could be seen trembling, hyperventilating and then breaking down in hysterics after arriving from a humiliating session at the White Court.
  • Asian Babymama: To some extent. 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.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Robert Mellema and Suurhof, who both have mixed native and white ancestry, represent just how bad bigotry against the natives could get among the mixed-race community in colonial East Indies, while Minke's initial patronizing condescension of fellow natives represent the bootlicking native ruling class' detachment from those outside their circle of (often educated) elites, including their peasant subjects.
  • Broken Pedestal: Nyai Ontosoroh lost whatever trace of love and respect she used to have for her master Herman Mellema as he began to experience a rather swift Sanity Slippage following a traumatizing verbal beatdown from his biological son Maurits, who suddenly confronted him after years of abandoning his legal wife and the former in the Netherlands.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: After their first time together Annelies tearfully admits to Minke that Robert Mellema had raped her a few years before his arrival to Wonokromo.
  • Downer Ending: Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh broke their figurative collective arms trying to oppose the unfair Dutch inheritance law, but Nyai Ontosoroh insisted that they had at least fought honorably. Her determination ultimately carries over to the penultimate section of the second book and motivates their additional allies—Jean and Kommer—into giving Maurits Mellema the verbal beatdown he deserves.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Minke's name originated from a Dutch teacher's Last-Second Word Swap on a racist insult (monkey).
  • Fiction 500: The first book firmly establishes Herman Mellema as one of the Indies' richest private plantation owners, with the size of his already-enormous estate extending to several acres of a forest as well as an entire lake. Sastro Kassier would later note in the second book that Mellema's wealth made his sister Sanikem "richer than the Princess of Solo", which is an entire sultanate by itself. This is why Maurits Mellema and his mother are so intent on chasing after Herman all the way from the Netherlands as well as why the news of Herman's scandalous death caused such a huge uproar in Surabaya.
  • 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 encounter with Nyai Ontosoroh, subsequent knowledge regarding her treatment by the unfair social structure, and doomed love affair with her daughter Annelies made him realize the reality of European colonial rule and the suffering it caused to the native population, tampering his enthusiasm considerably by the end of this book.
  • The Gay '90s: The story opens in 1898, right at the coronation day of 18-year-old Princess Wilhelmina as the Queen of the Netherlands and its colonial territories. The East Indies at this point was undergoing a period of rapid technological as well as social progress.
  • Grade-School C.E.O.: 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: During his time serving in Aceh, Jean Marais realized very quickly into his first few forays in combat that the persistent, tactical indigenous warriors he fought against weren't nearly as cowardly or primitive as he initially imagined them to be. This is why he came to genuinely fall in love with the Acehnese woman who would later become May's mother, as from a colonial viewpoint she was merely a prisoner of war-turned-barracks concubine and thus little more than a Sex Slave for soldiers of the colonial military. Following this experience he began to empathize deeply with the plight of the natives under colonial rule.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The designs of the costumes in the 2019 movie have been criticized for not exhibiting many aspects of authentic historicity, both native and European-wise. This leads to Creator Backlash on part of both the director and the chief costume designer.
  • Jerk Jock: Robert Suurhof, one of the novel's most prominent examples of Boomerang Bigot, who is described to be quite stout and athletic as well as fond of soccer.
  • Manchild: Both Annelies and Robert Mellema display variations of this trait in their own ways due to Nyai Ontosoroh's flawed, trauma-induced parenting, at least according to Dr. Martinet. Annelies grew up to be an awkward, anxious little girl in young woman form due to a combination of Nyai Ontosoroh's smothering and over-projection of ambitions on her psyche; Robert grew up to be an awkward, emotionally stunted sexual deviant due to Nyai Ontosoroh projecting her deep-seated hatred and disappointment of Herman Mellema onto him instead. Both of them exhibit [No Social Skills a clear lack of social skills] as well due to her abruptly cutting them off from virtually all forms of non-business interactions with society before finishing their secondary education.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted by Robert Mellema, Robert Suurhof, and Robert Jan Dapperste.
  • Race Lift: Jan Dapperste aka Panji Darman, who claims to be thoroughly native despite his Dutch birth name in the books, is played by half-German Indonesian actor Bryan Domani in the movie adaptation.
  • 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 [[spoiler: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 time the actual plot begins, he has grown rather uncontrollably violent and distant.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Minke's Indo landlord Tèlinga 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.
  • White Man's Burden: Herbert, Sarah and Miriam Delacroix, in contrast to Magda Peters' emphasis on native agency and autonomy in her activism, believe in this and are quite eager to act as Minke's mentors.

     Child Of All Nations (Anak Semua Bangsa) 
  • Bus Crash: After being taken away, Annelies lost her will to live and died in the Netherlands shortly after arriving.
  • Bring Me My Brown Pants: Happens unconsciously to poor, catatonic Annelies on her voyage to the Netherlands, which Panji Darman a.k.a. Jan Dapperste patiently cleaned up.
  • Vicious Cycle: Sastro Kassier a.k.a. Paiman, Nyai Ontosoroh's older brother, ended up following his father's footsteps in the worst way possible by giving up his daughter Surati as a Sex Slave to the abusive administrator Vlakkenbaij (Plikemboh) in exchange for a promotion in the factory he's working at. Ironically this decision was partly spurred by Nyai Ontosoroh indirectly, as he thinks his sister is very lucky to have (unwillingly) become the concubine of a rich Dutchman.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: At the climax of the second book, Maurits Mellema, the decorated Boer War veteran, came to kick our heroes out of Wonokromo. But they 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.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The fat officer who has been stalking Minke in the second half of the first book is revealed here to be Jan Tantang, a Minahasan investigator hired by Administrator Delacroix to observe Minke's progress as a gifted student and an upcoming activist. 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.
  • 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. Fortunately, she gets better and even manages to secure a comfortable living for herself by the end of the quartet, much to Minke's astonishment.
  • Whole Plot Reference: Surati's entire subplot is a nearly whole reference to the plotline of Tjerita Nji Painah (The Story of Painah the Concubine), a melodramatic short story written in 1900 by the real-life journalist who inspired this book's incarnation of Kommer.

     Footsteps (Jejak Langkah) 
  • Character Development: This is where Minke's character flaw as a condescending Javanese aristocrat with racial inferiority complex undergoes its biggest overhaul. When Jean Marais suggested him to start writing in Malay in the second book, the lingua franca of the majority of the East Indies population, he flat-out refused and even felt offended, preferring to write in Dutch. A few years later in this book, motivated by his second wife Ang San Mei's admirable patriotic fervor as a Chinese woman, he started publishing a Malay-language newspaper, the Medan Prijaji, firmly setting his path onto becoming the Father of National Press and national hero known in Indonesian history books.
  • 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.
  • Disabled in the Adaptation: Minke, the fictionalized version of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, is revealed here to be unable to sire children, unlike his historical counterpart who actually had about 5 from his three wives combined, the descendants of whom still survive until today.
  • The Edwardian Era: The plot of the novel opens at the dawn of the 20th century in the early 1900s and ended in the 1910s. The native and other non-white communities of the East Indies were at this point experiencing a sudden surge of nationalistic enthusiasm, giving rise to a period known to modern Indonesians as "The National Awakening Period" (Indonesian: Masa Kebangkitan Nasional), during which the concept of liberal intellectualism and Western equality began to spread among (mostly privileged) students of Dutch-managed schools.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: After Minke gave Ang San Mei Khouw Ah Soe's final letter, the two came to grow fond of each other and she eventually moves on from her former lover.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: There's an entire subplot here of Hendrik Frischboten and his wife Miriam growing distant in their marriage due to this, and it's up to Minke to offer them a hand and then, his body, to Mir, literally. Later, however, it's revealed that Minke is actually the one who's incurably sterile, while Hendrik is gradually cured, which sends the former into a brief episode of Heroic BSoD. He eventually got over this by reassuring himself that he still had the Medan company as his spiritual child.

     House of Glass (Rumah Kaca) 
  • Awful Wedded Life: Pangemanann's initially harmonious life with his French wife Paulette has deteroriated into this by the time the book begins, as increasingly difficult struggles with his moral conscience as a native civil servant of the colonial government makes him grow more and more detached from his family.
  • Catchphrase: Pangemanann and his "zihhh!". It's his way of dealing with the fits of hallucinations he experienced following the awakening of his moral crisis.
  • Villain Episode: The entire fourth book is told from the perspective of Pangemanann, the police officer and later government adviser responsible of exiling Minke and other key figures of the native anti-colonial movement.
  • The Whitest Black Guy: Pangemanann is portrayed to be a worse Boomerang Bigot than Minke was in the first and second books, mostly due to his comfortable position in the colonial government and also because the Minahasan ethnic group at the time were held up to be near-equals to the Europeans due to their ability to adapt to Christianity and the Western lifestyle. Throughout the book he nearly had no qualms validating most of his white colleagues' racist and patronizing remarks regarding other non-Minahasan ethnicities. Unlike Minke, Pangemanann doesn't have any proto-nationalistic friends that can help him unlearn that internalized racism.