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Literature / Buru Quartet

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All four covers of the latest 2010s Indonesian edition. Clockwise from top left 

"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 the most quintessential works of Indonesian postcolonial literature, 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 and Lukman Sardi and ran from 2016 to 2018 in Jakarta and Bandung, as well as a 2019 3-hour epic movie adaptation of the first book directed by Hanung Bramantyo, (in)famous for starring Iqbaal Ramadhan, an up-and-coming teenage heartthrob known for playing the titular delinquent in the hit 1990s period movie series Dilan 1990 and 1992.

This series provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out:
    • Justified in Bunga Penutup Abad due to its minimalistic ensemble cast, which trims out a vast chunk of the first book's quite hefty array of characters as a result.
    • The 2019 impressively managed to avoid this as much as its own time constraint allows (at the cost of greatly reducing the screentimes of characters who have a more significant presence in the source material), though it still ended up adapting out Minem, the Boerderij's resident flirt who in the second book gave birth to Robert Mellema's illegitimate son. Even so, this is also justifiable considering she's pretty much still an otherwise unremarkable Chekhov's Gunman around this time.
    • In a lesser case, the movie also adapted out Mr.Deradera Lellliobuttocxxx, the Amoral Attorney Nyai Ontosoroh initially hired to assist in the Boerderij Buitenzorg inheritance dispute. However, we can safely say that he's certainly not a great loss considering his utter ineffectiveness as well as
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Happens to a number of characters in the movie.
    • 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 that fit his privileged position as a 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 being 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.
  • Anyone Can Die: Expect sudden passages about the deaths of characters you've gotten comfortable with popping out here and there.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Reading the subtexts on her actions throughout the novel, it's quite possible to interpret Annelies as a sufferer of anxiety disorder. There is a significant chance Bunga Penutup Abad went through with this interpretation as Chelsea Islan could be seen trembling, hyperventilating and then breaking down in hysterics when Nyai Ontosoroh told Minke about the indignant treatment they received at the White Court.
  • 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.
  • Beige Prose: The series actually has a significant amount of sex scenes scattered throughout each book, but they're rather easy to miss due to the rather forgettable diction used to describe them. They really pale in comparison to the rest of the narrations' rich vocabulary.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: See Jean's quote above? Remember that very well. Most of the quartet's characters, including Minke himself as well as other characters who are supposed to be conventionally more heroic, are actually flawed people with their own prejudices and misleading beliefs, often ones no less different than what the more antagonistic characters are spouting.
  • 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 severely looking down on their own. No, not even Minke himself is exempt from this trope; his classist and internally racist prejudices are shown to be at their particular worst inThis Earth of Mankind as well as the first half of Child of All Nations.
    • Pangemanann is clearly demonstrated to be a worse victim of this, as the Minahasan ethnic group at the time were viewed almost as equals to the Europeans and as such he ended up validating most of the European characters' downright racist, patronizing remarks about his fellow indigenous people. Unlike Minke, Pangemanann doesn't have any proto-nationalistic friends that can help him unlearn that internalized racism.
  • Bring Me My Brown Pants: Happens unconsciously to poor, poor Annelies on her voyage to the Netherlands, which Panji Darman a.k.a. Jan Dapperste patiently cleaned up.
  • Broken Pedestal: Nyai Ontosoroh lost all respect for Herman Mellema after his biological son confronted him and his subsequent falling apart.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Between Annelies and Robert Mellema. 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.
  • But Not Too Foreign: The Indo-European characters, like Annelies, Mevrouw Tèlinga, Kommer, May, Rientje de Roo, as well as the two Roberts, who were born from the union between a European and a Native. Most of these characters have no qualms identifying as what they are with the exception of Annelies, who identifies as a native due to her love and respect for Nyai, as well as the two Roberts, who'd rather identify themselves as white because the thought of being descended from the natives predictably disgusts them with all the irony that entails.
  • Cartwright Curse: Despite constantly proclaiming himself as 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.
  • 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, Maurits Mellema, the decorated Boer war hero, 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.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Averted. Pramoedya is quite honest and raw in describing the horrible illnesses his characters suffer.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Ah Tjong views his girls as this. This later happens to Rientje de Roo, Pangemanann's favorite Indo-European High-Class Call Girl. Her death, is, unfortunately, Truth in Television, as she is based on an Indo escort who got murdered in the mid-1910s.
  • Doorstopper
  • Downer Ending: The first book. They 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 ultimate section of the second book and ended up motivating the other protagonists to give Maurits Mellema the verbal beatdown he deserves, as detailed above.
  • 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 businessmen, with the size of his already-enormous estate extending to several acres of forest as well as an entire lake. Sastro Kassier noted 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. All of these are 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 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: But in colonial Indonesia. There, it is far more familiarly known as a nationalistic revolutionary era known as "The National Awakening Period" (Indonesian: Masa Kebangkitan Nasional), in which the concept of liberal intellectualism and Western equality began to spread among (mostly privileged) students of Dutch-managed schools.
  • 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: Jean Marais, at Aceh.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: After Minke gave her Khouw Ah Soe's final letter, Ang San Mei quickly grew fond of him and moves on.
  • Historical Domain Character: A number of important Indonesian historical figures are mentioned and featured, using false names. Historical characters who are given nicknames here also double as a Genius Bonus if one is observant enough to connect the parallels between their defining characteristics and achievements in Real Life and In-Universe:
    • 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 a real person, Tirto Adhi Soerjo, an Indonesian journalism pioneer.
    • 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 Jerkass he was in the novel, as sources regarding his life are quite scarce to find nowadays. He also died 8 years earlier than Pram's Villain Protagonist.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The costume designs of the 2019 movie have often been torn apart by critics for having virtually no trace of defining aspects that period fashion enthusiasts can identify with The Gay '90s. This leads to Creator Backlash on part of both the director and the chief costume designer.
  • Ill Girl: Both of Minke's first two wives, Annelies and Ang San Mei. One can just take a quick guess at how they end up in a book series this dark and depressing.
  • Iron Lady: Many, including the one and only Nyai Ontosoroh.
    • Minke's mother (of the 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.
  • 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.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Footsteps had the entire subplot 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 afflicted with an incurable sterility, while Hendrik is gradually cured, which caused him to go into a brief Heroic BSoD. He eventually got over this by reassuring himself that he still had the Medan company as his spiritual child.
  • Manchild: 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.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted by Robert Mellema, Robert Suurhof, and Robert Jan Dapperste.
  • 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; his real name is notable for never being told explicitly except for its acronym.
    • House of Glass has Pangemanann reveal that several of the previous books' characters, such as Jean Marais, aren't actually written with their real names, probably because Minke just wants to protect their privacy.
  • 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.
  • 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 Miss Fanservice.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 to Minke's astonishment.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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