Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Everything Under the Sun

One of the juiciest morsels to fall into my life from the tree of knowledge (i.e. Anthony's PhD program in Comp Lit at UCR) is the Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Four novels: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. I've read the first two, and they ravished me--in the car, at the laundromat, sitting upright at the Coffee Depot, draped on a red couch, snuggled in my bed, waiting in line at the bank, everywhere. I haven't loved a novel this much for a very, very long time. This is what I'm always wanting, I keep saying to myself, someone who writes richly, thinks expansively, argues left, loves and mourns. He's a Marxist, an artist, a relentless criticizer of racism, sexism, colonialism. Oh the joy of meeting female characters with strength and complexity! The delight of a "hero" who is self-critical and uncomfortable with his own lack of courage, then overcomes!

Among the multitude of avenues to wander through in rapturous analysis, one that captures me now is illustrated in the final scene of Child of All Nations. The two main characters of the novels, Nyai Ontosoroh and her son-in-law Minke (Native Javanese, and lowest in the social hierarchy despite their education and wealth) are facing a Dutch officer, Maurits, who is related to them through shameful bloodlines--his late father bought Nyai Ontosoroh to be his concubine, then Maurits took posession of Minke's wife Annelies (Maurits' half-sister) in a court trial that denied the validity of Minke and Annelies's Islamic wedding. Annelies died shortly after Maurits took her to Holland, and now Maurits has returned to Nyai and Minke's home in Surabaya, Indonesia, to claim inheritance rights to their business and their property.

To prepare for the meeting, Nyai has asked her close friends, the French painter Jean-Marais and a Mixed-Blood journalist named Kommer, to stand with her and Minke in the confrontation. When they become involved in the conversation, Maurits tells Kommer "it's nothing to do with you."

Kommer's reply is:

"Everything that happens under the sun is the business of thinking people." He goes on to say that "If one's feelings of humanity are offended, everyone with feeling will also be offended, except for people who are mad and those with truly criminal mentalities, even though they may be university graduates."

And this is the subtle knife with which Pramoedya slices through to another world. In the first two novels, Minke is gradually transformed from a Dutch-loving Native student with a colonized mind to a sickened public figure reluctantly fighting for his own constantly changing sense of justice for Javanese people. I know that the transformation continues, that he himself becomes less a focus of books 3 and 4 as the grander fight for Indonesian independence occurs. (Oh my stars I can't wait to read them.) What is so profoundly, deftly done in books 1 and 2 is the call to awakening--the instillation of social responsibility in a character who had been previously inculcated by European notions of privacy, acceptance of status quo, and fundamentally, the impotence of the individual in the face of systemic prejudice.

In This Earth of Mankind, Minke makes the decision to marry Annelies amidst a growing conflict with his school, his job, his cultural position as a Native who writes in Dutch, an outsider to the European system who is using their own "scientific" methods to question their authority. However, his greatest concern is his love for Annelies, and so when he decides to marry her, he states that "the world and my heart greeted each other in peace." This is his first and last moment of peace in 700 pages--and one of the only decisions he makes without desperate self-doubt. He does not yet know his own people, or the extent of the corruption that structures daily life in Indonesia; however, the marriage is a political act for a number of reasons. It is a most private affair, the desires of his heart, and yet, it is a community issue, and indeed a way of being in the world that he is choosing, hence, being able to greet the world.

In Child of All Nations, as Minke's understanding of the dire poverty, victimization, and brutality of the Dutch-Indies colonial system grows, he begins to see both himself and the Javanese as not the inherently inferior, "backwards" people who owe everything to the European masters, but as a shockingly passive collection of uneducated self-aggrandizers who allow themselves to be oppressed because of their delusional attachments to myths of past greatness. He writes: "With my inner eye I scattered my vision over my own surroundings. There was no movement at all. All Java was fast asleep, dreaming. And I was confused, angry, aware but impotent."

This complicates Kommer's assertion, in the sense that "all thinking people" at this point doesn't seem to include Minke's own people, the uneducated Javanese. This is why everyone he's close to (who are either Pure-blood, Mixed-blood, or part of a small class of educated Native "exceptions") urge Minke to speak for the rest of the Javanese, to learn about them and then help them.

This kind of "help," in the sense that it is a type of education and call to action, is much more difficult to imagine amongst people who already consider themselves educated, self-aware, autonomous, and entitled to choose their level of involvement in the affairs of others. What kind of American truly believes that Everything that happens under the sun, all instances of injustice, is their business? We get involved in foreign conflicts for capitalist reasons, framed as heroism, then ignore other, obvious travesties. At home, a domestic violence call from a bystander won't be addressed by the police unless you are a visual witness to a beating. Come on. Most people won't get involved at all, let alone call the police, and even when they do, nothing happens? The sheer volume of bureaucratic difficulty facing someone like Minke, under a colonial government, exponentially trumps any problems anyone here might face, and we are still passive. In fact we are passive, in part, because for over 230 years things have only occasionally ever been bad enough for us to get righteously angry--and our cultural memory is so short we feel the Civil War, even the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Vietnam, and so on, were actions only necessary in the distant past. (I'm anxiously awaiting the Obama era, the repeal of Prop 8, all the other potential actions that might signal a real call to awareness and responsibility in our country. But I won't be really impressed until we're embarrassed about the fact that we needed a Gay Rights movement the way we are about Civil Rights, until our medicine is socialized, until all drugs are legal and labeled with "heroic honesty" per Gore Vidal.)

What Pramoedya offers next is yet another complication: capital itself, in the modern world, creates morality. This means that even if one becomes incensed at some instance of injustice, one might be still conforming to and cultivating capitalistic interests at the expense of humanity. For instance, our hyperactive imprisioning of people involved in non-violent crimes belies our greed, not our desire to improve the social station of the shoplifters or offer creative opportunity for marijuana smokers. Discovering a sense of justice that is not dictated by the interests of capital (via the Dutch) is the wrenchingly difficult process Minke goes through in This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations. It's beautiful, confusing, devastating, hopeful, violent, and wrapped in batik and smelling of jasmine. Kommer is certain one can have a sense of justice that is rooted in a "feeling of humanity," and it is to this that Minke aspires. May it be so for us all.

Pramoedya is a hero. Read him.

Read a little more about Pramoedya in the NYT article on his death.

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