Wednesday, August 27, 2008

This Earth of Mankind

This Earth of Mankind (Buru Quartet) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
Penguin (Non-Classics) (1996), Paperback, 368 pages

The other book I got was Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind (translated from the Javanese Bumi Manusia). I selected this book because it had a Penguin imprint on it. Penguin books is what I associated P. G. Wodehouse, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Penguin has an India office (a couple actually), and when I was growing up you could be sure the books they published were either serious literature, vernacular or otherwise, or stiff Brit humor. Something good, most of the time. I made a conscious effort not to look at the backcover and read the summary or read anything about the author. That was I wouldn't be prejudiced against or for it. I finished it this morning.

This Earth is set in 1898 Indonesia, colonized by the Dutch and tells the story of a young Javanese teenager, 18 year old Minke, who's a star student, attending a prestigious Dutch school, the only native there. He's challenged by his half-European, half-native (Indos they're called) friend to make friends with a concubine's daughter, and ends up falling in love with her. There's wonderful detail about Indonesian society, but it is an overtly political text.

And then there is Toer himself. He was a political prisoner imprisoned by Suharto's government for 14 years, and much of the book was told by Toer to his fellow prison mates orally. When he was finally released in 1973, he took a couple of years to write down this book as well as the stories of the other characters into a quartet. The books are called The Buru Quartet. Once I read about Toer's political life as a dissident (I googled him up about three quarters of the way into the book), it was impossible to separate that knowledge from the content of his book, so it was always as if there was something larger than what was being said in those pages. Someone on Amazon said, I think people are giving it 4 and 5 stars because of sympathy - for Toer's life. I also took it to mean that some sympathy finds its ways because it's a colonial work, and by a native author.

To some extent, I agree, I think it's an astute observation. The book offers a view into native people's mindsets, but sometimes the passages and the conclusions they reach seem too treacly. I've noticed this tendency among Western readers to automatically reward a foreign work with good reviews, even if something of written with similar skill from your own culture wouldn't pass muster. Colonial guilt so to speak. One other book that exemplifies this is The Kite Runner. It's on the NYT bestseller list, but I couldn't stand the second half of that book, when all the characters are busy being so good to one another.

But even with all the drawbacks, I'm gonna give this one an A-, but only because I'm in a good mood.

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

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