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Nashville Scene Far From Home

Indonesian author's memoirs offer a deep look at life in exile

By Charles Wyrick

JUNE 21, 1999:  Readers crave true stories. Recently, personal remembrances about mountain climbing, substance abuse, the Appalachian Trail, paranormal communication, and Tuscany have all sold briskly. Unfortunately, the reading public's tastes often lean toward either the sordid or the sappy. Thus, many noble autobiographies get overlooked, among them books like The Mute's Soliloquy by Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Toer's memoir begins dramatically: At 10 o'clock at night on Oct. 13, 1965, a noisy crowd gathers outside his home. Following a swell of jeers from the throng, a wave of rocks pelts his house. Toer emerges confronting the incensed mob with an antique Japanese sword and a mop handle. Suddenly, a small outfit of soldiers appears; the soldiers promise to take the author to safety. At their behest, Toer collects what he can of his library, including a collection of short stories he'd been editing and two manuscripts of his own creation. Before daylight, these important items will disappear. One of Toer's last memories from this frightening night is of being struck in the face with a rifle butt by one of the soldiers supposedly sent to his rescue.

Though not widely known in this country, Toer is arguably Indonesia's most famous novelist. In 1965, at the age of 41, he was entering the golden years of his career. He had just begun work on a long novel about Indonesia's struggle for independence from Dutch colonial rule. Little did he know that his ambitious literary plans would be interrupted by political changes in his country.

A September coup brought a right-wing military group into power in Jakarta. As a long-standing acquaintance of the ousted President Soekarno--it was the president's short stories the author had been editing on the night of his capture--Toer was now considered an enemy of the state. Without being properly tried, he was exiled to a penal colony on the remote island of Buru, east of Java in the Banda Sea. For 14 years, the famous novelist and countless other Indonesians suffered imprisonment here for crimes unnamed. After his dramatic capture, Toer had to face the agonizing doldrums of a life in exile.

The Mute's Soliloquy bears witness to the atrocities of life in the Buru penal colony. Before receiving prisoners, the island was deserted. Suddenly, it had to support a small nation. The first part of Toer's memoir thus details the cultivation of the colony. In these early years, everyone farmed. Soldiers oversaw massive agricultural projects that left many dead from exhaustion. Corporal punishment and public torture found regular practitioners in guards who also stole food from their charges. But as time passed, a pattern of life developed. Some strictures lessened, fewer rules were enforced.

When he was a free man, Toer won nothing but trouble for his writing. Ironically, when he was in prison, he reaped fame's rewards. His reputation as a writer brought him exemptions: With official permission, the prisoners built the author a hut in which he could write instead of performing his required work. They refused to let this aging writer share in the hardship of labor in the fields.

Given respite, Toer set out to repay the good turn. Though his books had been stolen by soldiers--his manuscripts, in effect, scattered to the wind--he still retained his vision for a lengthy Indonesian historical novel. Fueled by the research he had done so many years before, he completed the novel in his head. Since writing supplies were too scarce to risk on this tome, Toer recited the work to his fellow prisoners. Once intoned, his stories were told and retold throughout the various farming camps on the island. These tales invoked historical lessons that many of the exiles never had known.

In addition to using his talents as a storyteller to entertain and inspire prisoners, Toer kept actual written records of those who died or were missing on the island. His census held 325 entries listing names, former addresses, ID numbers, age, dependents, and education. This list now stands as the only documented memorial to those lives lost on Buru--an extremely important artifact to families and humanitarian groups alike.

Toer also wrote to his own children, and much of The Mute's Soliloquy is comprised of these letters. Since mail in and out of Buru was almost nonexistent, he doubted the letters would ever be sent. These documents hold beautiful mini-memoirs about the author's parents and his own life as a boy. It's obvious that as a father, Toer felt his most important duty to his children was to provide a link between them and the past. But since he could not provide this history for his own offspring, he gave it bravely to his fellow prisoners. As such, these unsent epistles represent Toer's efforts to comfort himself. While his public recitations illuminated Indonesia's history to the exiles on Buru, his private writings chronicle the story of his own strong family--memories on which he drew for sustenance.

Luckily, these amazing documents were not lost. In 1979, Toer left Buru. The historical tales he once recited were committed to print; today they exist in translation as a series of novels titled the Buru Quartet. And now we have his memories.

Reading Toer's autobiography engages respect not only for his courage, but for his mastery of craft. Though English translator William Samuels also deserves praise for the lucidity of this prose, the bardic essence of the memoir lays in the pace of Toer's writing. There is a dignified grace to his words that carries the book, especially when it ventures into its more troubling sections; the author's stand for human rights burns brightly through his very phrasing.

In a world of many memoirs, here is a memoir that involves many worlds. The Mute's Soliloquy tells the story of a writer, a political prisoner, an exile, and a father. Yet in the end it is only one thing--noble.

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