The action in the first two volumes of THE BURU QUARTET, THIS EARTH OF MANKIND and CHILD OF ALL NATIONS by Pramoedya Ananta Toer largely revolves around the treatment of Indonesians (and here they are sub-groups – those identified as natives as well as Javanese and others) by their Dutch colonizers. It is set in the very beginning of the last century.
The hero, Minke, is a native but the son of a prominent local official. In THIS EARTH OF MANKIND, he is attending a private international boarding school where he hobnobs with the children of other wealthy locals and also the children of ex-pat Dutch officials. He meets and falls in love with Annelies, the beautiful half-Dutch daughter of the concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. He moves in with them and that starts a series of events that end in tragedy.
The second book, CHILD OF ALL NATIONS, allows its characters to have a dignified closure from the events of the first book. The most impressive thing about these two books is the way the ending of the first book while not reversed is almost totally redeemed by the ending of the second book in that it grants its characters dignity.
Minke writes borderline subversive newspaper articles under a pseudonym and his life with Annalies (whom he marries) and her mother mirror his awakening to the total unfairness on every level of the Dutch colonial system where Indonesians who give birth to half-caste children effectively lose the title of mother through the law as it only recognizes the Dutch parent.
Also discussed is the sugar plantation system and how it uproots local farmers and then forces them to work as free labor. The position of the Chinese immigrant in Indonesia is also touched on. I think perhaps that will be a bigger theme in the third volume.
I’ve met a few people while living in Malaysia, foreigners, Europeans, who say Indonesia was better off under colonialism. They don’t know what they are talking about. As Minke is based on the life of a famous Indonesian revolutionary, I’m looking forward to the next few books where comes of age and fights back.
Toer is a great writer. He knows his characters. He also likes his characters. Even after making them suffer horribly, he wants to give them if not a happy ending a feeling of happiness with themselves. This is a tremendous story and I want to see how he connects this all to the growth of Indonesia. On to the third book!