Like Burmese Days, this was another Southeast Asian classic we feared was going to be dry but turned out to be a compelling, fascinating read — and that’s even before considering the circumstances in which Toer wrote the book, and its eventual reception on publication. We should really get over our fear of classics.
This ambitious novel is an unblinking examination of colonialism, racism and sexism, woven through a colourful coming-of-age tale — a metaphor for the birth of the Indonesian nation, perhaps, as it begins to throw off the shackles of Dutch rule.
It’s the story of Minke, a whipsmart Javanese boy of royal heritage who is permitted to attend a Dutch school. Through a friend he meets and falls in love with the daughter of Dutchman and his concubine. He leaves his boarding house and moves into their home; the family's drama, partly fuelled by his presence, forms the heart of the novel.
It’s a brutal look at how race determined one’s fate during the colonial period, and at how women were controlled and subjugated as well. The concubine Nyai would be an incredibly strong character in a novel published today; for a book of that time, in relatively conservative Indonesia, she’s all the more notable. We loved her (less so her insipid daughter). We were also surprised at the criticisms Minke levels at Javanese tradition, too, as he itches to leave the constraints of his own family and become a published author.
Toer originally narrated the story in the 1970s while he was a political prisoner on the island of Buru to other prisoners; eventually a written version was published in 1980 but it was banned a year later, ostensibly because it promoted Marxist-Leninism and Communism — though the book mentions neither and is in fact a rallying call for independence. Perhaps its support of critical thinking left the Suharto regime feeling uncomfortable. It returned to print in Indonesia only in 2005.
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