Pramoedya Ananta Toer

"All That is Gone: Stories"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 23, 2004)

All That is Gone by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

A major literary force in Indonesia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, often referred to simply as "Pram," is old enough to distinctly remember his country's struggles against oppression first at the hands of the Dutch and subsequently, the Japanese. The Dutch, as with the case of most colonial oppressors, piggybacked upon the excuses of a spice trade and ruled Indonesia for nearly three centuries. Japan too occupied Indonesia for a brief period, under the guise of an imagined Asian brotherhood but succeeded in exploiting the archipelago for its natural resources-material that Japan needed to keep its war machinery going. With the momentous events of World War II, Indonesia too, like many of its fellow-oppressed countries, waged a fierce freedom struggle against its oppressors and eventually gained independence.

Toer, who has won many a literary honor, knows as well as any author that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. His stories in this collection, All That Is Gone , vividly recount the aftermath of political turmoil or the negative effects of a repressive regime. In "Revenge," the author states his reasons for being against war after witnessing the horrible lynching of an enemy combatant. "War is war, no doubt about it," he says, "a constant cycle of man's evil towards man. A tree's branches don't move of their own accord; something has to move them. Likewise, men don't simply turn into savages; there has to be something that makes them that way. And men then go on to make weapons to kill their enemies because there are enemies everywhere. So very few ever stop to realize that their most important foe is themselves, that therein the seeds of savagery lie."

In "Independence Day," a wounded returning war veteran finds little to celebrate in the larger achievement of his fighting force when he can contribute little to help at home. His gradually increasing isolation and depression are described painfully simply and accurately by Toer. Toer also rails against social ills in these stories-the isolation of wives left behind by wayward husbands, and the empty feudalism brought about by a class-ridden society. In "Inem," the family's servant girl, Inem is forced into marriage when she is just eight years old. She soon becomes a victim of abuse first at the hands of her husband and then her family.

In the title story, probably the most touching one in the collection, Toer mixes his simple nostalgic recollections with a gradual childish awareness of a rift between his parents. Toer's stories are often allegorical and "All That Is Gone" is no different. When the young child narrator repeatedly questions his mother about his father's long absences, his mother replies that the father is out planting sweet potatoes. "I had no idea what she was saying," admits the narrator, "Not the kind of sweet potatoes you eat, she said in explanation, "I'm talking about the kind of potatoes that you'll be able to eat when you're older-a situation that is better for you and your friends than it is today."

Willem Samuels, the translator, has translated other Toer works before, including his most recent one, The Girl From The Coast. In his acknowledgement, Samuels thanks the International Center for Writing and Translation, at the University of Irvine, California, for a grant that helped translate this particular volume of stories. Indeed, such translation endeavors are commendable because they help the world become a smaller and better place. Indonesia's struggles against her oppressors might surely be learnt from the history books, but there is nothing like good literature to drive history's lessons home. In recounting his memories through the medium of stories, Pramoedya Ananta Toer has done us all a great service. He has kept history alive for many of his fellow countrymen, and through this translation, for the rest of us as well.

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"The Girl from the Coast"

(reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran AUG 11, 2002)

Girl From the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

In a previous life, I taught ninth grade geography. At the beginning of each year, the enormity of my task was illustrated by my students' inability to name, let alone locate, the world's four most populated countries. A few could name China, India, and the US, but no one ever got the fourth, which is Indonesia. Few had even heard of this island nation of almost 220 million, and even though I can at least give some basic facts about the country, I must admit to an ignorance of Indonesia's literary tradition. But now, I am enlightened, for I have recently read and enjoyed The Girl from the Coast, by Pramoedya Anata Toer, one of Indonesia's foremost literary voices.

Read excerptFor those of you totally unfamiliar with the world's largest archipelago, Indonesia, previously known as the Dutch East Indies, was valued for centuries for its production of spices like cloves, as well as for its strategic location. The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early 17th century and despite several nationalist movements, various European countries maintained a lock over the country until 1949. Since then the island nation has been ruled by two regimes. President-for-life Sukarno ruled from 1949 until 1966 when he was placed under house arrest and replaced by President Suharto. Suharto brought a measure of economic control to Indonesia but did so at the expense of the people, jailing dissidents and lining his own pockets with government money. Indonesia plunged into an economic crisis at the turn of the 20th century and is presently led by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, President Sukarno's daughter.

Pram Toer has written numerous books, many completed while a political prisoner during both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes. His latest work, The Girl From The Coast was supposed to be the first volume in a trilogy, loosely based on his family's history, especially their work against first the Dutch, and later the Indonesian military. As explained in an epilogue, however . . ."the other two novels in the trilogy were destroyed by the Indonesian military." Doesn't a statement like that make you want to send a big thanks to James Madison, the father of the American Constitution? So we are left with the first volume of the trilogy, an elegant little work based on a heart-wrenching story of the arranged marriage of Toer's grandmother.

Known only as The Girl from the Coast, Toer's grandmother lived in a small Javanese fishing village around the turn of the 19th century. Her exceptional beauty caught the attention of the Bendoro, a noble from the nearby city of Rembang. Since she would otherwise face a life of extreme hardship and poverty, the girl's parents agree to marry her off, sight unseen, to the Bendoro. She is quickly transported off to a world literally and figuratively miles away from her village. Toer masterfully invokes the sense of bewilderment the girl feels when she first encounters things like mattresses, electric lights, and chocolate sprinkles for cereal. Toer shows how the dual hierarchy of Indonesian nobility and Dutch imperialists create a world that regards women as little more than property, a world where "gold and pretense went hand in hand."

As the girl comes to realize her position is only a "practice wife," and that because of her common status, she'll never be more than a concubine, her desire to return to her village intensifies. She begs the Bendoro's indulgence in granting her wish. Once she returns, the story takes on the appearance of a folk tale, complete with questions of good and evil, malice, retribution, and greed. Here, one can truly appreciate Toer's abilities as a storyteller; he makes good use of suspense as the novel moves to its climax quickly and without pretense. Toer evokes a sense of sharp pain at the story's conclusion, but leaves us with the idea that although she will never be free; the Girl From The Coast will eventually benefit from her nascent, yet fierce, independence. We can only hope Indonesia itself experiences such growth.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Girl From the Coast at

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About the Author:

Pramoedya Ananta ToerPramoedya Ananta Toer was a major figure in world literature and was constantly mentioned as a top contender for the Nobel Prize. His four-part epic, "The Buru Quartet," was named after the infamous island in the Moluccas Sea where he served 14 years in prison for his opposition to the coup that brought former president Suharto to power in 1966. Pramoedya's 30 novels have been translated into 24 languages. Yet in Indonesia, his books have been banned for more than three decades. He has been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other major publications; and, was the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award and a Hellman-Hammett Award.

He lived in Jakarta. He died April 30, 2006. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014