Power of the pen

Observations on Indonesia

On the day before Suharto was forced to resign his presidency in 1998, after 32 years in power, you could see fire in the skies over Jakarta. I hopped on a bus, where two young Balinese men sitting opposite me were happily singing a hymn about Dasamuka.

Dasamuka is another name for Ravana, the ten-headed evil king of Lanka in the Hindu epic Ramayana, and he was relevant in Indonesia that day: Jakarta was burning just as Lanka burned after Ravana's defeat, but the destruction in the epic was expected to usher in a golden age, with the return of Rama from exile.

Indonesia's finest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died last month aged 81, would have liked that hymn, for the men on the bus were doing what he did as a writer: recounting a story from the past to explain the present. But then, in Brechtian fashion, Pramoedya would have shaken us to our senses, saying: life does not imitate art.

In a culture that discourages direct speech, writers resort to allegory. Indonesia's folk theatre is shadow puppetry, where only the shadows on the screen can be seen and the audience must imagine the deeper reality. And yet we feel involved, because involving audiences in the story is at the heart of an epic; the theatre becomes a collective experience. Through his writing, Pramoedya did the same, deploying imaginative metaphors to describe his nation's humiliation and dehumanisation.

That night in Jakarta, if Suharto was indeed Ravana, with his empire aflame, Pramoedya, the prince among Indonesian writers, had a claim to be considered like Rama - he had spent 14 years in exile. In 1965 Suharto's security forces bundled him off to the Buru island labour camp because he was a communist sympathiser. Nearly a million people died in the killings at that time. Pramoedya was beaten up, tortured and, because they knew he was a writer, denied pencil and paper.

He began telling his fellow prisoners, night after night, the story of Indonesia from Dutch colonial times to the Japanese occupation. In a culture rich with oral traditions, the storyteller does not require writing instruments; his memory is enough. And when he was finally released, he wrote down every word. The result was the Buru Quartet - This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass.

Suharto's Indonesia, of course, would not publish them: he remained the writer who must not be named - quite literally. I once mentioned Pramoedya to an American economist who was a consultant to the government and she innocently asked her colleagues where she could buy his books. She was met with stunned silence and advised never to mention his name in public.

But Pramoedya had the last laugh. As he told a journalist recently, today Suharto's "New Order" is over, but my books are published in 40 languages around the world. So who won?