Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Toer : Buru Quartet

Tirto Adhi Soerjo

As finally explained in the preface to book three ("Footsteps"), the hero of these books, Minke, is based on the life of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, a high-born Javanese who, like Minke, also went to medical school and founded a newspaper aimed at educated natives.  Unfortunately, he was also stripped of his assets and sent into exile by Dutch authorities without access to a judicial process. In a fascinating twist to the narrative, the final book, "House of Glass" is narrated by the Eurasian operative  who orchestrated that police state undercover activity.  Needless to say, my eyes were glued to the text on each and every page as he re-told Minke's earlier story from his point of view.

I'm sure that there are many other  Romantic novels of national liberation -- there are so many possible settings: Egypt, India, Vietnam, South Africa etc.  But so far, the only other example that I have read is Anisul Hoque's  "Freedom's Mother"  (Bangladesh).  So I can't really assert that the Buru Quartet is the best of its kind.  But it may be.

What's remarkable about these books is that they focus on a leader rather than a follower of a liberation movement -- and it feels authentic, at both the personal and the ideological level.  I felt connected to people who were both real and extraordinary -- as well as to a moment in political history - of the world as well as Indonesia. The author devotes many pages to ideological explanations delivered  from the lips of those whom Minke recognizes as experts.

These books were accused of being pro-Communist and so were banned for twenty years by the Suharto administration.  Their events occur during the Bolshevik revolution and do not comment upon it.  However one of Minke's experts does deliver a very convincing explanation for the role of capitalism in Dutch colonialism despite the ideals of political freedom inherent in the world's first modern republic.

Especially remarkable is the author's celebration of European culture.  His  story concerns the liberation of native Javanese, both personal and collective, but they only succeed insofar as their minds become European.  That theme is repeated over and over by both narrators, Minke, the first  native graduate of the local Dutch high school,  as well as his nemesis, the Eurasian policeman, who went to university in France.

Political liberation may be the main  theme here - but sexual behavior is not ignored.  Minke is a lady's man -and his life story is inseparable from his three marriages -- all of them to beautiful, smart, headstrong young woman: a Eurasian, a Chinese, and a Javanese princess.  The policeman's life is also strongly connected to women: his French wife who left him when he turned alcoholic, and the courtesan concerning whom he was successfully blackmailed after she was mysteriously murdered.

As one of the pundits declares (was it the policeman?) : the Javanese might have achieved more if they weren't so interested in sex.