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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Bumi manusia (This Earth of Mankind)

The first novel in Toer’s tetralogy is based on one key premise – that the natives (i.e. the Indonesians) are just as good as their European masters (i.e. the Dutch) during the period of Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. Toer makes the point in a fairly simplistic way but he tells his story well and clearly illustrates the blatant exploitation resulting from European colonisation of Asian countries.

Our hero is called Minke (that is his only name). He is a young man, still at school. His father is a native official but Minke has been sent to the prestigious HBS school in Surabaya. Most of the pupils are Dutch and it is unusual for a native to attend this school, not least because of language problems. Minke, however, has learned Dutch. Early in the book, one of his friends, Robert Suurhof, takes him to meet a family consisting of a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother, who have two children. Much of the novel tells of how Minke falls in love with Annelies, the daughter (to Suurhof’s chagrin), and their relationship.

We learn of the situation of the family. The father – Herbert Mellema – has come out to the Indies (as Indonesia is called). He has met Nyai Ontosoroh (though, as we later learn, essentially bought her) and taken her as his concubine. We later learn that he was married in the Netherlands and has a son there. Unbeknownst to Mellema, his wife had divorced him after he had abandoned her. Nyai (it is the term given to a concubine) has managed to educate herself and it is she that essentially runs the farm as Mellema himself falls into dissolution (drugs, drink and prostitutes) and is eventually found dead in a brothel. In addition to Annelies, they have a son, Robert, who is as dissolute as his father. Though he is an Indo (i.e. of mixed blood), he considers himself Dutch and despises all natives, including his mother and Minke. After his father is found dead, he disappears, as he may be implicated.

Minke moves in with Annelies and her mother and both falls in love with and looks after Annelies, who is very delicate. As well as the problems with Annelies’ father and brother, Minke has to deal with all sorts of racial prejudice, because he is”only” a native. He writes for a newspaper (under a pseudonym) and publishes stories. He attends his father’s appointment to a senior position and befriends the local assistant resident and his daughters. He gains support from the Dutch teacher at the school, who recognises his writing talents. But all the time he faces criticism for being a native and any foible is picked on. When Annelies is ill, for example, he sleeps in her room, but not in her bed and is, not surprisingly, roundly condemned for that. Despite his great success at school – he tests at the second highest score in Indonesia and the highest ever for a native – he is driven out of the school. Matters are made worse when Herbert Mellema’s ex-wife and son successfully sue both to take over the farm and make Annelies (who has since married Minke) their ward and bring her back to the Netherlands.

It all ends unhappily but Toer has made his point that Dutch colonial rule was cruel and exploitative and failed to take into account the feelings, the aspirations and rights of the native population. As it is the first of a tetralogy, we know that it is going to lead on to better things but, for now, we are left feeling sympathetic to Minke, Nyai and Annelies and bitter towards the Dutch.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Hasta Mitra
First published in English 1982 by Penguin