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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Rumah Kaca (House of Glass)

The first three novels in his tetralogy have given us the story from the point of Minke’s involvement in Indonesian politics as well as his personal life. The fourth and final novel takes a completely different approach. It is written by the police official who had arrested Minke to take him into exile at the end of the previous novel. This official – Jacques Pangemanann (with two n’s, as he frequently explains) – is a native who had been adopted by a French couple, educated in France and had married a French woman. He had had a successful career in the police, moving up the ranks, till he was assigned to monitor Minke. We follow his story of how this happened which parallels the end of the previous novel, till Minke goes into exile. From this point, till almost the end of the novel, Minke disappears from the story or, at least, his presence does, though his influence is very much felt. What we follow is Pangemanann’s story which includes his personal life, his career in the Governor-General’s office as an expert on native affairs and his often troubled psychological state.

The most interesting part is the fascinating political machinations of Pangemanann and his bosses and how politics develop in Indonesia. Pangemanann’s job is both to track what is going on with the natives (his bosses deal with the Eurasians and Europeans) but, all too often, to sabotage their attempts to become political players. He generally does that quite successfully, often using thugs but also struggling against the often (in his view) ineffectual or wrong-headed orders of his bosses. But Pangemanann is not a bad man. He is very much conflicted and the man he admires most is Minke, the man whom he has brought down and whose legacy he has to suppress. As a good civil servant, he struggles with the internal politics as much as with the outside forces he is trying to control and is very successful at beating back challenges to his authority and expertise.

But he is far less successful at dealing with his personal issues. He takes to drink and gets ill. He alienates his wife and while she does her best to help and understand, eventually she gets fed up and returns to France, even though World War I has started. Pangemanann turns to an expensive prostitute for comfort and this almost costs him his job when a police officer blackmails him. He struggles on, through a succession of bosses, World War I and a change of Governor General, all the time keeping tabs on the various native movements and the individuals in them, and trying to ensure that they do not cause too much trouble for the Dutch authorities. But he is not happy about it and even less happy when Minke is released from exile, now a sick, broken-down and irrelevant man.

This novel is clearly superior to its predecessors, not just for its exposition of the complex nature of Indonesian politics but also for the superb psychological study of Pangemanann. On the political side, we see the relaxation of the Dutch oppression, the role of women in the struggle for independence and the conflicts between the Eurasians and natives, as well as the role of the Dutch settlers themselves but, from a literary point of view, the complex nature of Jacques Pangemanann is far more interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Hasta Mitra
First published in English 1997 by Penguin
Translated by Max Lane