The IHT has an article on one of the greatest writers of our time: Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Toer (a.k.a. Pak Pram) is probably best known for his Buru Quartet, named after the island Buru where he was imprisoned while he wrote the book. It consists of four books telling the saga of the first stirrings of Indonesian nationalism seen through the eyes of a young Javanese student. The books are This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia), Child of All Nations (Anak Semua Bangsa), Footsteps (Jejak Langkah), and House of Glass (Rumah Kaca). I have read nearly all of his books and my personal favorite is Gadis Pantai, a brilliant portrayal of Javanese culture illustrating a spectrum of Indonesian religion, traditions, gender roles, and socio-economics.

His latest book, Jalan Raya Pos (The Great Post Road) was published in 2005. As far as I know it is only available in Bahasa Indonesia but hopefully there will be a translation soon (otherwise I guess I’ll have to repolish my language skills and read it in Indonesian). The book is about a major highway 1,000 kilometers across the north coast of Java by the Dutch governor General Herman Willem Daendels, in the early 19th century.

Although long lost in the mists of history, Pramoedya conservatively estimates that the construction of Daendel’s Great Post Road cost the lives of more than 12,000 workers who toiled as forced laborers in indescribable conditions to build a seven-meter-wide road so that the wheels of commerce fueling Dutch wealth could grind more efficiently. Pramoedya follows the Great Post Road as it winds itself across the island of Java, using every town and district along the way as a marker of colonial excess and corruption.

What isn’t told in the IHT article is that the book was previously ‘published’ as a movie in 1996. This 150 minute documentary/road movie tells the story of a writer, a road and the history of a country. Through a long and winding road that symbolizes the long Dutch oppression, through places and conversations that symbolize the oppression of Suharto’s New Order, the writer that suffered terribly under both regimes uncovers the history and culture of his country. Here’s an excerpt from a review by Vanessa Hearman in Inside Indonesia:

Generous in its coverage of the everyday experiences of Indonesians, it speaks with road gangs, tea pickers, newspaper sellers and a hotel-building entrepreneur who is largely blind to the daily reality going on around him. The narration is sparse, allowing for Pramudya’s reading to dominate.

For this film, Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote an essay which I assume forms the basis for the new book with the same name. I can’t wait to read it..

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