Wednesday, August 12, 2009

South East Asia One-Shot

When Colleen asked us to read books from a South East Asian country, my first thought was "cakewalk!" I'm sure I had a library* full, just waiting to be read. Yeah, not so much. I have a library full of Chinese and Japanese books. I have a few books on the Vietnam War left over from a college class. I realized that I was woefully unprepared for this assignment-- all the more reason to take it on!

*By "library" I mean "dining room with overflowing bookshelves and no dining room table."

I decided on reading a book from Indonesia.

This Earth of Mankind Pramoedya Ananta Toer

This is the first book in the Buru Quartet, which Pramoedya wrote while in prison. I highly recommend reading this obituary to find out more about the author and this book (which was banned under Suharto).

It is 1898 and Minke is the son of noble Javanese and the only Native at the Dutch HBS high school. Boarding in town and going to the Dutch school make him more Dutch than Javanese, according to his mother. It's upon meeting a rich concubine and her beautiful daughter that Minke enters a world where being Native isn't a bad thing. The troubles that arise from his relationship with this family form the plot around which Pramoedya offers a condemnation of Dutch colonialism and the racism and number of levels in Dutch-Indonesian society. One problem with reading the translation is that, according to the translator's beginning note, there are subtle implications and power struggles inherent in which language or dialect is used by a character in such a polyglot society. Much of this subtlety could not survive a translation into one language. This, of course, is not the fault of the translator, but a problem with reading translation.

While this is certainly a damning look at the colonial regime, it is a lushly told story that shows a society on the edge. The edge of the technological advances that the twentieth century would bring and the edge of a revolution. It also tells the story of a boy on the edge of becoming a man.

It is a love story, a school story, a coming of age story.

It blew me away and the ending will haunt me for a very long time.


Ana S. said...

This sounds amazing - thank you!

Color Online said...

This does sound amazing. Going to look for it.

Alyssa Kirk said...

I love the sound of this! Lots of conflict, exotic locale, history weaved into a good tale and who doesn't love concubines! I would never have found this on my own. Thanks for the review!