Novel Response: This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

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Published: 12th March 2007
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The fiction novel, This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer was written in third person. Minke, the main protagonist acted as a narrator of a series of followed events that had maintained the stirring air in the novel. Since history is a set of subjective observations, this personal account from the narrator penetrated some of the values of the writer. Through the mult-perspectival narrative, that are composed of letters, dialogues, and newspaper, we also started to grasp a bit of the taste of the living trials, its torments, its people inner struggles in attaining a sense of identity under this Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia that actually took place in the 19th century.

This series of events that have taken place in the novel began in 1898 in the island of Java, in the port of Surabaya. The author of the book, use many history dates, figures, and inventions, to illustrate and paint the seemingly compelling truth, as oppose a fiction fantasy.

These are just some example of how the author articulately crafts the stories into a believable truth so that later people might start to compare and reflect on the novel to the contempory history of Indonesia, with a boarder sense appeal that the novel transcended nations and time; and indeed, it is the mankind on earth:

Minke love zincography. Zincography was patented by Firmin Gillot on March 21, 1850. Minke once thought he would like to meet Robert Stephenson, who was a British civil and railway engineer (son of George Stephenson) Stephenson was involved in constructing railways all over the world in 19th century. Moreover, instead of using Jakarta, the author used Batavia (the colonial name from around the 17th century. In the book it mentioned electric car was something new to the world. The invention of the first crude electric carriage was in between 1832 and 1839. Minke was born the same date as a Queen of Netherland. Queen Wilhelmina was daughter of Queen Emma who had given birth to her on 31 August 1880. Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 - 7 March 1274) was a philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Universalis. All these are actual figure in history account added substance to the story. The book has also mentioned in the West, machine is getting smaller yet the new machine generate much more power than the steam engine, which is just a perfect example of the beginning of industrial revolution, when the colonial map started to draw.

With the flashback and recollection of the relationship between he and Annelies, whom had departed for Netherland thirteen years ago due to the court case ruling that seemed to be a product of conspiracy from Annelies's brother, (to whom she is connected through her father,) the narrator of the novel, Minke, a native, a H.B.S student, who had the privilege to go Dutch schooling because of his grandfather, had started to began his tale...

The story started with an invitation from his friend who later became his foe, Robert Suurhof, to attend a surprise party that his friend would let a word known to him. As surprising and exciting as he was when he arrived at Boerderij Buitenzorg in Wonokromo, the dwelling place of the Mr. Mellema, (the mystical agriculture company that was famous for Mr. Mellema's concubine, Nyai Ontosoroh,) he soon found himself in embarrassing situation when Annelies, Nyai's daughter, pushed for his surname.

Minke thought he would be thrown out of the house at any second by Darsam, the guard of the house. Annelies invitation to stay as her company during the visit had grossed her brother, Robert Mellema, whom shared the same parents as Annelies did. In fact, after Nyai's confession of how her husband went crazy since one evening he went home with strong smell of liquors, it was apparent that the two brothers and sisters share the same house but her brother and her father did not get much respect and noticed from Nyai.

Interestingly, Nyai prefer to be called as Nyai rather Mama. She saw herself as a victim of this colonial society, even though she was given a European education from her husband, and with such a grand house and prosperous business. I sometimes think her harshness manner toward her son and her husband was not needed. Indeed, I think she is radical and a failure in bring harmony to her home, and to provide equal unconditional love for her son. Her later decision in the book in allowing her maiden daughter and Minke live in the same room was controversy and unconventional.

Nyai, all her life try to use what was taught to her by European to survive and prepare her daughter Annelies for a better life. Ironically, by the end of the story, her daughter followed her mother footsteps, by picking up Nyai's suitcase that she was carrying on her first day as concubine. The author painted such a picture that a typical Nyai is as such: unconventional, easy, lack of femininity, a person that would lead her children astray in the same way.

Another interesting note: In Nyai confession of her painful memories behind how she became a slave, (a piece of livestock that was being sold by his father, the clerk), to Mr. Mellema as his concubine, she contradict her own statements. She said she became confident and daring, a person without shame anymore, after years living with Mr. Mellema; however, her pride and self-esteem is still hurt when her parents visited her. And she declared she never loved her husband, to whom she said she was all head over heels to serve him with all her soul. Perhaps, this sentiment could be shared by people who are mixed-blooded or live within intermarriage.

Flashback to the day after the visit, Minke returned home and was lovesick. This is the beginning of a new character evolving to surface. At first he was surprised and threatened by the educated and seemed confident (later to learn that behind her confident and fluent Dutch was this fragile and broken heart) and what would be the consequences of developing a relationship with a nyai's daughter, and Nyai's family. People started to isolate him, except for Magda Peters, his favorite teacher in H.B.S, whom was head over heel with the true European enlighten, (whose relationship with Minke sometimes seemed to be too much of paternalistic.) Magda Peters, later in the novels, had become an obvious source of encouragement for Minke to fight his battle to free himself and his love from being the victim of stereotype, caste system, and colonial oppression. The author brightly describe some of the key concepts of "the civilized and enlightened school of thoughts of European teaching" In compare to historical recorded, such school of thoughts had gathered the elite to give rise to nationalism in Indonesia.

Back to Minke. Minke started to doubt that all these isolation might be caused by jealousy or his association with Nyai and her daughter. Such doubt is understandable: If he hated to be Native, he would not have a care for the rumors and stares. If he was to surround his will to custom, he is no different from someone who never took European schooling. Indeed, he originally was not allowed to sit in the same class as the rest of student of H.B.S. Later, he had to sit separately from his schoolmates, and was not allowed speaking up in his school.

After meeting with his friend Jean, his inside nobleness awake himself from being a product of orientalism. He went back to Wonokromo, and lived with Nyai and her family. In the novel, Jean often act as a reminder to Minke of what his European education really mean as a mature student at H.B.S and a talent writer, whose writing earned him thousand of readers and, who was only referred by his pen name Max Tollenaar.

Whenever Minke was in doubt and Jean was always the one who brought him back down to earth, and contributed to his growth as full adult. And so, this is how Minke character was developed in the story: through incidents, change of location (usually he would go to Jean), and his own doubts (headaches) and thoughts dialogues (self talk).

While Minke was in Wonokromo, he discovered that the story behind the relationship between Nyai, and Mr. Mellema, and how the son of Mr. and Mrs. Mellema came to destroy Annelies' family. The following day, Minke was invited to be Robert Mellema's company in chess and in hunting. Unfortunately, Minke was very busy in his study and could not spare his time. The gentle conversation turned into a hostile one, when Minke finally grasped and understood the reason behind Robert Mellema jealousy.

Robert Mellema is just a poor little soul. Her mother, her father, and her sister, all gave him nothing but isolation. His mind was bright (he read some complex journal), and even though he did not like Minke, he however was civil enough to greet him and let him stay as Annelies' guest on Minke first visit. Perhaps it was true that he hate his own skin, as a mixed blood that carried both Native and European traits, and perhaps he worship European and consider him as one of them, but nothing further than the truth, that he didn't mind hanging out with Native, (at least he invited Minke to be his friend), all occupied his mind was his loneliness. Perhaps his biggest mistake was to taken away her sister innocent.

To this I have sympathy towards both Robert Mellema and Annelies. It remind me the important of teaching of gender difference while children are still young. Ah, how much Nyai wanted to prepare her daughter to be strong enough to stand alone without a man! And how Nyai took away her daughter youth twice: First, Annelies childhood was taken away because of her role in Nyai business. Annelies was young and needed to be worried free, yet all she could do was to worry and got caught up in between various tensions dynamic of her family members, (and so she become sickly in health.) Second, Nyai duty negligent as a mother had caused Annelies' pain. And how ironically, Nyai hard-heart attitude have made Annelies surrounded to her mother's power and become less independent that an average person. How greatly with Nyai all she might to protect her daughter, only to let her past and shadows shaded and deteriorated her daughter's life. Would not this message a universal one? Nyai, Nyai, she was confident in managing her business, but not over her past, her very own guilt and hatred.

Perhaps Robert Mellema second biggest mistake was to enter the pleasure house nearby his home. But what can a youth do, when he was not acknowledged by his family. Yes, he was legally acknowledged as European, yet in truth, he had no family love and support from any of his family member. What such a youth can do when school was not an option (no peer relationship) and his family ties was in astray? Ah, can we really blame poor Robert Mellema for all he has done? Is not a youth a society treasure? A colonial crime or does it have a modern appeal still? I would think his character and role transcend time and families.

When Minke was sent home to greet his father appointment as a Bupati, he was changed. He was once the one who doubt the tie between him and Annelies family. He was once the one who was shocked yet impressed by Nyai attitude. He now became "she" or "her attitude". His brother reminded him that was not Minke a son of his father, and how his behavior was out of his character. Was Minke not in Native blood anymore?

In Minke confusions, we can imagine the inner struggle of those who were under colonial rules. Identities, faith, values all are under tested. But is not that what life is all about? Just about every nations, every single dynasty or era, we are trying to seek the truth and meaning of life through developing a sense of self and self-assurance?

Miriam de la Croix, her sister Sarah and her father Mr. de la Croix had come in time to rescue this lost soul. Through letters from Miriam de la Croix, we learned more about nationalism, and its admiration in both its roots and the Western science and learning. In this case, Mr. de la Croix encouraged and urged that in order to become independent of colonial rules, there are needs for the next generation and generation to come to be proud of their own roots, while progress to become more civilized in Western way. This exactly reflects what nationalism is all about. The author of the book, again, wittily incorporates his thoughts into the novel.

Perhaps, the death of Mr. Mellema was not only suspense added to the story, but also starting points of the second half of the novel. And when the wedding between Minke and Annelies took place, the novel has reached its climax, following with a dénouement: the court finally decided that Annelies would be sent to Netherlands, an outcome that was known to Minke and Nyai before the case ended.

When the wedding took place, it seemed everything that was withholding their freedom was loosening up, free like an eagle, and triumph like legends, yet soon we found out that the victory was in vain. This message was painted in my head when I came to the last page of the book: No matter how hard a native tried to fight for his/her right, at the end all the past victory would be in vain. In Vain! The closing of the book appeared on the first page of the novel...Thirteen years passed, Minke was still mourning for Annelies...

Annelies... the one who thought was the weakest, when she said let her fed her husband for once, I immediately learned: Annelies are not as weak as we thought she was, nor as weak as Minke, Nyai, Annelies' doctor was. She knew she had to leave. She was fully sensitive what was happening around her, yet she refused to acknowledge those painful events, and stored everything within her own soul. She knew. She denied. She accepted as last. She accepted her role in her society. Native was defeated.

Language also played an important part of role in the novel. Throughout the novel, different distinct caste spoke different language. Everyone seemed to be against one another, even within the teacher Dutch circle it was divided (Magda Peters vs. the rest). It illustrated one point: European brought civilization to Indonesia, but they have also brought with them their prejudices and passed along to the local people. And it was not only European has prejudice. It is universal-This Earth of Mankind. Within each nation, including Dutch, etc, there were also classes (E.g. Magda Peters was outcast by her colleagues). And this is when nationalism came to about. The author made his point clear that the rise of nationalism would cease the scattered will of his people.

This Earth of Mankind, how powerful was one's hatred (Nyai)? How stubborn can a person be (Nyai & Minke's father)? How pity is that we are divided still! Still! In the 21st century!

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