Literature Commissar

Mar 5th, 2008, in Opinion, by

Ross sees the young Pramoedya Ananta Toer as a bullying commissar of literature.

Retrospect on a Red

Let’s have a look at an unrepentant Red, namely Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

His writing style leaves me cold, as it is dour, depressing, and obsessive, but that’s a matter of personal taste. To be fair, it may have lost a lot in the translation, for I gather the books were turned into English by another notorious marxist, Max Lane, erstwhile Aussie diplomat turned agitator.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Pramoedya Ananta Toer

But Pramoedya’s record of political nastiness is beyond dispute.
For those who won’t take the word of a mere bule, let’s go back to Tempo, issue May 16-22, 2006, which I’m sure you can find for yourselves. Just a few excerpts to show that plenty of distinguished Indonesians have long since seen through the smoke-screen.

No less than 25 “prominent literary figures and cultural observers” signed a protest to the Magsaysay Award Committee in July 1995, objecting to Pramoedya getting the Committee’s Award.

They deplored his

unethical role during one of the darkest periods for creativity during the Guided Democracy era, when he led the persecution of artists and literary figures who disagreed with him.

The article quotes him from the April 1964 Bintang Timur

if literary scholars do not want to be left behind by political developments, then they should be active in the people’s struggle and revolution.

People’s struggle – a phrase that might have referred to the East German Uprising of 1953, or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but no, Pramoedya was head of Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat/Institute of People’s Culture), a Communist puppet league of self-styled intellectuals, and he was talking about the PKI’s push to stifle what was left of Indonesian freedom as Sukarno’s Nasakom fascist regime collaborated with the Reds.

In those pre-Suharto days, the PKI was using its power to crush dissent. Imagine how much worse it would have been if they had succeeded in seizing full control. Nyoto, a notably vicious Politburo hack, said that

it is about time to end the debate on whether or not culture is politics, because whoever claims that culture is apolitical is truly a reactionary.

Typical Communist!

This rationale for totalitarian terror saw the burning of 2 million books of a “counter-revolutionary” nature. Tempo informs us that

Lekra was also influential in campaigning to destroy independent publishers, such as the one that dared to deliver “Dr Zhivago”, plus Islamic publishers too.

In 1962, the respected Muslim writer Hamka was insulted, demonized and jailed for 3 years in Sukabumi. Mochtar Lubis, one of the 1995 protest signatories, had his Indonesia Raya newspaper closed down and spent some 9 years behind bars for his opposition to the Reds.

Pramoedya wrote that supporters of the Cultural Manifesto, of October 1963, (unlike him, they were honest writers who did “not consider one sector of culture to be more important than others,”) were so bad that

their annihilation, like it or not, must be organized.

This was evidently a follow-up on his hysterical tirade in Jogja, where he ranted that

the annihilation of the enemies of the Revolution must be carried out because the masses must be taught to differentiate who are friends and who are enemies of the Revolution.

Masses- oh, yeah, the poor folk. Was Pramoedya one of those? Since when did Communists care about poor people, with their luxury dachas outside Moscow and Mao’s orgies while his people starved. Rancid hypocrites.

As Taufiq Ismail said,

not only did he never apologise for all the violations of human rights that he was responsible for, he was not even willing to admit his actions.”

And W.S. Rendra is surely correct in saying that

I am not slandering when I say that Pramoedya as the head of the LEKRA never protested nor opposed the burning of these books.

The late and unlamented Red has his champions, of course, including Max Lane (Lane ran as Socialist Alliance Party’s candidate for Lowe in Sydney’s west – results were the second lowest of any Socialist Alliance Party. These results are off SAP’s website: Seat of Lowe, LANE, Max – 233 votes, 0.35%) who declared that Pramoedra’s writings persuaded him into such tripe as

for the first time I understood that revolution is a creative process.

(Burning books, for example?)

Max Lane
Max Lane

Lane got himself fired from a diplomatic post in the Australian Embassy and now is a leading figure in the Marxist movement back in Aussie. He thinks Indonesian school-kids, from elementary to university levels, should be force-fed Pramoedya, “compulsory reading”, so he told Tempo, as unrepentant of his intolerant creed as his mentor. Presumably Lane hopes such indoctrination would have the same effect on Indonesian youngsters as reading Pram’s guff had on him, but as I’ve said before, Indonesians are not fools – I reckon they’d soon suss out what kind of character they were dealing with.

Certainly Pramoedya did time during the New Order but boasted of a

six-story house in the middle of a plantation in Bojong Gede, Bogor.

Like many spokesmen of the down-trodden, he seems to have had a taste for the good life. Or was that wealth as fictional as his commitment to intellectual freedom? Answers please in non-A.R.S.E. coherent English.

57 Comments on “Literature Commissar”

  1. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    O.K. Ross, question: do you speak or read Indonesian? Which of Pramoedya’s books have you read?

  2. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    The thing is Ross, I don’t think you do speak or read Bahasa Indonesia at all.

    Otherwise, why would you be quoting Max Lane’s awful translations. (Max has been known to recommend Stalin to young undergraduates, it’s true).

    Whereever you’re from (other than the gutter), would you take, say, a Mongolian who didn’t speak English seriously as a pundit on the U.S. ? How ’bout an African who only spoke Zulu talking about English literature ? Or a Pakistani who only spoke Urdu talking about Australian literature and politics ?

    More to the point, why should anyone take a grubby Jl. Jaksa drunkard like you seriously when you don’t speak the language of the country you’re talking about ?

  3. trane says:


    I think the quotes from Pramoedya himself are worth taking seriously. They may have been taken out of context and all that, but they seem worrying enough to me.

    I have only read Tales from Jakarta, which I enjoyed very much.

    Best regards,

  4. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    I guess in a way, I’m saying, “so what.” If Pram was a major asshole, so what ?

    His literature reflects a deep sense of the expanse of the human spirit — and it’s his books we should be judging him on.

    There have been stories about Pramoedya and Lekra for a while. So yes, let’s not eulogise Pram – in the ’60s as an Icon of pluralism.

    But it’s really his books he should be judged on — books the likes of Ross (has he ever read a book without pictures from cover to cover?) hasn’t read.

  5. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    P.S. — I just think it’d be good to establish Ross’s credentials — which are having groped a few 17 year old bar girls in Blok M and being able to bargain for a Steady Safe taxi at 4 am in the morning.

  6. Subrata says:

    Compared to Pram’s books, Ross’ “Red handed in Aceh” and “Red Jakarta” is like comparing a real literature to “kaki lima stensilan”. Sorry, Ross no contest!

    And I am with mas Achmad on Ross all the way.


  7. spew-it-all says:

    Sorry Ross, I reckon you must stop writing in IM as this is becoming your medium to promulgate your anti-communists creeds.

    Sadly, opinion like this will give Indonesian under impression that expats can say anything about the country and can be an authoritative source for their fellows. Worse than that, inferior Indonesians would nod to anything nonsensical caming out of expat’s mouth.

    I suspect that Ross hasn’t read all books of Pram. Most appallingly, his historical knowledge of Indonesia is very poor, let alone his research skills. Pram was never a head of Lekra, only head of literary section. Jubar Ajoeb was the secretary general.

    As for Manikebu vs Lekra, please read more sources not only from a guy who tends to have alzheimer like Taufik. Any historical events should be read in the context, although different approaches might give various interpretations on them.

    In 1990s, as a response to uproar caused by Ramon Magsaysay Award given to Pram, a discussion held in Jakarta and attended by various intellectuals, artists, and activists who were interested in the cultural debate in 1950-60s. Gunawan supported Pram and I think Arief Budiman did support him as well.

  8. Ross says:

    Oh, dear.
    Achmad the Rude Supercilious Expat is in another tantrum, his posts almost awash with spittle as he rails against a guy he’s never met (otherwise he’d know I chat away in Bahasa Indonesia quite happily, to girls of all ages)

    Leaving A.R.S.E. to his latest bout of mendacious toilet-talk, yes, the nominal boss of Lekra was another pinko, but Pramoedya was the leading light, spew-it-all. Please don’t let your hostility to anti-communism lead you to demand I be silenced. That’s the sort of thing Pramoedya was into.

    Fans of my novels- and those who aren’t fans -are entitled to criticise them. They’re my hobby. I don’t claim they’re literary masterpieces, but a lot of folks enjoy the adventurous yarns- looks like even A.R.S.E. has read one or two, since he ascribes some my protagonists’ antics to myself!(tho’ even the dimmest bule in my writings never uses Safe and Steady taxis)
    Incidentally, since the ‘argument’ has moved into this area, my new one is out, and it’s entitled ‘White Trash.’ And I started it before I’d even heard of Achmad!

  9. Rambutan says:

    Ross again, capedeeehhh…
    Anyway, big surprise: Pramoedya was no saint. Who would have thought. The Lekra times are an old and well-known story and I’m not going to defend Pram for what he did. Yes, I believe it was wrong. He is not perfect. He was blinded by his believe in certain ideologies.
    However, he paid dearly for it. He spent 14 years in Buru. More years under house arrest in Jakarta. He suffered a lot. More than anybody deserves. Please read ‘Nyani Sunyi Seorang Bisu’. It is a really impressive and moving book.
    Independent of his suffering, his good and bad deeds, there is no doubt about the fact that he is one of Indonesia’s best (many believe THE best) writers. Anybody, who puts his mastery as a writer into question is blinded by its political beliefs/ agenda.

  10. spew-it-all says:

    I know it’s not fair to ask you to be silent. However spurious and bigoted the opinion is, the right to express themselves must be served.

    Yet it would be wiser to be more careful in addressing some problems and analysing historical event. I am not a leftist but it really gets up my nose when people are slack in dealing with historical event. So far the ‘truth’ of history has been constructed by either leftists, fervent nationalist or ignorant and obtuse right-wing.

  11. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Have you read any of Pramoedya’s novels in Bahasa Indonesia ?

  12. dewaratugedeanom says:


    So far the ‘truth’ of history has been constructed by either leftists, fervent nationalist or ignorant and obtuse right-wing.

    Besides positivist history – no document, no history – oral history also takes an important part in the reconstruction of truth. However, every account of it will always be coloured by those who tell the tales. So, unless it’s blatant lies, let’s hear from all sides and then make up our minds.

  13. spew-it-all says:


    Ideally, we all should hear from all sides and then make up our minds. Yet, it’s not that easy. In the case of Indonesia, I’ve never seen anything written from left perspective, particularly during Suharto. Even when New Order collapsed, any attempts of writing alternative history faced prohibition. I’ve noticed oral history is now playing important in Indonesia although as methodology is rather new.

    History war is healthy and a perfect testing ground for the representation of the past.

  14. Oigal says:

    Hey Ross,

    As a writer of some note (mostly out of tune) and still fighting yesterday’s battles do you have your own website or blog? Most people here jump from topic to topic but you seem trapped in a fairly narrow band of paranoia. Perhaps if you have own site, you could rant n rave with your like minded cold war warriors and leave the humans in peace.

    Of course, there is an element of risk in that aka “throwing a party and nobody comes” but better than continually riding on another blogs popularity.

  15. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Owch. Harsh but fair.

  16. treespotter says:

    “an unrepentant Red, namely Pramoedya Ananta Toer”

    Do you even know the man is dead?

  17. Ziad says:

    It happens that I am reading one of Pramoedya’s books and I am deeply touched by his humanistic spirit and historic richness, I am sure if I was able to read it in its original language I would have enjoyed its vivid description of Indonesian society, but there is no doubt he is a great author who makes Indonesians proud, even those who don’t share is ideological leanings. I am re-posting here an old post with slight changes because I think that is what Ross is aiming at in the essence. I apologize for the excessive length but hope it will satisfy dear Ross.

    Since many Indonesians in 2008 are still affected by the ‘red scare’………………

  18. Janma says:

    Ross, I can’t help but think that all the things you say you are terrified of happening if the ‘Reds’ had gotten power here, happened anyway…. and the ‘Reds’ didn’t do them, the Orde Baru did them….
    Newspapers closed down….. yep
    Mass Killings…… Yep
    Repression, incarceration or murdering of anyone who doesn’t tow the party line…. yep
    Using Power to crush dissent… ditto…..
    The list goes on.
    Have you ever thought that the reason you are like this is because they forced you to read ‘Animal Farm’ over and over in school?

  19. Hannah says:


    you have read nyanyi sunyi seorang bisu? can you tell me where you managed to get that because i would love to be able to buy it too…reading it in english is just not the same.

  20. Lairedion says:

    That’s right Mbak Janma,

    Totalitarian states engaged in torture, oppression, killing, disappearing of “enemies” and curtailing of press and media, are covered with all kinds of ideologies (fascism, racism, communism, national-socialism, religion-based) but of course only the red ones are evil.

    The likes of the fascist junta’s of Latin America of the 70’s and 80’s and Soeharto-ruled Indonesia were friendly to the West and the US in particular so why bother the thousands of killed and disappeared?

  21. nenek sihir says:

    ‘Gadis pantai’ – the Indonesian version, not the English translation ‘The Girl from the coast’ is compelling, moving and beautifully written from start to finish…but you wouldn’t know that, would you Ross? Would you??? Good idea from another poster to bugger off and get yer own blog and stop using this site as a vehicle for your hateful rantings which border on the ludicrous. Didn’t they get rid of you on the expat site – maybe people here should consider boycotting IM or at least anything written by this sad fool. Beware the latent danger of sounding like an (extremely) stuck record-how much of this rubbish can one person keep churning out!

    Hannah, I was in Gramedia and Toko Buku Gunung Agung recently (Bandung stores) and they stock Indonesian and English versions of Pram’s works, but they don’t always have all titles available.

  22. Ross says:

    Why do so many of these pinko clowns use Indonesian names to post when they are clearly clapped-out expats?
    So now the cry is silence the Right in honour of the unlamented dead of the Left?
    Is Indonesia Matters registered as a playpen for semi-educated lefties?
    What a tolerant bunch you left-libs are!
    And how literate- ‘bugger off..’ Oh dear, Nenek Sihir (nenek2 lampir?)go back to school before you criticise others for their lack of reading.

    Yes Janma, Animal Farm was and is a good read. Lots of hard things happened under Suharto, but at least he’s gone -the real ratbags, in Hanoi and Vientiane and Beijing, have not yet been brought to book. May you, even though you are a Grandma, live to see them hung, as neatly as Saddam.

  23. Janma says:

    May you, even though you are a Grandma, live to see them hung, as neatly as Saddam.

    I’m only just past 40 ross, so I may outlive the pinkies yet! I thought I already had actually….. as for the ‘neat’ death of saddam…. I’d hate to see your idea of messy.

  24. Ross says:

    Wow, what a young grannie! I do apologise for assuming you were a senior cit.

  25. timdog says:

    I’m not sure about the character assasination, but I am inclined to agree with Ross when it comes to Pramoedya’s writing – in translation at least. I have reasonable spoken Indonesian, and can read Jawa Pos, but couldn’t begin to make any inroads into “literature”. So perhaps it is Max Lane’s own poor literary abilities that are behind the frankly rather low quality of much of the style and phrase in Pram’s books in English… I suspect not though, given that Lane is surely not responsible for the flaws of structure and characterisation, and also given that some of my literary-minded Indonesian friends have grudgingly conceded that much of Pram’s writing is pretty much unreadable in the original too – certainly compared to some of the younger generation of writers. I’d say for example that – in translation – Ayu Utami is a stunningly good writer in terms of style.

    I’ve always thought it a shame that Pramoedya has such a looming, vital status in Indonesian literature and that the Buru Quartet itself casts such a long shadow. It’s a monumental work, with a monumental back-story, but given a detached literary assessment it’s a monumental failure. In my opinion.

  26. Ross says:

    I pause to review the rubbish from ‘nenek sirih’ again- what rot she talks, me ejected from the expat site? I still post there quite often.
    And further to my comments on bules who hide behind Indonesian names, presumably to lend credibility to their ‘insights,’ is the nenek a man posting as a gran?
    Nenek means grandmother, but a lady would not use abusive talk like ‘bugger off,’ or is she one of those ‘liberated’ wimmin who think its all right for the gentler sex to swear like navvies?
    No, of course I didn’t read Red Pram’s stuff in Bahasa Indonesia. I’m okay with Komaps but not that good. However, I didn’t read Tolstoy’s books in Russian and still enjoyed reading, himas with various other Russians, notably Solzhenitsyn, and the excellent Italian, Oriana Fallaci, now there’s a woman for you! I found her English livley, if a bit awry.
    And yes, I know the old Commie Pram is dead, as is Jack the Ripper, one hopes, but we don’t mourn that loss. They both had time to repent but never made the effort.

  27. Rob says:


    An interesting take on Indonesian literature and history!

    The facts you present are like statistics; if you choose the right ones and put them together in the right way then they can support any argument that you might want to make…

    I have read Pram’s books in Indonesian and in English where they have been translated…Any translation is prone to lose a little something in the translation process as some things just don’t translate well from the original to the target language. But the translations by Max Lane are pretty good and I have not seen any alternatives by other translators floating around. So, for those that do not read Indonesian (and it is one thing to speak Indonesian it is a different ball game when it comes to reading) beyond the Jawa Pos or Kompas then these translations of Pram’s work are a good introduction until such time as you can read the originals in Indonesian and make informed comparisons.

    As you have pointed out there are arguments to be made that Pram had some skeletons in the closet but whether those skeletons, real or imagined, completely invalidate his literary opus requires a much more reasoned account than to just write it off as loony leftist, marxist tripe. But when it is all said and done I defend your right to post what you like and where you like within reason (defamation, slander, libel, that sort of thing) and with regard to the prevailing laws and regulations 🙂 Simply, people do not have to read or respond to you if they don’t want to!

    But history shows that Indonesia and all Indonesians continue to pay a price for 30 September 1965…And this price cannot be squarely and solely laid at the feet of the Communists, in fact it is some of Indonesia’s most fervent anti-communists that conceivably have to accept the blame…


  28. David says:

    As you have pointed out there are arguments to be made that Pram had some skeletons in the closet but whether those skeletons, real or imagined, completely invalidate his literary opus requires a much more reasoned account than to just write it off as loony leftist, marxist tripe.

    That’s an interesting point, there’s a good article on this The Line Through the Heart.

    From the article, I can say two things about Arthur Koestler

    1. Koestler often made a nuisance of himself and possibly committed rape.
    2. Koestler was a great writer and “Darkness at Noon” is a classic.

    Before anyone says that I’m comparing Pram to a rapist, no, the point from the article is that we can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in our head at the same time and see that they are both true, the one doesn’t cancel the other out.

    Ross’s article would have been better without the first paragraph, since as I’m trying to say it distracts from the point and is barely relevant but hey it’s an opinion piece and he can say whatever he likes. And it would have been better if some attempt at fairness had been made, some of Pram’s political record does have some serious blotches and spots but is that the whole story? I doubt it.

  29. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Ross. We’ve got it.

    You haven’t read the books in Indonesian,

    Personally, I think that means you’re talking through your ass. The English language translations just don’t capture the original. The moods, feelings, and ultimately meanings in Pram’s work, I think, are buried in the sounds of the language.

    I find it hard to believe you read Tolstoy, because there aren’t any pictures them last time I checked.

  30. Janma says:

    Personally, I think saying that you can’t understand Pram’s books from the english translations is similar to people going on about not being able to understand the Koran except in Arabic….. it’s true there is a difference, but it’s not like there is no insight to be had from reading a translation.
    I think the main problem with Ross reading Pram’s books is his perception (hate and fear of communists and the author himself) and that colors all he reads, so he only takes what reinforces his view anyway and does not process anything else.

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