Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Makings of a Javanese "Anti-colonial Gong” in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind

When, in a letter to Minke, Miriam de la Croix recounted how her father had both ordered her and her sister to study the music of Gamelan, it was meant not only to enjoy its sounds, but also to impart comparison between Javanese music and its people. In this traditional Indonesian ensemble, it can be noticed how all the tones wait upon the sound of the gong which, according to Miriam’s father, does not translate to the actual lives of Javanese people because they “still have not found their gong, a leader, a thinker, who can come forth with words of resolution”. 

True, that in the novel’s depiction of colonial Indonesia, the gong in the life of Javanese people has still not arrived; but it is being formed – gradually, in the consciousness of Minke, a Dutch-educated native elite who must confront the political and socio-cultural realities of the Dutch colonial presence and injustice in the Indies. Following Minke’s journey towards his own cultural awakening, one can see the makings of a Javanese anti-colonial “Gong”, one who will, in the future, be loudly heard by his people, and to lead them towards the path of national consciousness and freedom. According to the postcolonial critic Frantz Fanon, the projected pattern of a native subject’s anti-colonial awakening and cultural evolution follows three distinct phases of assimilation, reaffirmation, and, finally, rejection of the occupying power’s cultural influence. 

Following this evolutionary schema of a native intellectual, the book begins by allowing us to see Minke in the assimilationist phase where he, as a product of colonial education, attaches himself, in admiration, to European modernity and civilization. Here, we see him praise Europe for its technological advancement through the invention of zincograph, trains, telegraphs, and soon, oil-powered cars. The assimilationist phase gives proof that Minke can be fully integrated in the culture of the occupying power since his social and intellectual abilities bear resemblance to that of a learned European. This is profoundly evident in Minke’s ability to write fluently and creatively in Dutch, a feat which earned admiration from his Dutch teachers and newspaper editors in Surabaya.  

With this, Minke’s colonial education has alienated him from his own culture but even so, he still admits feeling hurt and offended whenever “the essence of Java is being insulted by outsiders”. Here, we see how Minke takes it to heart, though subconsciously, the plight of his people and their weakness which, according to Robert Suurhof, is that “there is no European blood running through their veins”. From this, we can only infer that Minke’s thrust to excel in academics and write about the Indies, its people and society, is somewhat driven by his consciousness and defense of their subjugated existence as natives. We can see from here how Minke enters the nationalist phase of his intellectual journey, equipped with awareness about the richness of Javanese civilization – their centuries’ old chronicle Babad Tanah Jawi, for instance, and their majestic temples of Prambanan and Borobudur – shows how, in that era, Java was more advanced than the Netherlands.  

Even with his feats as a young native, Minke’s aspiration, as he confessed to his mother, was not to become a priviliged Bupati but “only to become a free human being”. When this desire, however, was curtailed due to the vicious imposition of colonial laws – that invalidated his marriage to Annelies, who would be sent to the Netherlands under her legal, Dutch guardian – Minke finally decided to fight colonial injustice, ironically through writing – the product of his own colonial education. We see how, by the end of the novel, Minke, the native intellectual, enters the fighting phase as he prepares to strike the gong – whose sounds shall shake and awaken his people – towards, as Max Lane puts it, their revolutionary future.

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