Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Earth of Mankind--Review


Today is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens's birth. I didn't think I'd be thinking about an English Victorian writer while reading a novel from an Indonesian dissident, but I couldn't get Dickens out of my mind during the latter half of "This Earth of Mankind." Just a bit of odd timing, I suppose.


So how do you review an iconic author, a man who has been called the Solzhenitsyn of Asia, a dissident who was imprisoned by not one but two regimes, a writer whose works were banned by Suharto and possession of his works could lead to imprisonment? More specifically, how can you examine objectively a novel whose creation was not simply the process of author-paper-publisher, but an act of defiance, a story which was recited orally to other prisoners before being smuggled off of Buru Island years later?  (Merely being in possession of reading material was a life-threatening act;indeed, at the same time Toer was composing his work, another prisoner was found floating face-down in a river, his hands tied  behind  his back, just for unwrapping the tattered remnants of newspaper from a bundle of nails.) How do you evaluate an author's style when, like the old game of  "Gossip" the author's message must have been invariably distorted as it is passed along from person to person in such an unorthodox manner, and was finally reassembled and re-written by the author from fragments? And how do you judge the skill of the translator when, besides not being able to read the original language, you know that the translator, instead of enjoying the usual tranquil scholar's life, took a great risk at accepting the manuscript to begin with and then was booted out of Indonesia for his pains? Setting aside all of this literary baggage is difficult, if not to say impossible, when reading "This Earth of Mankind", the first book in the Buru Quartet.

"This Earth of Mankind" relates the story of Minke, the only Native (a full-blooded Javanese, as opposed to an Indo or a Pure {European}; the capitalizations were Max Lane's editorial decision) during his last year in a prestigious Dutch school in the port of Surabaya. He is semi-estranged from his aristocratic father, a liaison official with the Dutch government; indeed, Minke isn't even really his name, but an alias as he doesn't want to use the family name. In the first chapter, Minke is introduced by a casual school friend to a household shunned by the rest of the community--the mysterious Nyai Ontosoroh and her children Annelies and Robert Mellema. The Nyai (Concubine) is the possession of a Dutch trader who bought her from her Javanese parents when she was thirteen; her Indo, or mixed-blood children have been legally acknowledged by their father although they can never be his heirs. It is Minke's relationship with this unusual family that forms the basis of the book.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel. It was particularly interesting getting the Javanese perspective of the political problems facing Indonesia, especially since the previous book I read, "The Ten Thousand Things", though set in the same time period, wasn't really concerned with such matters. The strict hierarchy set up by the Dutch government and the many rules that governed society (Indonesians weren't even allowed to testify in Dutch even if they were fluent), the clash between Islamic and Christian law,  the complex relationship between the various races, the position of women in society--all kept me turning the pages. And the portrayal of the Nyai--a potent mixture of scorned pride, vengefulness, and tenderness toward her children--was excellent--one of the best psychological portraits I've ever read.

However--and this is a big however--the book goes seriously awry in the second half. Toer's handling of the first person limited narration, at the best of time rather awkward, becomes positively clumsy as the people in the book start knowing things they could not realistically be aware of. And the characters themselves, all ready a bit two-dimensional (with the exception of the Nyai and Jean Marais, the French soldier of fortune/artist) devolve into Symbols to suit the thematic needs of the author; the plot slips into melodrama. It stops becoming the story about Minke and his growing relationship with the Nyai and the Mallemas; instead it becomes The Great Love Story between Minke and Annelies.

I read an occasional romantic novel; I have no problem with the idea of a love story. I do have an objection to supposedly literary novelists who use the plot conventions of genre fiction--and do a poor job of it, too.

Annelies? In the beginning of the book, she's a slightly neurotic girl who spends far too much time trailing around in a black velvet evening dress (morning, noon, and night) but she's not a bad sort. True, she hasn't mixed at all with other people, and she's never really left her parents' farm estate, but she's perfectly capable of riding out to supervise the laborers, and to help her mother with the paperwork in dealing with a large farming enterprise; she even manages to ask a few intelligent questions. Alas, to serve as the needs of the plot, she must be sacrificed by the author; she must become a symbol of colonial victim hood. Does the plot need a bit of a jump-start? Just drag the girl into a salon, or a bedroom, and cut the puppet strings and have her fall into heap. Have her collapse into mysterious fevers, or hysterical wailing. Have the doctor mumble something about her developing a new soul, instead of sending her off to a sanatorium. Have Minke be the only one, of course, who can snap her out of her fevered thrashings.

Do you know who she reminded me of? Dora, David Copperfield's child-wife, whose presence in the Dickens's classic blighted the book for me. I wanted to hit her over the head with a shovel; she couldn't die quickly enough to suit me. I loved the first half of "David Copperfield" and its depiction of the magical inner world of childhood--the second half, with its sentimental musings on the Angel in the House and the nauseating Dora made me want to throw the book across the room. And "This Earth of Mankind" is much worse. At least in Dickens's work, there are a few people who think that maybe it isn't the best idea for David to marry the infantile Dora. Here EVERYONE thinks it's an excellent plan for Minke to marry a fourteen or fifteen year old hysteric wreck who dissolves into weeping whenever he leaves the house. Emotional manipulation? Not a bit of it! Now, it is true that supposedly intelligent men (for reasons best known to them) often pick mates who are intellectually their inferiors, or who are deeply troubled, but the cultivated Nyai, and the formerly sensible doctor, and indeed everyone in Java thinks that Ann is the ideal bride because she is so beautiful--and that Minke is a very lucky fellow, indeed. She was referred to as a "fragile doll" at least four times in one of the last chapters; it was enough to make me scream.

Minke, too, becomes insufferable. In the beginning, he's an intelligent young man with adequate grades and a bit of a penchant for writing. He's a bit naive, a bit bombastic. He becomes a paragon of virtue--he wins all the school prizes without working the leading newspaper must seek him out to print his work. There must be important people lining up to meet him or to murder him; there must be endless controversy; there must be whispers whenever he enters a room. Can't he just collect his diploma, or have a drink quietly in a corner at a party without causing drama? No, he must becoming the shining hope of his people; the Native with Great Potential.

In the end, there is a big plot twist that sets up the second part of the quartet. Annelies must become a pawn; she must become girl-bait to draw Minke out of Java. It's pretty clear to me that she is going to fall into the hands of an evil European, that Minke must rescue her, and that there is no way that the "fragile doll" is going to make it to the end of the series. I can't help but wonder why Toer insisted on making such a prostrate figure his symbol of colonialism. It's an easy way to gain sentimental sympathy, but a strong person like the Nyai would have made for a better story. The author demonstrates that he is perfectly capable of depicting capable women and three-dimensional characters--why did he choose this path? I understand the author has important things to say about colonialism, and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, but when characters are mere polemic ciphers I can't regard his work as completely successful--and there's nothing about his literary style that, in translation at least, can only be described as nothing more than serviceable--to really draw me in.

About a quarter of the way through "This Earth of Mankind" I was sorry that I wouldn't have time for the rest of the series. Now, however, I doubt that even the speedy demise of Annelies would tempt me to read the other books. I don't even want to spend another minute on the fate of a character I care nothing about. Let her be banished to the Island of the Lisping Child-Brides, along with her European counterpart, Dora Copperfield.

    Three Stars 
(and that's  more for the book's dramatic inception)

I was going to cheat and pretend to read "Evening is the Whole Day" by Preeta Samarasan, which I read for my book group just before the start of the 52 country challenge. However, I've enough to write about and though "Evening" was a four-star read for me, I am going to skip over Malaysia and head for the Philippines. Quite frankly, I'm worried about "Noli Me Tangere" as it is burdened with even more literary baggage that "This Earth of Mankind. After all, Toer was merely banished for his activities; Rizal ended up getting shot.

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