Now we know what made Pramoedya a legend in his own time. He refused to beBy : Goenawan MohamadA KIND OF SILENCE
This is the kind of evening when to celebrate is to be grateful, and to pay
homage to someone is a way to reestablish hope.
Just now we were listening to the words of Pramudya Ananta Toer, after more
than a decade of brutal muzzling of his voice by a regime too imperious
and too guilty to explain why.
This puts Pramoedya's name on the list of those 20th century writers who
have borne witness to the outrages of our time. In the Indonesian history
of cruelty and courage, no other writer went through such a rite of
One may argue that Pramoedya's banishment to Buru, a little-known island in
the distant east of Indonesia, was not a life in solitary confinement.
After all, he was one of the 12,000 detainees shut in the camp. What's
more, as early as 1969, efforts by Amnesty International had turned
Pramoedya into a famed prisoner-of-conscience. Gradually, visitors,
including journalists, flew to Buru to meet him. Even President Soeharto,
the author's ultimate jailer, sent him a letter.
Still, the public world that was open to him was not his any longer. Hannah
Arendt's description of men living in dark times accurately befits
Pramoedya's situation: "The light of the public obscures everything". In
his case, the public was the state and for him, the state was a monster
assaulting the very mode of his existence, often with most violent means.
We know that when conversation, or the lack of it, becomes a function of
total power, words become victims of sacrifice. They may sound free or
untied, like sacrificial horses in ancient India, but actually they are
guarded and sent roaming to mark out new borders of colonization. And at
the end they are slaughtered like any other victim to appease the gods
controlling the terror. Like any sacrifice, they are used for their
exchange value. Like protection money, words lose their difference and
dignity. The speaker may believe he can expand himself, but at the end he
loses his selfhood.
Pramoedya was and is too much an individualist to accept such a design. And
he is too much a humanist to succumb to gods' demands. "In my study of Old
Javanese", he writes in The Mute's Soliloquy, "I learned that man's
position is higher than that of gods". In his exile, the only choice for
Pramoedya to defend words from being mere sacrificial victims -- to
maintain what he believed to be his authenticity -- was to invent his own
space and use silence as a decoy.
The selection of notes and letters read to you just now, using Willem
Samuels' excellent translation, has a different title in the Indonesian
version. The original title is Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu, which may be
translated as "The Silent Song of a Mute". Pramoedya's choice of the words,
however, is pregnant with paradoxes.
The words, nyanyi sunyi were obviously borrowed from the poetry of Amir
Hamzah. Incidentally, he was one of Indonesia's foremost poets, a member of
local aristocracy murdered by a populist uprising in 1946, during the
chaotic days of the revolution. The combined words of nyanyi (song) and
sunyi (silent or quiet) produce an affective tonality evoking an image of
distress. Amir Hamzah was after all a poet. In a poet's mind sound and
images are the things that prompt a verse. The verse flies almost unguided,
freed from the ballast of social overtone.
In contrast, Pramoedya is a prose writer par excellence. He is a presence
in his verbal world. His writing is the work of a persistent consciousness.
A humanist through and through, he gives no room to "the God's part" that
André Gide talks about in his defense of the cryptic component of his work.
In other words, Pramoedya's muteness is not equal to inarticulacy. It is
an inverted statement of refusal. Obviously, he had to protect himself from
the darkening of truth that began with the first lie, which was exile.
I learned something about exile from my mother, who joined my father in his
banishment by the Dutch to a political prisoner camp in West Irian in the
1920s. Exile is not about isolation; it is about deception. It is an
attempt to tell the world that opposing views simply fail. It is born out
of a self-deluding claim of the powerful that there can be such a thing as
total conquest. Against the lie, words can signify resistance even when you
put them down in secretive notes. The act of writing itself is political.
It is political because it is a kind of silence that refuses solitude.
Of course, politics will ultimately insist that words return to the
solidity of language. The return will give them certain power, weight and
purpose, regardless the fact that words are not always happy to bear the
burden of history. But it is a necessity, especially in Pramoedya's case.
If his soliloquy seems to decline to cast off the burden, it is because for
him history had to end in freedom, or nothing.
A proud body of messages, remote but purposive in their struggle against
destiny -- this is probably the way I would think of Pramoedya.
I remember seeing him one afternoon in Buru 30 years ago when I came to the
penal colony as a reporter. I remember walking with a group of other
journalists along a path hemmed by a sternly built fence of barbed wire. In
the distance I saw a lean looking figure of a political prisoner, standing
close to a stack of dry grass, twigs and leaves he was burning after a long
workday. The smoke went up white and gray slightly covering his dark and
tense face. I knew he was Pramoedya Ananta Toer. For a moment I wondered
whether the smoke might be serving as his means for sending silent messages
to the world, or as a screen to protect his life from the unexpected. It
could be a sign of hope, of dread, or of defiance.
This evening I am happy to see him again here, in New York, speaking to the
world with hope, without dread, without a screen. For me it is a privilege
to be part of this historic moment, to be among friends and admirers who
have come a long way to honor him. Now, after so many years...
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