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A KIND OF           SILENCE
               By : Goenawan Mohamad
 


 
 
 

              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.
 

                                   Now we know what made Pramoedya a legend in his own time. He refused to be
                                   smothered by his jailer's cloak of reticence. He wrote; he tried to regain
                                   his own speech. And he did it while fighting for survival in a penal colony a hot
                                   and humid gulag   surrounded by seas, filled with swamps and savanna,
                                   from which he had no hope of returning.
 
               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
               passage.

               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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