Happily, I did finish it without difficulty: after picking it up last night, I got about halfway through before I fell asleep, and finished it off in the morning. It basically tells the story of a man who, not long after getting out of prison (having served as a political prisoner, of course), receives news that his father is dying, and returns to his hometown from Jakarta to see his father during the old man’s last days.
I’m not sure, but I think it’s likely not the translator’s fault that the book feels a little like it’s hitting one over the head with its politics. I’m not sure if Pramoedya wrote this work as a didactic piece of writing for the average person, or whether he was trying to depict the fixation of a politically aware consciousness, but early on there’s a moment where the protagonist is wandering the streets of “Djakarta” (as it is spelled in the text) and he passes the palace of government. He reflects on the benefits enjoyed by those in power, and the misery of everyone else, and how for a regular man to get a little more electricity in his home, he needs to bribe several officials, while the President needs only make a phone call. It would be harder to be more direct about the injustice of the Sukarno regime than that, but I also felt a bit like I was being told things I already knew… and which I assumed Pramoedya’s readers would know still better than I.
(Note: for those who don’t know, Sukarno was Suharto’s predecessor, and the “President” of Indonesia in 1951, when this book was published.)
But the book gets more interesting as it goes, and there were moments that grabbed my attention, such as when the man talks to his father’s friend, who, like his father, was a teacher (and later, a school inspector). The son speculates that his father’s illness with tuberculosis was caused by all the cycling from school to school on a rickety bicycle, but the friend disagrees:
“No,” said our host, “having been a teacher for all this time, I can say no. I assure you his illness wasn’t on account of that. Because he asked to become a teacher again, that was the reason. Fifteen to twenty kilometers pedaling a bicycle is a small matter for a teacher. What’s hard is teaching, swallowing the bitter taste of the miseducation which parents have given their children. That’s the thing which so easily breaks a teacher…” (pg. 46)
The teacher notes that the school where the man’s father taught was even worse than average, and recounts the story of how he once hit a student, only to discover the boy was the son of a government official. The teacher lived in terror until the father showed up in his car, came to the teacher, and then, shock of shocks, thanked him for teaching his son a lesson when he, the government man, couldn’t. This, the teacher describes as giving him “a tremendous sense of joy — the most tremendous in my life.” (pg. 47)
As a teacher myself, I found the observation above to be very true: the most heartbreaking thing about my job is when I am confronted with young people who have been miseducated — whether by their parents, or by the school system in which they were trapped for most of their youths, or even occasionally, by others at the university where I work.
Moments like these gave the book a little more power than I’d expected when I started reading it. It does end up being a touching narrative, but I suspect that others of Pramoedya’s works are probably more interesting. (I certainly found the few stories I’ve read in All That Is Gone more to my taste.) And yet, in some way I think the book also humanizes dissidence, and even puts a face to the cost of dissidence: father and son alike fight the government — the father fighting the Dutch government, the son fighting what I think is Sukarno’s indigenous dictatorship; there is no clearer way to illuminate just how much the two have in common than to show the fate of those who fight against it; and that fate is not very pretty.
And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Life, if we come clean and get very honest, isn’t all that pretty for most people. The title, by the way, comes from a discussion of the way we are born alone into the world, and die alone, and how it isn’t like an all-night fair. The original title, in Bahasa Indonesia, is Bukan Pasar Malam, which Miss Jiwaku says transliterates as as Not [a] Night Market, though she notes that those occasional night markets often include fun and entertainments for children, so it is something more like a mix of a market and a fair. Well, if life isn’t an all-night fair, then what is it? It seems, for Pramoedya here at least, to be a kind of struggle; you must always take a side, you must choose your values, and you must stick to them with all the endurance and courage you can muster, just as the narrator’s father famously stuck to a card table for five days in order to win a wager, and stuck to his value system more generally despite the various costs he had finally to pay.
Perhaps I read the book too quickly, or maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel as moved by it as the translator, C.W. Watson, suggests. But the book did give me pause to think, and certainly gave me a picture, in a practical and historical sense, of one of those issues with which I’m constantly concerned in my own writing: how the system of power works in a society, and how those who disagree with those in power can resist, or fail to resist, and at what cost.