Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Socialist Realism Literature

Initially written a thesis for his philosophy degree in Universitas Gadjah Mada, Eka, evidently deferential to Pramoedya but at the same time also critically sensible, offers a comprehensive basic text on (as the title suggests) Pramoedya Ananta Toer and (his role in) the growth of Socialistic Realism in relation to the global movement as well as local figures/parties. Covering general as well as specific historical facts with lucid clarity, the book assumes little familiarity with Indonesian history and is accessible to general readers.

Born in Blora on February 6, 1925, he was the first child of Pak Mastoer, a political activist (in PNI) and a HIS (and later IBO) teacher. His mother, Oemi Saidah, was a daughter of a village (Rembang) chief’s mistress, who was to be the well-known inspiration for Gadis Pantai. Pram didn’t stand out in his early schooling, his writing and intellectual activities became more visible once he left for Jakarta, compiling meticulous research, documentation and translation on history, philosophy and literature (which became instrumental sources and elements for his writings).


Kurniwan divided Pramoedya’s writings into three periods: 1) pre-Lekra (association with Angkatan 45 and Gelanggang) 2) with — and influenced by — Lekra, and lastly, 3) post-Lekra. Gelanggang’s “failure” in its revolutionary ideals of universal humanism resulted in many of its followers soon renouncing and accusing it as decadent ivory-tower that encouraged the cultures of capitalism, bourgeois and feudalism. The heterogeneity of backgrounds, beliefs and groups encompassed in Angkatan 45 contributed to the labyrinthine difficulty of basic ideological formation. Out of this frustration, Lekra, as a social commitment in art and literature, was formed.

Written under the general overview on the philosophy and history of socialist realism in relation to Marxist historical materialism (rooted from Hegelian dialectic materialism): in Russia, with a lack of written theory on art and aesthetic by either Marx or Engels, socialist realism was initially created (and publicly declared by Andrei Zhdanov) as compromised middle ground to appease both Proletkul’t and historical (mainly bourgeois) culture. Also included is alternative theories and criticism by Georg Lukács and Trotsky, not included in Pramoedya’s Realisme Sosialis dan Sastra Indonesia.

In China, wrote Kurniawan, with their less social and historical burden from Euro-, bourgeois-centric past aesthetic and culture, Marxism could be implemented more “consistently”, encouraging the Chinese to form their own “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Noted is Pram’s visit to China (for Lu Hsün’s death anniversary) which left a great impression and altered Pram’s perspectives.

The early nascent Socialist Realism in Indonesia, where the ideological contrast between proletarians and bourgeois has not yet been distinctly defined, can be traced much earlier to pre-Independence era, from Hadji Moekti’s Hikajat Siti Mariah and Tirto Adhi Soerjo’s Njai Permana. Works with higher socialist content consecutively appeared, closely associated with ISDV, SI Semarang and early PKI, e.g. Semaoen’s Hikajat Kadiroen, and Marco Kartodikromo’s pornographic Mata Gelap, and later (after much protest to his earlier novel), Student Hidjo, Soemantri’s Rasa Mardika (or Hikajat Sudjarmo). (Eka drew extensive reference from Soe Hok Gie’s Di Bawah Lentera Merah and Roeslan Abdulgani’s Sosialisme Indonesia.) World wars and the increasing hegemony of Balai Pustaka (with its state-based censorship) were to temporarily hinder the growth of socialist literature, only to propel it forward in post-war era.

Central to Pramoedya’s career is his eminent involvement with Lekra (and his assailing writings in Lentera under the slogan “politik sebagai panglima”), which, exacerbated by its strong affiliation to the increasingly influential PKI, has been accused of ruthless suppression of creativity, markedly in the Lekra vs Manikebu conflict. Pramoedya “found in Lekra and its ideology a firm platform, which could integrate visions of the past and future to help create a coherent picture of present experience, and could help bind the writer to a sociopolitically important group, but not directly to state and government” (Martina Heinschke). In Indonesian heated political climate of the 60s, the non-partisan attitude (by the Sastra magazine, led by H.B. Jassin) was indeed quite an anomaly. Some suspicion arose on the hidden role of military, and Manikebu, particularly Wiratmo Soekito and H.B. Jassin, became targeted in escalating hostile campaigns by Lekra and LKN (led by Sitor Situmorang), with the use of objective and rational dialogue replaced by derogatory and assailing sloganism.



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