by Asril Zakariah
The first moment I caught glimpse of this book was during my school years in SDAR. I can still remember that it was placed on the library shelf together with other titles written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Though the books are neatly arranged I saw that this particular book seems to be worn out, perhaps due to over-handling i.e. over-reading of the book I presumed. I pulled it out and gave a quick read.
Literature… Literalistic… the book was too heavy for my blissful mind at that time, I put it down.
More than 10 years later, deja-vu. As I was rummaging through my aunt’s personal collection I came across Bumi Manusia again, interestingly also in worn out condition. I then asked my aunt…
“Angah, bagus ke buku ni?”
“Bagus… sangat bagus, one of the best books ever”
I took it home and gave it a read.
True. It is one of the best novels I have ever read. Lively characters, gripping plot, epic background are all beautifully molded in a flow of intense writing. An intense read indeed, I found myself gasping for pause. The story leapt out of the pages forming vivid motion-picture in my mind.
The story takes place in the late 19th century Java, then part of the Netherlands-Indies. The main character is Minke, a pribumi (indigenous). Born in an aristocratic family he has the privilege of attending a prestigious secondary school mainly for Europeans and the mix-bloods. It is here Minke learned all about the European culture, civilization and himself.
His adventures lead him to a family of Nyai Ontosoroh, a concubine of a Dutchman.
Minke’s relationship with the family of Nyai Ontosoroh became tighter and closer when he falls in ‘love’ with the family. First he falls in love with the well-learned characteristics of Nyai and then later with Nyai’s daughter, the beautiful Annelies.
This relationship is the background of the plot of the story.
As the story unfolds, Minke is tested by many tribulations. All are tested, his intellect, his roots, his life, his love, his marriage. Nothing is spared. From the story one could see the ill effect of colonial rule. A rule imposed by a civilization upon another with the pretext that the other is lowly and live only to be exploited. A kind of rule experienced by the people of the Malay Archipelago some time ago.
Educated in the European way, Minke finds himself a non-belonging. Enlightened by education he rebels against his own cultural tradition. He then tries to be part of the learned-modern society he so adore but was not allowed to fit in.
His non-belonging caused Minke to reluctantly try to change the situation in colonial Java to a better. His efforts gain some people’s attention but not enough to change the whole system. This results in series of failure and tragedy that befalls Minke, especially his marriage ala the Natrah (Maria Hertogh) tragedy.
Enough said. This book is definitely a must read. A splendid work I rarely come across. The story, perennial in nature is relevant to today’s situation in so many places in the world, where exploitation and victimization continue to exist.