The Mute's Soliloquy

The Mute's Soliloquy


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From the author of the Buru Quartet and one of the greatest writers of our time comes a remarkable memoir of imprisonment and survival.

In 1965, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was detained by Indonesian authorities and eventually exiled to the penal island of Buru. Without a formal accusation or trial, the onetime national hero was imprisoned on Buru for eleven years. He survived under brutal conditions, somehow managing to produce his masterwork, the four novels of the Buru Quartet, as well as the remarkable journal entries, essays, and letters that comprise this moving memoir.

Reminiscent of the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Mute's Soliloquy is a harrowing portrait of a penal colony and a heartbreaking remembrance of life before it. With a resonance far beyond its particular time and place, it is Pramoedya's crowning achievement—a passionate tribute to the freedom of the mind and a celebration of the human spirit.

"A haunting record of a great writer's attempt to keep his imagination and his humanity alive."— The New York Times Book Review

"A story too vast and serious to ignore."— San Francisco Chronicle (front page review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786864164
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 04/28/1999
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the author of more than thirty books, including The Fugitive, The Mute's Soliloquy, and The Girl from the Coast, and is published in more than thirty countries. He has been called "Indonesia's Albert Camus" (San Francisco Chronicle). The Los Angeles Times compared him to James Baldwin and Dashiell Hammett. And he is listed in the updated edition of the classic Lifetime Reading Plan among the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Graham Greene, and John Steinbeck as one of 100 authors everyone should read. He has been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other major publications around the world. He is the recipient of numerous international literary awards (such as France's Chevalier award and the highest award in Asian letters, the Magsaysay award) and freedom-of-speech awards (such as the PEN Freedom-to-Write award and the Hellman-Hammett award). He lives outside Jakarta.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On the night of October 13, 1965, when I was picked up by the military, I was at home editing a collection of short stories by President Soekarno, which he had written under a pen name.

    It's a mystery to me why I was exiled. Prior to my arrest and imprisonment I had never been threatened and even to this day I still don't know, and have never been officially informed of, the reason for my arrest and imprisonment.

    Also unknown to me is why the whole incident ever took place. For myself, as a student of both ancient and modern Indonesian history, I see behind almost all the monumental events in this nation's history something I'll call "Factor X," namely an external factor that has played a determinantal role in the shaping of Indonesia. During my years in prison I spent a great deal of time trying to discover who or what was Factor X in this case.

    After I was led from my house that night, my military escorts and I were immediately surrounded by a mob of masked men who had gathered outside my house, all of whom were armed with knives or other kinds of blades. At that point, my hands were tied behind my back and the rope that bound my wrists was then looped around my neck. In the early days of the Indonesian revolution that kind of knot was a sure sign that the captive was to be killed.

    From my home I was taken that night to the Army Strategic Reserve Command Post and, later, to the Regional Military Command. Following my captors' instructions, I had carried a bag of belongings with me—they told me they had come "to remove me from harm's way" and that I should take my work with me—but at the latter place, my typewriter and an unfinished manuscript I had brought along were taken from me.

    A week later, I was transferred to Military Police Headquarters on Jl. Guntur and there all the rest of my belongings were taken from me, including six months of emergency wages from Res Publika University where I was giving lectures, and six months of emergency wages from a pencil factory on whose board I served as an advisor. These funds were all the money my family had to live on.

    After two days, I was moved to Salemba Prison and, in November, moved again, this time to the Tangerang Correctional Institution for Juvenile Delinquents, which had been taken over by the military. I was told that I was being moved there "in preparation for release." That didn't prove to be the case.

    My family didn't find out where I was being held until three months after my initial capture, and six months passed before they were allowed to visit me. This was natural, I suppose, since the detention centers in which I was held for that first half year were sites of mass torture; the authorities would never allow visitors to see the political prisoners there.

    For the first few months, torture was the prisoners' constant diet. I saw prisoners whose hands and legs were bound tightly being thrown out of trucks. I witnessed how one young man, who was being interrogated beside me, had pencils placed between his fingers, at their base, between the middle and lower knuckles. Every time the interrogator asked the boy a question, he'd crush the young man's fingers together, causing him to scream and moan in pain. The interrogator also set the leg of the table on the young man's large toes and intermittently slammed his fist down on the table or sat on it.

    In May of 1966, I was transferred back to Salemba where I stayed until July 1969, when I and a trainload of other prisoners were sent to Cilacap, a port town on the south coast of Java. There we were put on a ferry and taken to the penal island of Nusa Kambangan, where I was first held in Karang Tengah Prison but a week later moved to Limusbuntu, one of the island's other prisons. I was there until August 16, 1969, when I and a crowd of other prisoners were put on Adri XV, a military ship, to begin our journey to Buru Island.

    We were the first group of prisoners to be sent to Buru and, after our arrival, were placed in what was then known as Unit 3, the unit farthest away from the coast. In 1971, I and fifteen or sixteen other prisoners were placed in quarters separate from the other men, which is where I lived in isolation until July of 1973.

    It was that same year I began to write again. This was following the visit of General Sumitro to Buru, who gave me official permission to write.

    Most of my notes about the period before 1973 were destroyed: some I myself was forced to destroy in the interest of my own safety; others were destroyed by the authorities. I have no idea how many pages of notes I wrote in the end, but what we have here is some of what I managed to salvage.



(A Letter for Pujarosmi)

* * *

It's unlikely that you'll ever receive this letter. It's unlikely that I'll ever be able to send it. But I'm still going to write it—you see, I told you I would!—for you, who are now happy in newly wedded bliss.

    I remember so clearly the time when you came to me with your fiancé and the religious official who would administer the wedding ceremony. You were in such a rush, so afraid you might miss the train of good fortune.

    I'm sure you knew that I would have no objection to your taking a husband of your own choosing. And I'm sure you remember the words I said to your husband-to-be when he stood before me prior to your wedding: "This young woman is my first child. I love her. Her grandmother had hoped that she would become a doctor, but now she is to be your wife. I ask you, therefore, to do nothing to obstruct her from continuing her studies after she marries you. I also ask you—no, I forbid you—to ever strike her or hurt her in any way. And because you have asked for my daughter's hand in the proper manner, I also ask you that if something happens and you find that you no longer want to be with her, that you return her to me just as she is now, in good health, and that thereafter you never call on me again."

    After that time you never came to see me again. When was that? I can't remember the day or the month. Even your husband's name, his ethnic background, occupation, and education seem to have slipped my mind. But whatever they are, everything is up to you now. You made your choice and in so doing took on the responsibility for that choice.

    The year? That I do remember. It was in 1969 that you took your leave from me at the Salemba Prison, the "Special Detention Center" as it was called, to embark on your new life as a married woman. Before reaching the mammoth door that opened on to the main road, you turned several times to look back at me. The man beside you, your husband, bowed, dipping his shoulders slightly as a sign of respect for me. But after that, after that huge door closed behind you, all such niceties ended. You left on your honeymoon. Then I, too, went away—into exile.

If a person cannot free himself from three-dimensional time—from either the past, the present, or the future—how must this be viewed? As God's gift or His curse?

    During the Revolution when I was being held by the Dutch in Bukitduri Prison, I memorized a Negro spiritual, the first line of which went "There's a happy land somewhere ..."—a symbolic promise for every person's future.

    With hope as his guide, sweat as the symbol of his labor, the present as his starting point, and the past as his provisions, a person goes forward, toward a happy land somewhere. But because one can never be sure of reaching that place, the second line of the song goes "And it's just a prayer away...."

    The song is a beautiful one, especially so when the time is right and one is not plagued by matters that set one's nerves on edge.

    "Somewhere," my child, but where? Where is this "happy land"? People are raised to believe that happiness is the land to which they are destined to travel. But that belief, which one so easily accepts as true, might just as well be a mirage.

    It's August 16, 1969, and you are off on your honeymoon to a happy land. I, too, am off to a happy land somewhere, to Buru I've been told, an island in the Moluccas about the size of Bali. We're supposed to leave tomorrow, on August 17, Independence Day—a birthday present for the nation!—if our departure is not postponed yet another time. I and eight hundred other prisoners will leave on Adri XV, a ship of some 300,000 tons in dead weight, but to board we must first go to Sodong, port for the island prison of Nusa Kambangan, located across the strait from the much larger harbor of Wijayapura in Cilacap, southern Java.

    I will not close my eyes, neither those in my head nor those in my soul, as the ship carries me away, along with my future, my dreams, and my beliefs. Buru Island is no happy land somewhere; it's but a way station on my journey in life—though to believe even that much will require no small measure of hope.

The whistle blows and slowly the ship leaves sight of Sodong and Wijayapura. A green wall, the forests and mountains of Nusa Kambangan, moves alongside the craft as the white strip of shoreline gradually disappears from view. As one turns toward the south, only the open sea is visible, the Indian Ocean a limitless expanse of azure stretching beyond the horizon. To the north are the steep and jagged cliffs of Java's southern coast.

    Don't listen, shut your ears to the labored breath of this rusted and asthmatic vessel. Like our distant ancestors in the age of migration we are on a voyage of discovery, a journey toward a new land and life. Only our education gives us the knowledge that we are passing through the waters of our own country, a maritime nation of more than thirteen thousand islands.

    But the lesson that now seems more real, more easy to comprehend, is the one that was drilled into us by the chief warrant officer of Salemba Prison: "The only right you have is to breathe!"

    For some of us, even that right has been rescinded, making the lesson we learned in school nothing more than an exercise in hypocrisy. And it's not just the sea I'm referring to, but all its contents as well the land and everything else found in it. And the sky, too, for that matter—as far as the eye can see, the entire solar system. Between reality and promises there is no status quo.

    Our ship rocks and shakes. Our cabin is one of three large barred areas in the cargo hold. Its huge door of steel bars is securely locked and bolted.

    But we no longer have the right to look at the sky, or so it seems, much less dream of claiming it, even a small part of it, as our own. We are coolies on Captain Bontekoe's ship, the kidnapped Chinese on Michener's ship bound for Hawaii; we are the four million Africans loaded onto British and American ships for transport across the Atlantic. Nonetheless, even among the eight hundred hostages on this boat, I still feel myself to be an individual, a person with the power, the strength, and good health—for the time being at least—to act for myself. For far too many of the prisoners on board, this journey is not only their first time at sea but also the first time they have ever set foot outside their home village. Can you imagine? These men are supposed to be citizens of a maritime nation. In primary school, Indonesian children are told that they are the descendants of a maritime people who roamed the seas. Yet here on this ship, most of the prisoners are sprawled helplessly on the mats that line the deck. As the ship cuts through the open sea they heave their guts, then retch and heave some more.

Remember the time we sailed to Europe in 1953? You were just a little girl, only three at the time, but on that sixteen-day voyage you never once were seasick.

    One must refrain from staring or smiling ruefully at the men whose stomachs are bloated from malnutrition. Many have come here directly from prisons where, for a year or more, they received no more than three shoe-wax tins of food per day. One of the men is five foot three inches in height but weighs only sixty-four pounds. What a high price one must pay for the right to call oneself an Indonesian citizen! Generally speaking, prisoners from Jakarta, whose jails opened far more easily to foreign scrutiny, are far more fortunate.

    You've probably never witnessed the abnormal physical movements or the odd mental manifestations of a person whose body weight is less than fifty percent of what it should be. The man's eyes bulge from their sockets; yet his vision is blurred. His skin is cracked and dry, and when he moves his joints are stiff, like those of King Kong in the silent film. When he walks he looks around himself, his head bobbing slowly and uncertainly, but his stare is blank and without direction.

    Such a sight was a common one during the Japanese occupation and now today is a common one again among Indonesia's political prisoners. Yet even as they wallow in their own regurgitation, their spirit for life continues to burn. Not, I'd say, because our first meal on board this ship was a full plate of rice with a piece of meat and an egg. No, not because of that at all. Simply because it's their wish to see an end to all of this! And also because they know that life can indeed be beautiful, especially for people with ideals, and know how to make best use of it. This is true even for those prisoners who can no longer rise from their beds or lie down again without the assistance of others who are more healthy.

    I have no doubt that this year, just as in previous years, at the beginning of the fasting month my mates and I will be treated to a lecture by a religious official specially brought in from the free world, on the importance of fasting and controlling one's hunger and desires. Imagine the humor of that!

    You yourself have never known real hunger, but then you are the child of a free nation and logically should never have had to feel hunger pangs resulting from the incompetence of others. But I, being the child of a colonized people, have had to experience sustained periods of hunger in my life. Thus the hunger I'm feeling now is in no way extraordinary. While I don't eat all that much, the hunger is still real, though I have come to accept it as a hapless and miserable friend.

    During the close to four years that I spent in Jakarta's Salemba and Tangerang Prisons, I wasn't nearly as hungry as many of my fellow prisoners. The family did its best to provide for me, sending packets of food as often as two or three times a week. And though I didn't receive all the food that was sent to me—a good third vanished even before it reached my hands and most, if not all of the rest, went into the cooperative meal plan that we prisoners started—at least I (and those other more fortunate prisoners with families able to help) did not die of hunger.

    In speaking of hunger, I'd like to ask what's the difference between hunger and murder when the former is the systematic consequence of the prison officers' greed? There is absolutely no doubt that if we had been forced to depend for sustenance on the food rations that the prison authorities provided, we would have starved to death. What a weapon food can be when its distribution is controlled by the hands of murderers! And this is Jakarta, the center of power I'm talking about, not Klaten, Sukoharjo, Pacitan, Kebumen, or any other isolated town where the local jail was far from the vision of international eyes.

    At Sodong Harbor in Nusa Kambangan, even before the ship left port, hunger had begun to perform its drama. For the better part of a day we were forced to sit there beneath the hot sun, trying to still our hunger pangs even as we watched the guards beat other prisoners just for exchanging items of clothing—uniforms had been passed out to the prisoners with no regard to body size. Those of us who ended up sitting beside the hedge that bordered the holding area tore off the leaves and chewed them in desperation. Though coated with dust and with nothing to wash them down—even if there had been water available, we couldn't have left our place without risk of being beaten—we ate the leaves raw. And we considered ourselves fortunate.

    Imagine a diet of gutter rats, the moldy outgrowth on papaya trees and banana plants, and leeches, skewered on palm-leaf ribs prior to eating. Even J.P., one of our most well-educated prisoners, found himself reduced to eating cicak, though he always broke off the lizards' toepads first. He'd become quite an expert at catching them. After amputating the lizard's toes, he would squeeze the nape of the unfortunate creature between his thumb and forefinger, shove it to the back of his throat, and swallow it whole. That man's will to defend himself against hunger was a victory in itself.

Our ship is nothing like the Oldenbarneveldt, with its speed of sixteen nautical miles per hour, on which we sailed to Europe, nor like the Oranye on which you returned to Jakarta. The difference between the Adri XV and those two ships is that between earth and sky. The Dutch-owned ships on which you sailed were finished with brightly polished wood. Their decks were spotless from daily scrubbings. Not a single cockroach was in evidence—unlike on this ship where they are on constant patrol, interpreting the world and the prisoners through their bobbing antennae.

    The prisoners come from jails and detention centers throughout Java, not just from Jakarta, though most of the men in my cell, the one farthest forward in the bow, are from the capital.

    Because of the position of our cell in the front of the ship, it is relatively higher than the other two. In front of our cell, in the jut of the bow, is a combination bathroom-latrine. You can't imagine our disgust at having to use that place, at least for those of us with any knowledge of hygiene. At the entrance to the room you must slap your hand over your nose and force your legs to go forward to stop yourself from fleeing from the veritable mountain of feces found in there. Yet that is our ship, the Adri XV—and it's still operational! Are we really the offspring of a maritime people?

Even without being told to do so, the men in my cell set out to clean that god-awful room. We got out the brooms and barrels for water, then turned the water faucets on, but in no time at all the huge mound of fecal matter had turned into a muck-filled swamp. The drainage pipes were blocked! Satan himself would have had a hard time finding where the drains were supposed to be. We couldn't believe it. We poured barrel after barrel of water into the room but still the fetid tidal pool refused to ebb. And as the bow of the ship rose with the waves outside, the liquid excrement of this manmade swamp rolled across the deck to lap at, then to leap over, the low steel divider to flood our cell.

    Now ask me if we would-be conquerors of this fecal mountain were surprised. Ask me if we were astonished. No, not in the least, because when we entered the barracks that had been assigned to us at Karang Tengah Prison on Nusa Kambangan, we had found there, too, a hill of human shit. In each barracks it had been the same: a petrified mound of shit starting from just inside the door and continuing all the way to the latrine. The only difference between Karang Tengah and the Adri XV is that the floors of the barracks were hardened earth while the floors of this ship are rusted steel.

With its three hundred thousand tons of dead weight our ship wheezes and puffs as it makes its way forward. Oh, we are making speed—about as much speed as a leisurely ride on a bicycle! Time and again the engine stalls and the ship, chug-chug-chugging to a stop, becomes a bobber on the mid-sea waves. Yes, this is our ship, possession of the largest archipelagic nation in the world!

    Suppose the ship sinks, we prisoners would go down with it, all eight hundred of us. The doors to our cells are locked. But so what? What would be wrong with our dying? At least then we would give the world something to to read about: a headline for a day, a sensational story. How many creatures have been wiped from the face of this earth without eliciting a bit of fuss? How many kinds of insects are now extinct because of insecticide? Has anyone ever got upset about them? Why then should anyone make a fuss about us?

Following the events of 1965, I lost everything or, to be more accurate, all the illusions I had ever owned. I was a newborn child, outfitted with the only instrument a newly born babe finds necessary for life: a voice. Thus like a child my only means of communication was my voice: my screams, cries, whimpers, and yelps.

    What would happen to me if my voice, my sole means of communication, were to be taken from me? Is it possible to take from a man his right to speak to himself?

I truly am sorry that I was unable to attend your marriage celebration and that the only wedding gift I have for you are these notes, which are unlikely to ever find their way to you, but for the past four years all I've been able to do is to follow the pointed index fingers of those who rule these concrete and wooden cells. That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about you. No, that's not true at all.

    Where are you living now? How is your new life with your husband? I'd like to know. But supposing that I did, what good would it do for you? Four years in a person's life is not a short period of time. A kadal lizard doesn't even live that long.

    In my cell in Tangerang I once caught a fly in a plastic bag. In just three and a half days, the animal had died of old age. All in all, four years of not knowing what charges have been brought against me is a bit excessive.

I can't count the number of times that other ships have passed us by. From a distance we must be a heartrending sight: a leper in the midst of natural splendor. Every waking moment I am aware of the ship's wheezing and the creaking of its rickety joints. And how many times have I heard the wheezing completely stop, then felt the shudder of the ship's steel skin as its engine gasped and died.

    A thousand years ago, our forefathers passed through these waters—our teachers wouldn't feed us rubbish, would they?—in boats they had fashioned with their own hands, ones that were no doubt much cleaner than the Adri XV. No, our teachers wouldn't have fed us rubbish. The Bugis, Macassarese, and Madurese are famous for their sailing ships. Even today their ships are much better tended than this one that was bought and paid for by the state.

    I am sure there are those who pray that a gale-force easterly will sink this ship and transform its human cargo to shark bait. I'm sure those same people also feel that the dead have no voice. Theirs is a stone-age sensibility with a criminal blush. They rob us of our civil rights, they steal our very lives. They give us inadequate sustenance, yet time and again we prove ourselves capable of slipping through the eye of the needle of death.

    We are refugees who carry on our shoulders a bag of provisions that we shall not discard till death, one chock-full of the symbols of spiritual and sensory experience, a crystallization of undying energy, something more lasting than flesh and bones and even unscissored ivory. These symbols speak forever, each in its own language, whether that language be German, Russian, Dutch, English, Spanish, or Indonesian.

    In his novel Darkness at Noon, Koestler described a scene in a Spanish jail: As night falls, the tinkling of bells can be heard as an anti-Fascist soldier, a priest at his side, walks toward death at the hands of the executioner.

    But what of those anti-Fascists who managed to escape death? How long did they have to remain confined in their cells, waiting for Franco to fall? How did they fare? As they waited, the years passed; between 1933 and 1965, they were murdered one after another. For thirty-two years their loved ones—first their wives, then their children, and, later still, their grandchildren—queued outside the door of Burgos prison to bring them food. And still the Franco regime did not fall. Even after thirty-two years, their torture and oppression had yet to become past history.

    In 1965 Marcos Ans, an anti-Fascist Spaniard who had spent twenty-three years in one of Franco's jails yet somehow managed to escape death, paid a visit to Buchenwald. There, when he began to weep, a woman expressed surprise that he, who had spent twenty-three years of his life in prison, still had tears to shed. He said to her: "I cry for all those who fell: whether they were on your side or my side, it doesn't matter; they are part of us all."

    Yes, the dead do speak, but in their own way and at their own time. Buchenwald, Ravensbruck, Dachau, Auschwitz, and all the other human slaughterhouses, even those in Indonesia, cannot silence the dead.

    And that bag we carry on our shoulders how long will we go on filling it? Will it be for us as it was for the prisoners in Spain? I suspect that the answer depends on the West and its use of arms and capital.

    How ironic it is that in 1948 when I was in Bukitduri prison I wished that I would be exiled to the Moluccas, along with the nationalist leaders who had been sent there, instead of being confined in jail. And now, years later, my dream is about to come true—that is, if the ship does not sink before we arrive.


Table of Contents


Introduction by Willem Samuels....................................XIII
I.  THE MYSTERY OF EXILE.............................................1
    Natant Ruminations (A Letter for Pujarosmi)......................6
    Changing Commands...............................................21
    When the Gods Came Down to Earth................................48
    The Back Side of the Mirror.....................................65
    In the Midst of It All..........................................78
    A Confluence of Coincidences....................................85
II.  FRAGMENTS OF MY LIFE...........................................97
    One Link in a Chain............................................103
    Flowers for Mother.............................................125
    Death in a Time of Change......................................153
    Working for the Japanese (A Letter for Rina)...................174
    For Better or for Worse (A Letter for Anggraini)...............192
    A Home to Live In (A Letter for Astuti)........................216
III.  LESSONS FOR MY CHILDREN......................................233
    Science, Religion, and Health Care.............................237
    The Caste System and the Revolution (Fragments of Two
    Music, Sports, Self-Defense, and a Story.......................272
    Languages, Social Science, and Nutrition.......................283
    Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, Career Choices..............292
IV.  DELIVERANCE...................................................311
    The First Release..............................................317
    The Dead and the Missing.......................................344
Maps (Indonesia, Buru Island, Buru Island Penal Colony)............365
Epilogue by Joesoef Isak...........................................368
A Note on the Translation by Willem Samuels........................372

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Mute's Soliloquy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally I can read his book (after leaving Indonesia, my born country, because possesion of this book is illegal in Indonesia). This book is a record of his experienced while he was imprisoned in buru island for 14 years,... a true story that makes me not really proud again to be Indonesian, a country where there's no respect of human rights
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very interesting narrative from a man whose spirit not torn by the repressive Suharto... May your tribe increase ......... I will surely buy the rest of Pramoedya's books. I have always admired Pramoedya while I was in Jakarta for 10 years during the 90's.