John Keay on This Earth of Mankind, translated by Max Lane

A Javanese Tragedy

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Seen from the air the island of Buru resembles most of the other thousand or so islands that comprise Indonesia’s Maluku (or Moluccas) province. Coral reefs announce its approach, punctuating the azure translucence of the Banda Sea with bold parentheses of white foam. The narrow beaches look deserted, and an emerald baize of forest and elephant grass blankets the hilly interior to impenetrable effect. Almost circular and about the size of Bedfordshire, Buru appears uninhabited and possibly idyllic.

Its reputation is another matter. Planes can’t land on the island and inter-island ferries seldom call at its port. Fifteen hundred nautical miles east of Java (and so nearer Darwin than Jakarta), Buru was until recently a destination to be avoided. As the largest, most isolated and most dreaded of Indonesia’s state detention centres, it was somewhere you were sent in the hold of a rusting hulk with nothing to eat but the rats and geckos that scuttled about the ironwork.

Conditions ashore were closer to those on the River Kwai than Yarl’s Wood. Here some 13,000 political prisoners laboured twelve hours a day in a tropical gulag for up to two decades. Few had been convicted of any crime; many died from torture, disease and malnutrition. Yet from this hellhole there came one of the most ambitious literary compositions of the twentieth century. Though the name Buru retains an air of menace, the place is today best known as the island where Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s foremost man of letters, composed the four-part saga now generally called the Buru Quartet.

I first encountered ‘Pram’ (as he was affectionately known) and his great work in the 1980s. The BBC’s Radio 3, then under the enlightened direction of the late Ian McIntyre, had conjured up a rolling contract for a yearly series of documentary programmes about places not much featured in the rest of the corporation’s output. Cynics thought the assignment too good to be true. Shame

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About the contributor

John Keay once wrote a book about Indonesia. It wasn’t bad but it sank without trace. Spread across 14,000 islands and four time-zones, Indonesians still take little interest in the world and the world still knows nothing about Indonesia.

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