This Earth of Mankind -or Bumi Manusia, as it is known in the original Indonesian title- is a novel written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an Indonesian author who was so politically rebellious, he was hated both by the Old Order and New Order regimes.
In fact, the latter even went on accusing the Buru Quartet -a tetralogy of novels which includes the aforementioned one- of being communist propaganda.
This novel is set in 19th century Indonesian -then-known as the Dutch Indies- and it centres on the life of Minke, a young blue-blooded Javanese man who was educated among the Dutch.
He is opinionated, critical-minded and not afraid to debate the so-called superior white people. He also falls for a young biracial woman, a daughter of a lunatic Dutch businessman and his well-educated Javanese concubine.
Basically, it is a historical/political/romance/philosophical novel.
Anyway, this novel has brought me to both ends of an ideological spectrum: a zealous nationalist and an anti-nationalist… well, sort of.
It turned me into a nationalist because, after just one reading, it convinced me that Indonesians had the potential to be more cultured and civilised than we were.
To this day, I still think we do have the potential. But, I was about twelve or thirteen when I first read the book. I was a fucking idiot.
I did not see the big picture and I couldn’t comprehend intricacies. I preferred to focus on the main character’s intelligence and sophistication and some of the Dutch characters’ lack of thereof.
As a result, I ended up believing that a true Indonesian should only embrace Indonesian things. I did not care about what it meant to be one, I only cared about the label.
Of course, I was a hypocrite. Despite my outward nationalism, I still loved anything foreign; in some cases, I preferred them over the local ones. In fact, instead of reading the original Indonesian copy, I read the English translation due to my lack of interest in reading anything written in my mother tongue.
When I read the novel again as an adult, I realised how nuanced the story was.
While the story clearly depicts the discrimination faced by the indigenous population, it is anything but black and white. Not all of the Dutch characters are bad and almost every native character seems unwilling or intellectually incapable of politically empowering themselves and fellow natives.
After realising the existence of the shades of grey, I gradually lose my nationalism and end up as an anti-nationalist.
Okay, calling me an anti-nationalist is inaccurate. Me before reading this novel was an anti-nationalist. I hated everything about Indonesia and I wished I was a citizen of a foreign country.
I don’t know which label that perfectly describes me now. But, one thing for sure: I don’t see anything wrong about avowing love for one’s country… as long as one acknowledges it is entirely based on emotional attachments.
Yes, emotional. You love a country simply because it is your home sweet home, NOT because of its so-called absolute and divine perfection… which existence defies common sense, unless you live in the land of make-believe.
Believe it or not, you can praise and condemn your country at the same time. Millions of people have done it millions of times. It is literally that easy.
Oh, and I can relate to the character on a personal level. He is Javanese yet educated among the Dutch (back then, indigenous identities were mostly regional and ethnic). I am Indonesian who grew up almost entirely on western entertainment. He is too indigenous for the Dutch and too Dutch for his Javanese family, I am too Indonesian for westerners and too western for my fellow Indonesians. We are stuck between both worlds.
The more I see the complexities of my self-identifications, the more I find labels grossly superficial. The more I think so, the more I despise any forms of identity politics, nationalism included.
I don’t think this novel is the sole reason why I reject nationalism. My interactions with foreigners online and my curiosity about history and culture are also instrumental in my personal growth.
But, as it successfully makes me contemplate about my Indonesianness, This Earth of Mankind is a big deal in my life and I would be surprised if it does not have the same effect on my fellow countrymen.
No wonder the Soeharto regime banned its publication. Tyrants love their sheep.
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