|Nine Themes in Buru Quartet (BQ)
1. Major theme of every book in the set: corruption of the legal system as handmaiden not of Justice but of Big Sugar and the colonial administration it controlled; and how Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh learned, to their horror, that their "rights" as human beings and as modern, Dutch-educated people meant, in the end, nothing, because they were not "persons" under the law – they were not the equivalent of Europeans, nor even Japanese, but "natives". Against all this they fought, and lost.
2. Universal Humanism – Minke is a “modern man”, the product of a western education. He is liberated, a liberal—a free man. All peoples of 'this earth of mankind' can become free and modern through education.
3. Universal Humanism is not enough—it is also necessary to fight for your rights, and fight for the rights of other Natives, against the oppression, greed, the racist policies inherent in the colonial Indies. This is the lesson taught by Mama in the first three novels, beginning with This Earth of Mankind; and by Khouw Ah Soe and Kommer and Surati in Child of All Nations. In the third book, Footsteps, Minke demonstrates that he has learned this lesson to the fullest.
4. Magda Peters (TEOM) and Ter Haar (CAN) represent liberal Dutch thinkers (labeled 'radicals'). They teach Minke about the “evil alliance” between the Dutch Colonial rulers and the Ethical Policy liberals. The so-called “debt to the Natives” incurred during Multatuli’s time is to be repaid through irigasi transmigrasi, edukasi—all of which are supposed to help the Natives. In fact all three measures have been corrupted by Big Sugar. Thus irrigasi means water for the Sugar Plantations, transmigrasi means Native workers for the Sugar Plantations, and edukasi means Native officials trained to work for the Dutch colonial government, which exists only to serve Dutch capital—especially Sugar.
5. Native rulers historically were no better than the Dutch. Perhaps they were worse. Moreover, since the Dutch were never numerically strong compared to the millions of Natives, the only way the Masters could maintain control was with the help and cooperation of ambitious and often corrupted Natives. The term for this arrangement is ‘Indirect Rule’. The most dramatic example is the story of how Nyai Ontosoroh was married off to Herman Mellema, paralleled by the story of Surati and Plikemboh (“ugly penis”). In the first novel, Minke’s own father, the bupati of B___, is introduced unsympathetically as a pompous Native ruler who supported and was supported by the Dutch colonial government. Indirect Rule was standard practice throughout the colonial world and has continued underground today as the modus operandi of neocolonialism.
6. The way out is to follow the example of America and Europe, and this means empowering the People (the Natives), and this can only be done through the establishment of modern organizations in the Indies. Strong organizations can effectuate change through applying social pressure which in practical terms constitutes the power of the boycott.
7. Personal themes: many of Pramoedya’s stories are built around strong women and weak men. Examples in the Buru Quartet are:
Minke's mother, Mama, Surati, Ang San Mei, Princess Kasiruta, Siti Soendari
Mingke's father, Mama’s father (Sastrotomo), Surati’s father, Herman Mellema,
Robert Mellema, Robert Suurhof, Jacques Pangemanann (with two n’s)
8. Minke as author-writer. Minke's personal experiences as author of the first three novels is woven into the tapestry of BQ. (The fourth novel in the set was written by JacquesPangemanann.) Following are some relevant passages from TEOM:
Chapter One – opens with information that Minke (alias TAS) wrote BM thirteen years after the opening invocation (1898 + 13 = 1911)
Chapter 4 & 5 – last line of ch. 4 Minke mentions his interest in studying and writing about this family that is so "aneh dan senam". He then says in the first paragraph of ch. 5 that he had "arranged" at a later date the stories he now narrates from the lips of Annelies – stories about Tuan Mellema and Mama (Sanikem) that Ann had learned from Mama. (These stores are incomplete for two reasons: because that's all Mama wanted Ann to know at this point; and because Mama herself does not yet know the whole story about Tuan Mellema's treachery whereby he came by ownership of the family business at Buitenzorg, which she will not learn until Anak Semua Bangsa.)
Chapter 6: Mama discovers that Minke has written a short story—his first published literary work, in a Dutch magazine, under the pseudonym Max Tollenaar. The story is modeled on Mama! While discussing Minke's story from a literary standpoint, Minke is amazed at Mama's erudition when she compares him to Victor Hugo, and asks whether Minke has read G. Francis' Nyai Dasima, written in Malay. All Minke can do is ask lamely if there are really any books written in Malay. (For the answer to this question, see #9 below.)
Chapter 10: Robert Mellema's betrayal. The structure of the novel requires information about Robert's visit to Ah Tjong's brothel. In order to tell the story, Minke, as the author of the novel, uses information obtained in a future court case dealing with the troubles to come for Mama and Annelies. In the trial, the prostitute, Maiko, will testify in Japanese, and her testimony will be translated into Dutch; and the brothel owner, Ah Tjong, will also testify. By using their testimony derived from this future event, Minke describes in detail, here in Chapter 10 of Bumi Manusia, what happened to Robert in the brothel, and why he thus failed to obtain information needed from the police after Minke had been taken away in the middle of the night.
9. The language issue: What language to write in? What language will serve to organize the Natives? Minke's first literary efforts are in Dutch. But from the beginning, Minke is pressured by people in his world away from school to write in Malay: especially by Jean Marais and Kommer, but also by Mama. Minke is shocked and dismayed by the very suggestion! But eventually he will come to grips with the importance of language choice in relation to national and international affairs.