Thursday 26 April 2018

Backlist books: The Fugitive by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Pramudya Ananta Tur)

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia.

This post is about The Fugitive, a novel about one of the leaders of a failed Indonesian rebellion against the Japanese near the end of the Second World War. It is the first novel of an Indonesian nationalist who went on to become the country’s best-known novelist despite spending a considerable fraction of his life behind bars for expressing his political views.

This 171-page novel was written while the author was in a Dutch prison camp and published in Indonesia in 1950. The version I read, the 1990 English translation by Willem Samuels, now seems to be out of print, as is the 1975 English translation by Harry Aveling. The author’s better-known Buru Quartet is still available in English.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Fugitive, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Where and when is the story set?

It is set in the village of Kaliwangan and the small city of Blora, the author’s hometown, in the eastern part of the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, in August 1945. When the author was born, in 1925, the territory belonged to the Dutch East Indies. Most of Indonesia was under the control of Japanese occupying forces from March 1942 until the end of the Second World War. After the Japanese surrendered, Indonesian nationalists declared independence and fought a revolution against the Netherlands, finally gaining sovereignty in 1949.

What is happening as the story opens?

The main character is Hardo. He has disguised himself as a beggar to hide from Japanese and local search parties after he and his friend attempted to lead a revolt against the Japanese. Though he should be hiding, Hardo is loitering at his fiancée’s parents’ house, hoping to see her or find out where she is.

Who are the other characters in the story?

  • The second conspirator, Hardo’s friend Dipo, is also disguised as a beggar. 
  • The third conspirator, Commander Karmin, still works for the Japanese. 
  • Hardo hopes that his fiancée, Ningsih, is loyal and safe.
  • Ningsih’s younger brother, Ramli, sadly misses Hardo. 
  • Ningsih’s father has a government job as the chief of the village of Kaliwangan. 
  • Hardo’s father, Mohamad Kasim, has lost his government job as district head of Karangjati and has started to gamble. 
  • Kartiman is an ex-military friend disguised as a beggar. 
  • Various Japanese officers are looking for Hardo and Dipo. 

What makes the story interesting?

The story consists of only four chapters. The first two give readers a picture of the situation in bits and pieces. In the second half, the situation starts to change. Though the book starts off slow, small and quiet, it culminates in a tense interview followed by a violent struggle in view of an angry crowd.

The book raises all kinds of ethical questions. Hardo is calm, determined and forgiving. Is he too fatalistic? Dipo is determined and assertive. Is he too angry? The chief is cautious and pragmatic. Is he spineless? Ningsih is steadfast. Is she foolish? How can a person know whom to trust? What are the proper aims of a soldier? Of a son or father or partner? How best to pursue them? The story shows us characters struggling with these important issues and shows us, eventually, the results of their decisions.

More on the author’s life and works from: