…Which, if we think about it, actually makes sense. Its subject matter is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesian novelist, jailed by the Suharto regime for his writings, the closest a Southeast Asian has come to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Labeled a communist by Suharto, Pramoedya would be imprisoned for 10 years (from 1969-1979) on the island of Buru where, without pen or paper, he told his fellow prisoners about the novel he had in his head, a story that the prisoners would share and re-share, orally. This would become known as the Buru Quartet, the first novel of which is “The Earth of Mankind” published in 1980, even as Pramoedya was still under house arrest.
Pramoedya’s story of course is infinitely more complex than this, embroiled as it is in the struggle for Indonesia’s independence, as it is informed by the fact of his having lived through the Dutch colonial era, during which he was also jailed for possessing anti-colonial materials (1947-1949). Supportive of what was considered a left-leaning Sukarno reign, Pramoedya would later be criticized for having been complicit in the censorship and imprisonment of writers during that time.
He was also considered part of the “Indonesian Left” until he died in 2006 at 81 years old. Pramoedya was both writer and activist, part of literary history as he is part of the history of Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
The play “Pramoedya” fails for many reasons.
Let’s start with the fact that the biography of this Indonesian writer is not one that it portrays in its complexity. And granted that this play’s present is the time when Pramoedya was actually already under house arrest – that is, already writing and with an amount of freedom – there is no excuse for the lack of a more complex problematization of his place in Indonesian culture and politics.
What we are treated to is the superficial narrative of his having been jailed in the recent past by Suharto, siding as he did with Sukarno in the far past, and getting embroiled in the discourse of censorship during that time. Instead what we are given is an image of him as husband to a wife who barely has an opinion, really, and as father to children who do not appear at all in the play.
The point obviously was not to do a biography, as it was to talk about Pramoedya as writer, particularly about the time he spent in jail, and how he had written the Buru Quartet with nary pen and paper, and with only the help of the other prisoners who waited for the story to continue to be told, who retold the story to each other. In this play, this meant the novel becoming a parallel universe that happens alongside the real life and times of Pramoedya and the other prisoners. A device that could’ve worked.
It could have worked vis a vis the telling of Pramoedya’s writing life, were it clear about what to capture of Minke’s life as the protagonist of the Buru Quartet. Because Minke is based on journalist and activist Tirto Adi Suryo (1880-1918), and in the novel Minke would choose to be a writer and not a speechwriter, his story about navigating colonial rule in the task of struggling against it.
Would that not have been the perfect parallel to the life of Pramoedya himself? Would that not been enough, done well, to point out how the fictional – and historical – are but versions of the present?
Ah, but this play wasn’t even clear about its present. That is, it isn’t clear at all what year we are working with. All we know is that Pramoedya’s under house arrest, something that means choosing a year across the stretch of 1980 to 1992.
Or are we?
In the story, Pinay reporter Fides seeks an interview with Pramoedya. She too, does not quite help with ascertaining the time within which this fictional story exists: all we know is that Fides was an activist during Martial Law, has been writing for 10 years, enough to experience what she asserts is a decade of change for the Philippines. She is 30 years old.
The announcement for the Ramon Magsaysay Award arrives while Fides is living with Pramoedya, and she begins to do research after hearing about the protests against the awarding. She finds herself trying to understand how or why Pramoedya would be complicit in censorship and the imprisonment of writers during the time of Sukarno.
That is, Fides would try to understand it, without contextualizing what this is even about, the differences between the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, and the roles Pramoedya played in both. As such, it became the most flimsy of conflicts between two protagonists, who to begin with, are not established to have had a relationship that would warrant an outburst from Fides at all. In fact one is wont to ask: what is her right to call out a man like Pramoedya? So he breaks Fides’ heart, upon finding that he is not as perfect as she imagined, so what?!?
Ah, but this story goes one step further in trying to give us complexity in this character. Fides has yet to get over her younger brother Bobby’s death, he who became an activist upon her prodding, and who took it a step further by going underground. According to Fides’ story, Bobby would die in the hands of his comrades.
This was obviously the connection that this play was making between Pramoedya’s role in the Left-leaning Sukarno government, and the Left in the Philippines having killed fictional Bobby. This was where Fides would come from as she screamed at the writer about his complicity in the censorship and imprisonment of other writers. But the disconnect is painfully clear, and can only be borne of a lack of understanding. The difference is obvious: Pramoedya was part of a Left-leaning government and was in a position of power politically and culturally at the onset of Indonesian independence; the Philippine Left is an institution at the margins of government, existing against it, with its own particular history, as it is with its own faults.
As with this play, the Philippine Left is always portrayed to be about this particular time of purges; as with this play, the complexities of Leftist discourse and nationalism in Indonesia and the Philippines become but mere props.
If not the token effort at depth which “Pramoedya” still fails at, given its obviously superficial premises that do not go any deeper, because it refuses to. As such this is the most convoluted parallelism in this play, which would be okay were it not discussing Leftist discourse and nationalism, struggle and national becoming, as if these make for the simplest of decisions that are always only black and white. This is the most dangerous portrayal in this play, because this simplistic reading is also what allows for the discrimination against activists, if not what allows for the continued violence perpetrated against them, in the Philippines or in Indonesia.
Here, this play doesn’t just become badly written and dangerous. It also becomes irresponsible.
By the way, Pramoedya got the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1995. That is three years after his house arrest. During which we are being told Fides visited him in Indonesia.
If we can’t get time right, where do we go from there?
In fact, I should have known the moment it began with an apology that something was going to be very wrong about “Pramoedya.” But I am wont to give anything a chance, disclaimers notwithstanding.
And yet sometimes there is just no saving grace, and a stage filled with the best actors we can imagine in these roles will not do anything for a text that is so deeply flawed, from concept to final dialogue. In many parts of the play, it was unclear whether we were seeing Indonesians or Filipinos (say the prisoners with Pramoedya talking about drinking lambanog). Too many parts of the play were disconnected from each other, including Minke’s story and that of Pramoedya’s, including the Left of Pramoedya’s time in Indonesian government and the Philippine Left’s past crisis.
You will find certain moments in Pramoedya to resonate though, but those will happen isolated from the rest of the play. That is, that moment when Fides (Cris Villonco) becomes her brother, writing her letters, his voice slowly changing, from confident to scared, desperate and pleading. Villonco, as always, takes this moment and runs with it. She sings a stanza off “Stairway to Heaven” in the moment of pain and torture, she is in tears but her voice is whole, her movements all you need to imagine violence against body, against belief.
Nanding Josef as Pramoedya is a joy to watch, where the shift in voice, the change in posture, is enough to portray aging, and time. He is the only one in the play who in fact ages in any manner at all, which is strange considering the years that this story spans. At certain points, Josef will allow you to forget the failed parallelisms in this play, and give you just the portrait of a writer who barely speaks, whose head will burst without writing, who cannot but be engaged in the politics of his nation, and be part of the making of its history.
Of course the moment you remember the rest of this play, the moment you allow yourself to flashback to all those Pramoedya discussions you had as a comparative literature major, you will find that none of these actors could’ve saved this production. Neither could the production design, or the lighting, or the music, no matter how perfectly succinct they were for the life and times of this man.
Truthfully, the epic-ness of this fail is in the fact of this full length play’s promise. You do not decide to talk about someone like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and fail to assess his life and times, his cultural production and political position(s), to begin with. You also do not go into discussions about activism and the Left, in any nation, without having a sense of the particularities of their histories and the implications of having the same conversation about them, over and over again.
You do not write about what you do not know. Throughout this play, not once was “The Earth of Mankind” mentioned, and neither was the Buru Quartet. Not once did we have a sense that Pramoedya’s contributions to nation and culture were being considered as important. In fact, ending without a sense of whether he got the Ramon Magsaysay Award or not, is the worst part of this portrayal: it points to anti-Left discourse that cuts across Indonesia and the Philippines.
Ultimately this play points to activism as a bad thing, when Pramoedya is a man who lived and died an activist for Indonesia, critical of government and the elite, very clear about his convictions. This play as such can only be a grave injustice to the memory of this man, and to the life that he lived. That is just shameful.
“Pramoedya” is written by Benjamin Pimentel and directed by Chris Millado. It is the lone full-length play of Virgin Labfest 9, and runs again today, July 4, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Huseng Batute.
*This was originally published in GMA News Online, July 4 2013.