Tuesday, January 20, 2009

If a Western scholar does not understand colonial affairs, he will never understand the world.

-House of Glass

There is almost no place on earth that has not been touched or shaped by colonialism. Despite the [to say it generously] liberation of many colonized societies, colonialism, or the philosophies and attitudes of difference that sanction dominance and subordination, has not died. And to put it more radically, colonization has not died. Because colonialism is about power based on illusory differences, and because illusory differences continue to be nurtured in our day-to-day life, understanding the relationship between the two is pertinent to understanding how our own political and social encounters operate on that relationship, so that ultimately, hopefully, individually and collectively, we can challenge those illusions and their consequences.

A crash course can be found in The Buru Quartet, set in Dutch-governed Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. It was told orally by Pramoedya Ananta Toer during his political imprisonment in the 1950s in Indonesia, and put in writing with the help of his fellow prisoners once he was allowed pen and paper. The story is nothing short of exposure, from the inside out, of everything you didn’t get out of middle school about colonizers and colonized, which is why the books were banned in Indonesia until 1999. Over the course of the quartet, the author profiles nearly every imaginable character in the colonial setting, from the mixed-blood children of Native concubines, their fathering Dutch officials, to the most educated Natives. Toer chooses two special cases to narrate the rise of Indonesian nationalism. The first is Minke, a privileged, educated Native Javanese man, who rejects the career path of a government doctor to open the first Native newspaper. The second, who continues Minke’s story in the fourth book, is Jacques Pangemanann, a Native police officer, born and educated in France, who is hired as a colonial government researcher and shadow policy writer assigned with the task of keeping Indonesia’s organizations and nationalism in check, by whatever means necessary. The comparison is clear: both are Natives, educated with the same European values of equality and empirical knowledge, but they consciously choose different paths. One challenges the hegemonic structures around him, and the other works for it. The reader is left to judge each character for how they handle their burden of knowledge, in light of the exposed hypocrisy of Western civilization of which they both become conscious - that the values of education and equality are only good for some people, and not for others.

And the reader is left to contend with relativistic idea #1, that maybe Indonesia and other pre-colonial societies would have been better off without “European values,” colonization aside. This is highlighted more by Minke’s comparisons of the brutality of Dutch colonialism to that of the kings of his Native ancestors. Self-determination is not simply a European value, but a human value, that simply happened to be most articulated in history by the French Revolution. It is not the dream of lofty intellectuals, but a living struggle, and you can choose to be on either side of it, educated or not, as long as you have some semblance of morals, like Surati, who intentionally inoculates herself with smallpox so that she would infect the Dutch official taking her as a concubine (see Chapter 2 of Footsteps for a beautiful, though sad, story of hegemony and resistance). And so there is no excuse for relativistic idea #2, that Pangemanann might be forgiven for his choices, even though they contradicted everything he had ever learned, despite being a student at the Sorbonne, because he ultimately felt guilty. It is not enough to be educated, and it is not enough to know that your actions are wrong and feel sorry for them. Was he a good man? It seems he asserts for himself, that, despite his self-abasement, history, or the world outside of his own conscience, would ultimately be his judge.

In novel form, the Buru Quartet is a study in the psychological and social workings of hegemony and resistance. Psychological because it reads like personal notes or a journal, internal and reflective throughout the actions of the narrators and the characters around them. Social because each character, and his/her actions, is positioned in the context of the colonial setting - how they adopt it, speak it, take advantage of it, or resist it. What is also unique is that it feels so close to real life. Minke does not climactically “awaken.” Rather, he learns slowly (for a book), through a series of events, conversations, and personal reflections, in the same way that we really do learn new ways of thinking. Pangemanann struggles continuously through his choices, as a morally conscious person would, but distinguishes between what he thinks and what he does. The reading is thick, but the exposure of our cultural history and human character is highly relevant as long as there is anyone who is oppressed by other human beings.