It was surprising to see the resemblances between Her Victory and This Earth of Mankind. Alan Sillitoe’s new novel is about 50-year-old Britons feeling rootless. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is concerned with young people of the Dutch East Indies in the 1890s, almost choked with different roots – religions, races, cultures, classes – all sprouting wildly. The resemblances struck me when I started reading the Indonesian novel as an invigorating respite, after the slow melancholy of Sillitoe’s first chapters, ‘Making a Break’ and ‘Home from the Sea’: the first of these is about Pam, a bored, friendless housewife in Nottingham, trying to get away from her husband; the second is about Tom, a bored, friendless Merchant Navy officer making his way to the flat of his dismal maiden aunt. In the third chapter, ‘Meeting’, Tom finds Pam in a dreary North Kensington flat, trying to gas herself with an unlit fire, and dutifully slaps her to life. He is a man of duty, thus described: ‘The system of forethought by which he lived made sure that on the next watch, or by the morning after, he would find all necessary items for life and duty laid out in perfect navy order. Such drill, when working with a thoroughness too ordinary for him to admire, made existence easy, for sufficient preparation meant less to think about when the moment of necessity came, though he didn’t doubt that if assailed by an unexpected happening his training and intuition would channel him into the right actions. There was no other way of doing things.’ It will be recognised that Sillitoe’s paragraphs need to be read slowly.
But the Indonesian novel races along, told by a spirited, vulnerable Javanese boy, the only Native at the Dutch High School in Surabaya, during the celebrations for the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina. His friend, a Mixed-Blood ‘Indo’ or ‘Indisch’, invites him to meet a girl more beautiful than the Dutch queen and he goes to her house, where he is welcomed by her impressive mother, a Dutchman’s concubine, a Native nyai (officially despised by all cultures) who, along with their beautiful daughter, runs the Dutchman’s estate and business (since he is mad and rude to Natives).
Reluctantly, I dragged myself back from Surabaya to Sillitoe’s mournful account of Tom and Pam in North Ken – and began to notice the resemblances. For one thing, both novelists express, very convincingly, the rage of an able woman serving an inferior male. Secondly, both are unashamedly determined to delve into their characters’ backgrounds and ancestry, using those reminiscences and flashbacks that so often wreck a story – and using them very well. Thirdly, they make real, with passion rather than the customary satire, the spirit of rage and unreason which eternally menaces marriages between people of different cultures, setting wives against their fathers, as well as their husbands. We see that 20th-century Britain, multi-cultural and multi-racial, has been fermenting these quarrels, in its quiet way, as inexorably as 19th-century Java.
One of the British versions emerges in ‘The Women’, the fourth of Alan Sillitoe’s six long chapters. Pam has persuaded Tom to ferret through his Aunt Clara’s papers and diaries to find out where he came from: he was sent to an orphanage as a boy and then packed off to sea. ‘Clara began with her mother, whose maiden name was Moss and first name Rachel. Her father was a tea merchant who had settled in London from Hamburg.’ Rachel was Jewish, but married a Gentile, Percy Phillips, against the will of both fathers. The Phillipses had one son, killed in the British Army, and two daughters, Tom’s Aunt Clara and his mother, Emma. The flighty Emma had fallen for a member of the catering staff, while cruising on a passenger boat, and this long-lost man was Tom’s father. He was Jewish, too.
This discovery brightens Tom up. He now knows he is Jewish. He will wear the Star of David, like that on his Uncle John’s war grave, he will learn Hebrew and support the state of Israel. Tom has, at last, got a general idea, a myth, into his pragmatic head – a tribal and political idea to warm up his bleak sense of duty. Tom is more interested in his Jewishness than in the other information provided by ‘The Women’ – about how his aunt cursed his grandfather for his intolerance of his mother, and how his mother gassed herself.
These events are more relevant to the life of his new woman-friend, Pam – for her own life has been wrecked by fierce culture-clashes, within a smallish complex of families in Nottingham. She married an able, ambitious young businessman, who enraged her father with his rough family – four elder brothers, self-employed cowboy building-trade men, who behaved badly at the wedding. Pam tried to support her husband against these toughs, always preying on him and pulling him down: but his snobbish bossiness proved as maddening to her as it must have been to his brothers. The book begins with Pam slashing at her husband with a knife – and Sillitoe seems to suggest that she ought to have learned to fight and rage at her husband, as her sisters-in-law would. Pam is, in fact, a clinging, subservient woman who broods and then suddenly flares up and strikes to kill. We see it, later in the book, when, motoring with Tom, her true lover, she lashes out at him for no apparent reason, driving wildly and crying: ‘You are destroying me... I won’t be destroyed... ’ Tom replies: ‘I don’t particularly mind when you try to kill me, but I object to you wanting to do yourself in, not to mention the child you’re going to have.’ After this row, Pam weeps with relief, thinking: ‘Every day ended in victory... Life might not be real, but the fight was, and so was the happiness she felt that came after it.’ Pam seems to be the sort of woman who is drawn to what Erin Pizzey calls ‘violent relationships’, but does not learn how to handle them until late middle age.
The value of violent quarrelling is persistently stressed in this novel, almost as if it were a masculine privilege which women ought to be allowed to share. There is a third principal character, a woman called Judy, who ‘didn’t know anyone until she had made them angry’. She lives in North Ken, with two young children, being a one-parent family on principle, being deliberately ‘mannish’ while talking like a roughed-up Guardian Woman’s Page. Judy manages to get both Tom and Pam into bed with her (on separate occasions) and the couple take her away with them to their flat on the coast. ‘Judy wanted formal and open avowals that she and her children could stay to be cemented by anger as much as with friendship and love.’
The very title, Her Victory, comes from Pam fighting as fiercely and naturally as a queen cat or a bitch dog. During her stay in North Ken, her husband comes up to drag her home to his cave in Nottingham – supported by his heavy brothers who have successfuly ‘brought him down to their level’. Pam’s knife slashes at her husband and then starts on the brothers: she wins – even before Tom turns up to see them off. ‘She had struggled for her life and won. Even without Tom they wouldn’t have taken her. Because it was her victory she could go with him and feel safe, as much out of her own will as because she was in love. Funny sort of love. But it was all she was left with.’ At the end of the book, she is calmer, as she makes ready to follow Tom on his triumphant journey to Israel, his newly-discovered motherland.
The Indonesian novel, with its stress on the different sorts of language people choose for addressing different people, encourages one to note similar switches in Sillitoe’s dialogue. Apart from the variations of Nottingham speech, there is Tom’s exultant use of Old Testament English (stimulating to chapelgoing Pam, as well), his naval bark for men and politeness to women, and the 19th-century manner in which he frames his serious and dutiful thoughts: like many seamen, he is addicted to Victorian novels. Yet when he is making love-talk it is sometimes remarkably like Noel Coward on stage with Gertie Lawrence. On the whole, though, the English language is not over-inflected with status symbols – not even a du or a tu. Pam’s husband wants his elder brothers to call him ‘Mister Hargreaves’, when they are painting his factory, just as his employees do: in the Dutch East Indies, we suspect, there would be a whole grammar-book for this situation – especially when we remember Pam’s analogy, comparing her low-class brothers-in-law with a royal family in Shakespeare, for in This Earth of Mankind many of the Javanese families under Dutch domination are literally royal, with their own way of talking.
There is an important scene in This Earth of Mankind wherein the mighty Native nyai, the Dutchman’s courtesan, is hauled before a Dutch colonial court, so that her daughter and her wealth may be taken from her. All subtleties of language are reduced to the plain, prurient coarseness of the law-courts and the press. ‘She was not allowed to use Dutch and ordered to use Javanese. She refused and used Malay.’ When the case is resumed, after an adjournment, ‘with a clear voice and in flawless Dutch – defying the judicial order that she use Javanese, and ignoring the pounding of the gavel – like the flood waters released from the grip of a hurricane, she began.’
Her problem is very complicated. She was sold as a Native concubine to a prosperous and, at first, kindly Dutchman, by her well-meaning, corrupt father who wished to improve his position in the colonial service: she cursed her father bitterly but served her master, her near-husband, faithfully and skilfully, bringing up their daughter to be as able as herself. But there is no place for her and her daughter in this strange society where modern European traditions and colonial experiments clash with the near-feudal system operated by the Javanese families collaborating with their conquerers. After the collapse of her Dutch husband-master into fatuous debauchery and incompetence, the nyai has become a sort of meritocratic matriarch, highly efficient, prosperous and valuable, without any system of law or custom to back her up. When her fatuous Dutchman dies, his lawful wife and son, back in Holland, want to exploit the man’s property – and his daughter. The Dutch colonial court explains to the mother that, according to their cranky laws, her daughter is an ‘Indo’, half-European, and thus ‘above’ her Native mother for ever.
All this is reported by the narrator of the novel, her daughter’s young lover, a Native called Minke. He too is officially ‘above’ the nyai, according to both the main cultures, since he is of a Javanese princely house and also doing very well in the Dutch world, as a scholar and writer; but Minke knows that the nyai, his chosen mother-in-law, is better than he. The nyai is the hero of this novel.
Minke is himself part of the nyai’s burden: she encouraged him to stay on her estate with her brilliant, beautiful, isolated daughter – and so the European lawyers and journalists can wax prurient about the improper love-making only to be expected in the house of a contemptible nyai. Minke’s own problems are bad enough – though he tells it all in such a happy, youthful way that the reader does not immediately recognise their gravity. At one point, when he is staying at the nyai’s house, he is interrupted by a policeman and taken to the police station. ‘It can’t be done like that,’ he retorts. ‘I’m a Raden Mas’ (a sort of ‘knight’ or ‘gentleman’ of Java). Then he tries a Dutch language. ‘I have Forum Privilegiatum’ (the right to appear before the white men’s court). But he has to go – and when he gets there the policeman addresses him in High Javanese: ‘Walk on your knees, Raden Mas.’ He obeys ancient custom, crawling between clam-shells towards a throne (‘I covered the almost ten metres distance while swearing in three languages’) and the occupant of the throne taps him on the head with ‘a horsewhip made from a bull’s genitals, with a shaft of thin choice leather’. This man is Minke’s own father: he wants Minke to attend the ceremony wherein the father is offered high rank by the Dutchmen, and the son must display his European education, as interpreter. Minke has ignored his father’s letters, spending his time at the house of the nyai and her daughter.
Such situations are familiar to anyone acquainted with life or literature in the British Empire and its successor states – or, indeed, with our own native fusses about Wally Simpson and Koo Stark – but these Dutch-Javanese sidelights freshen the vision. While Minke is loaded with responsibilities towards his parents and superiors among his own people, he is also being loaded with demands by Dutch liberals (accusing one another of being too radical) all patronisingly urging him to be a great leader of his decadent people, to be ‘the gong to their gamelan’. Meanwhile he is expert in the literature of Holland and of Natives writing in Dutch, and in the literary and dramatic culture of Java, but still fears that his pseudonymous journalism will not be accepted by the Dutch editors if they discover he is only a Native. What crystallises Minke’s problems about his conflicting cultures is the outsider position of his prospective mother-in-law, the nyai, who seems to illegitimise all the available legal and ethical schemes.
There is another culture on the horizon, the British one. ‘Tell me a story, Minke,’ says his girlfriend. ‘Better than Treasure Island or Kidnapped, more beautiful than Our Mutual Friend.’ And this seems to be rather what the narrator is attempting in This Earth of Mankind, welding the boyish, pacey adventurousness of Stevenson with Dickens’s sensitive brooding on marriage between classes in a very complicated society. Then there is the South African War: one of Minke’s Dutch liberal girlfriends writes to tell him about the young Dutch joining up on the Boer side, seeing their people as the victims, while the British propagandise about the Boers’ cruelty to the African Natives. There is a great deal of meat in this novel. It is amazing to me that it should have been banned by the Indonesian government: all it’s against is apartheid.
There is a character based on Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Derwent May’s novel, The Laughter in Djakarta. He is called Sumitro and is seen talking to an Englishman and a Pole (this is in the 1950s). He says: ‘Mr Pearce is enthusiastic about our primitive ways – it’s touching for us... But Mr Mylski is a communist, so he understands how we are trapped now – trapped between our old superstitions and the new exotic myth-makers who would free us into capitalism!’ Sumitro is surrounded by young men who admire him (he says) too much for his literary skill and not enough for his politics.
Derwent May has discussed Toer again, this year, in Ur, the Iraqi magazine, setting him in the context of Javanese drama. In the wayang shadow-plays, men sit on one side of the screen watching the puppets while the women sit on the other, watching the shadows. There is something of both sides in Toer’s novel. We may recognise in his book, too, the traditional clowns of the Ramayana play, a fat white-faced clown with his silly son: ‘they remind you very much of Laurel and Hardy,’ says; May. Surely they are reflected in the nyai’s Dutch master and his foolish son, destroying themselves in the pleasure-house of the Chinese villain, Ah Tjong who addresses them as ‘Sinyo’ (a version of the Portuguese senhor). That is but one of many fascinating episodes in this engrossing story – more interesting, because of its reality, than the imaginary worlds of Tolkien. Perhaps the Indonesian Cultural Attaché could explain why his government wanted to ban so humane and tolerant a historical novel, so brilliant an advertisement for the author’s nation.