top of page
  • Denisa Mayari

Unearthing the Complexities of Life, Love, and Colonialism in 19th Century Java

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

Arguably one of the most famous literary works in our nation’s history, Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia) is an exploration of the complexities of existence in colonial Indonesia. The novel, set in the late 19th century, tells the story of a young Javanese man who is motivated to escape colonialism and improve both his and his fellow native Indonesians’ lives. The narrative represents Minke, a character who embodies the aspirations of the Indonesian people. Minke is unwavering in his commitment to fight for justice and equality, in spite of his youth, lack of experience, and the difficulties he faces. The story examines, through Minke's trials and tribulations, the harsh reality of life under Dutch colonial control, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of injustice.

Soesilo Toer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer's younger brother, asserts that the fictitious character Minke was inspired by journalist Raden Mas Djokomono Tirto Adhi Soerjo, who challenged Dutch colonial power in Indonesia. As mentioned in the story, "Minke" is a derogatory nickname meaning "monkey." Other key characters in the book include Robert Suurhof, Minke's Dutch friend, and Nyai Ontosoroh, a strong and independent woman who, despite her wealth and success, encounters discrimination and marginalization due to her status as a concubine to Herman Mellema, a Dutchman who despises native Indonesians. They have two half-Dutch, half-Indonesian children: Robert, a son who shares his father's ideals, and Annelies, a kind-hearted daughter.

The film adaptation, released in 2019, focuses on the connection between Minke and Annelies, who play pivotal roles in both the book and the film. Despite the film's overtly romantic depiction of their relationship, This Earth of Mankind is anything but a love story. Minke and Annelies' relationship is riddled with difficulties due to their vastly different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. In both the book and the film, love is depicted in a nuanced way that is complicated by discussions of race, class, and colonialism. These themes are woven together in a masterful and thought-provoking manner, making This Earth of Mankind a resonant and enduring literary work. While love is clearly a motif in This Earth of Mankind, it is treated in a complicated and nuanced fashion that mirrors the novel's greater social and political background.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer uses his experiences as a political prisoner as a springboard for a story that is at once intimate and accessible to readers everywhere. The Dutch colonial authorities arrested him for the first time in 1947 due to his involvement in the Indonesian independence struggle and kept him without trial for many years. Both painful and inspiring, his firsthand accounts of the prison system and the abuses of power he saw personally serve as a potent reminder of the significance of speaking out for what is right.

In conclusion, This Earth of Mankind is an impressive and heart-wrenching book that will stay with its readers long after they finish it. Pramoedya Ananta Toer's ability as a storyteller and his commitment to social justice make his work a must-read for everyone interested in the politics and history of colonial Indonesia. The novel's examination of love's intricacies spanning race, class, and culture is a topic that has resonated so well with Indonesians in the past and perhaps in the present too. Additionally, Pramoedya Ananta Toer covertly incorporates his own life experiences, which helps to make the novel a compelling illustration of how art imitates life.


bottom of page