Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006, was arguably Indonesia's greatest writer and one of the world's most engaging novelists. I don't feel like I am reading his works as much as wrapping myself in them. I named one of my children after a character in Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind).
Following the 1965 coup that saw Suharto take power, Pram was imprisoned for decades, much of that time on Buru Island.
Exile is an account of conversations with Pram not long before his death. The topics run from politics to literature to Indonesian and Javanese culture.
Pram's pain and disappointment at the course of Indonesia's development is obvious in his cutting reflections on culture, government corruption, and the dominance of the US. He rightly lays a great deal of blame for Indonesia's ills on the Suharto regime - understandable given the years of imprisonment he suffered at Suharto's hands, as well as the very real corruption and misgovernance that characterized the New Order, particularly in the final few years.
I found his reflections on culture and his view that the Javanese propensity to submit to authority figures shackles Indonesia's development fascinating. He is clearly a fan of Sukarno - time and distance allow him to ignore or gloss over Sukarno's profound failings in the later years of his presidency. All was well, in Pram's view, before the coup, and if Sukarno had been allowed to continue Indonesia would have proceeded to a bright future.
Exile is a valuable complement to his other published works. It's not as compelling as the Mute's Soliloquy, his account of imprisonment on Buru and elsewhere, and these conversations sadly reveal far more unhappiness and far less hope about his homeland than I expected. For all the faults he describes, Indonesia has made a relatively peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, vacated East Timor, and avoided the large scale sectarian bloodbaths that have claimed other nations at a similar stage of development. Terrorism seems to have been brought to heel and the world's largest muslim nation remains a reliable U.S. partner. Civil society continues to roll, sometimes lurch, along and renew with every turn of the monsoon. I guess Pram remained an exile until the end.