Book Review

Bumi Manusia

The Story about Those Who Fight for Their Right and Lose in The Name of The Law


the new Indonesia version

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is one of the best Indonesian writers, I’m sure many people will agree when we look at how many books as well as prizes he ever got, including Nobel prize nominator in literature. And most will say that his best books are what usually called Buru Tetralogy, quartet of books written during his time in the prison of Buru Island: Bumi Manusia (The Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (The Child of All Nations), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps), and Rumah Kaca (The House of Glass). Well, I can’t say that those are his best books because actually only two of his other books I’ve ever read so far. But, if these are not his best, I can’t imagine what will be his better book! And Bumi Manusia, the first book,is the best among the others I will say!

The story took place in the end of 1800s in the place that we now call Indonesia. At that time, the place was known as Hindia and was a part of (or precisely colony of) Kingdom of Netherland. It was at the time when train started to move in the mountainous Javanese landscape when the story began. A young HBS indigene student named Minke was asked to accompany his friend, Robert Surhoff to visit big house where Robert Mellema, Surhoff’s friend, lived. It was at that house where Minke met Annelies Mellema, a beautiful weak European-born girl, for the first time. Minke fell in love to her and soon became regularly visitor of the house. But, the further he knew about the girl, the more amazed he became.


best book of old pram

Annelies lived in big house as well as his father’s corporation. There were farm, garden, and animal husbandry. But it wasn’t her full-blooded Dutchman father who now led the corporation and neither did her brother. It was her indigene / native Indonesian mother who did it: Nyai Ontosoroh. You know, at that time, girl, especially indigene one, only had responsibility to what happened in the kitchen, no other else. Most of the girls didn’t get any education at all except for cooking and serving their husband. Mostly didn’t have confidence and good communication skill to lead others, but this lady wasn’t like the others.

The further Minke knew about Nyai Ontosoroh’s past, the more he respected the lady. She was the daughter of the villager. Her father was the leader of her village who control and monitor the farm resource under the Dutch command. Nyai Ontosoroh was only still a teenager in her puberty when her father “gave” him to the Dutch who own the whole farm just to maintain his status as the village leader.Though disappointed very much to her own father’s decision, just as a woman teenager, she could do nothing but to entrust herself to Dutch whose name was Mr. Mellema. She would be his wife without status as a “wife”, just like many other unlucky indigene girl in Indonesia at that time.

But, at first, the life didn’t go that bad for her because Mr. Mellema was a good guy. He loved her very much and taught her to read, speak, and write in Netherland language. He also taught her many other things such as to behave like modern Dutch woman or to lead the corporation. Together, they made a happy family, had a son (Robert) and daughter (Annelies) while their corporation became bigger and highly regarded.

But, problem came when Mr. Mellema met with his son from his old wife he had left in Netherland. Shocked by the meeting, Mr. Mellema became mad and spent his frustration time in the prostitution. From that time, Nyai Ontosoroh herself, alone, but strong, confidence, and committed, who led the corporation.

The story continued from one conflict to the other, clearly describing the very bad condition at the time of Dutch colony in Indonesia. In the end, Mr. Mellema’s death led to a bitter end when his son from his old wife in Netherland, Maurits Mellema, claimed all his property, including the corporation he had flourished with Nyai Ontosoroh. The lady didn’t have a right at all to all things produced by her hard work just because she was just indigene woman. She was nothing in the eye of Dutch Law.

And it wasn’t just the corporation, but also the right to care for Annelies (who had been Minke’s wife according to Islamic law at that time) was taken from Nyai Ontosoroh as a mother and Minke as a husband. The Netherland law didn’t acknowledge Islamic law and therefore didn’t admit Minke and Annelies wedding. It made Annelies had to be taken to Netherland, where her “real” Dutch brother Maurits Mellema lived.

Nyai Ontosoroh had lost everything she had and though she and Minke tried to fight through the court, there was no winning chance in the name of the “law” when the conflict occured between the indigene people and the European counterparts. The “law” had taken their loves from them forever. And nothing they could do but to fight without any hope to win.


nyai ontosoroh in one of the show

Detail and drifting the reader to the story as ever, Pram had shown the world what a shame condition occurred at the time of Dutch colony as well as every other colony in the world. The poor one always be pressed by the stronger one. Justice means the winning of the stronger. What happened to Nyai Ontosoroh at her childhood might occur at every indigene girl at that time or even right now, to become a wife without “wife” status. Also what happened to Annelies and Nyai Ontosoroh’s corporation where the law was in the side of the strong one was the secrets everybody knew. If you were full-blooded Dutchman, you could do many thing including oppressed the indigene people, but if you were indigene, you could do nothing even if you were suppressed by the full-blooded one.

What happened in Bumi Manusia was just a little side of colonization life photograph not only in Hindia at that time but everywhere on Earth at any time. There might be many worst conditions could take place but nobody brave enough to speak it up. Even, the similar condition can happen right now around us, maybe in the other form of colonization we do not aware, in the other form of suppression we do not recognize.

That’s why colonization, whatever it takes, should be cursed and avoided. Every form of suppression from the strong to the weak must be opposed. Be brave and fight the injustice you met even if you’re the only one who fight, even if you don’t have any chance to win, just like what Nyai Ontosoroh said to Minke in the end of the book:

“We had fight, Nyo, as best as we can…”



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