Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Indonesian author of All That is Gone, makes each word resonate with meaning. Translated by Willem Samuels, Toer's eight semi-autobiographical tales are teeming with cruelty and beauty. A winner of the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award, Toer spent years as a political prisoner in his homeland in the 1960s and '70s. Those years come through in his writing, a mix of longing and desperation that possess the stark, bleak beauty of a full moon or a trackless desert.
The stories, which take place in the author's rural East Java hometown of Blora, begin with the haunting title story, in which a man looks back at his lost youth and innocence, captive to cobwebbed memories. That helplessness is mirrored throughout Toer's collection, most notably by the citizens of Blora, who in the mid-20th century are under the thumb of various warring factions and conquerors whose hegemony extends to their thoughts and beliefs. In "Acceptance," the book's longest story, we watch as war causes the disintegration of a large family. Other tales are equally as grim child abuse, torture, political and physical domination are just some of Toer's themes. Yet his skill is such that humanity is present in each tale, lurking in the shadows.
Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.