I read this book for my world fiction challenge, because it was getting embarrassing that I had nothing from Indonesia (the world’s fourth-most-populous country!). Unfortunately, there just aren’t a lot of choices available in English, so I wound up reading this even though it was largely lost in translation.
This Earth of Mankind is a politically important book--first told orally while the author was a political prisoner--with a political (anti-colonialist) message. Second, it’s the story, set at the end of the 19th century, of an 18-year-old Indonesian boy, nicknamed Minke by one of the teachers in the elite Dutch school he’s privileged to attend (the teacher apparently meant to call him a monkey, and now that’s replaced his actual identity, ooooh don’t you see
the damage colonialism does here?). But it’s a very weird story. Minke meets a reclusive family with a beautiful daughter, and the two instantly become so enamored of each other that the mother invites him to come live at their house. Which he does, apparently finding this only a little weird. The daughter, whom we’re explicitly told is “no more than a fragile doll” with the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old, becomes deathly ill whenever Minke so much as goes on an extended family visit, but he doesn’t mind sticking around too much, since she’s super hot after all. (“A beautiful love story”? Really?) Anyway, no spoilers: the book is very slow and meandering for the first 250 pages or so, but does pick up toward the end.
Toer does a good job with the cultural and historical setting, which is educational, and the characters’ personalities are distinct enough. The novel makes its political statement effectively without becoming so didactic as to belong on my “op-ed books” shelf, although it’s close. It's certainly not subtle, but the injustices of a caste-based colonial system don't lend themselves to subtlety. The translation could have been more accessibly-written, though, and there’s a lot of repetition, as if the author was perhaps too wedded to the novel’s spoken form.
At any rate, I can see this novel being great for courses on comparative or post-colonial literature, and am sure its virtues are much more evident in Indonesian and to people who share that cultural background. But for non-Indonesian, non-academic readers looking for a good story, you can probably give this one a pass.