World literature without Goethe: On Pramoedya Ananta Toer's labour camp memoirs The Mute's Soliloquy

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This essay offers a critical reevaluation of the concept “world literature” based on a reading of a series of deliberations in Pramoedya penal colony memoirs The Mute’s Soliloquy (Indonesian 1995 and 1997/English version 1999), in particular concerning German literature and history. In order to work with literature in a global context, one needs to do justice to the material conditions under which literature originates and is being read; it also needs to be acknowledged that “literature” is a modern Western invention that has no precise equivalent in many other cultures. The essay argues against a Herderian-Goethean view of “world literature” as an accumulation of the qualitative accomplishments and values of a specific cultural community. It also problematizes the category of “understanding other cultures” in the reception of a text. Instead, it argues that “literature” can travel in many different directions and take on a variety of functions. Pramoedya’s deliberations emphasize the importance of literature as memory work, with the understanding that the memories and real-life experiences contained in literature can differ widely, depending on the circumstances of a text’s reception. Only if we recognize the specific temporal and spatial circumstances under which texts emerge and are read, in particular also non-canonical texts, can we start to think about the object perceived as “literature” as not only fostering a sense of difference, but also as having the potential to reflect on what humanity has in common.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSeminar - A Journal of Germanic Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2018


  • Globalization
  • Intercultural understanding
  • Memory
  • Pramoedya Ananta Toer
  • Prison literature
  • World literature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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