The country of Indonesia comprises more than 17,000 islands, of which more than a thousand are permanently inhabited. On these islands are found some seven hundred different linguistic groups. While the speakers of many of these languages are few in number, still perhaps as many as three hundred have significant populations.
The language with the largest number of native speakers is Javanese, many of whom live in Central and East Java and the Special District of Yokyakarta. When the archipelago in the nineteenth century began forming a sense of national identity, the need for a unifying language became crucial.
Since the Javanese people were far more numerous than any other group and Javanese leaders were at the forefront of developing a national consciousness, many Javanese assumed that Javanese would become the language of a unified state. But, there were several problems and sensitivities. Other ethnic groups often resented what appeared to be a Javanese sense of superiority. Moreover, Javanese was a language with levels of social hierarchy and status engrained into it. (It had three distinct registers each with different vocabulary, rules of grammar, and forms of address to be used depending on whether a speaker was speaking to a social equal, or one higher up in the pecking order, or one lower.) There was concern that it would be difficult to accommodate the Javanese language with its hierarchy to modern ideas of equality.
As an alternative, some began arguing for the use of Malay. While the number of native Malay speakers in the Dutch East Indies was small, the language was a lingua franca known in some degree by many across the archipelago. Moreover, Malay had little emphasis on social hierarchy and carried no religious overtones.
In the Buru Quartet, Pramoedya at first portrays the protagonist Minke as a native Javanese speaker who used Dutch easily and was contemptuous of Malay. As Minke’s sense of national identity took root and he found a need to write his political works to audiences that were much larger than a Javanese or Dutch one, he began to appreciate the value in use of Malay as well as the ease of expression in that language.
Malay, or Indonesian as it came to be called, was indeed adopted by the nationalist movement as its vehicle of expression in the 1920s but it had already started catching on in newspapers and by some novelists before then. When Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945, it also announced its official language was Indonesian. The language has been evolving ever since and is quite distinct from Malay as it is spoken in Malaysia.
Pramoedya himself contributed greatly to the development of the Indonesia language. For example, in Child of All Nations (or more accurately Anak Semua Bangsa) the reader gets the impression that he is experimenting with the flexibility of the language in crafting metaphors. Moreover, he shows exceeding skill in constructing fast-paced action that conveys great emotional stress within the character. His language made that scene come alive.