By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Translated from the Indonesian by Willem Samuels

Morrow. 171 pp. $16.95

PRAMOEDYA Ananta Toer is arguably Indonesia's most respected novelist, although virtually unknown to a popular readership outside his native land. He is similarly one of its most oppressed writers. He was born in Blora, Java, in 1925 but has been imprisoned for more than a third of his life, first by the Dutch colonial powers and later by the post-colonial government of Indonesia. At present, he is under town arrest in Jakarta.

His crimes have all been political, and most of his extensive corpus of work has been written from within jail, much of it during the period between 1965 and 1979 when he was imprisoned in the infamous forced labor camp on Bur Island, in eastern Indonesia. Not only has he written extensively, but he has also been an active translator of many foreign authors, among them John Steinbeck. His own writings are currently banned in Indonesia, although they circulate widely in photocopied form: His most recent novel is reputed to be available in over half a million "illegal" photostats. Despite the considerable censure of his national government, Pramoedya is internationally recognised by fellow writers as a novelist of considerable stature. His works have been translated into a number of languages, and he was granted the PEN Freedom-to-Write Award in 1988.

The Fugitive was written in 1949 when the author was being held at Bukit Duri, imprisoned by the Dutch authorities for his part in the Indonesian independence movement that gathered momentum after the end of the Second World War. It was his first major novel and draws much upon his experiences in the war years.

The novel is set in the two days leading up to the capitulation of the occupying Japanese forces. The hero is Hardo, a young Indonesian activist who took part in an abortive uprising against the Japanese and who is now on the run, a price on his head, disguised as a beggar. He is also searching for his fiancee Ningsih, a schoolmistress, and dodging the traitors who exist in the Indonesian community. One of these, he knows, betrayed him, but he is not sure who this was -- Ningsih's father, a Japanese puppet village chieftain and Karmin, a friend who has joined the Japanese occupying force to rise to officer rank, are the most likely candidates.

Hardo is a taciturn man, sardonic and idealistic yet simultaneously a romantic. He is also confused, not by his predicament but by his misgivings, and he looks to a future of freedom. Yet one senses he is unprepared for it, unsure of how he might use or value it. His beggary seems not only a suitable disguise but also a veil behind which he might hide, not out of cowardice but remoteness. Reality is, for him, as much of a dream as freedom. He is almost abstractly detached from the emotions that swirl around him; he is seemingly untouched by the treachery of his countrymen, the loyalty of two other political insurgents who are likewise camouflaged as paupers, the deviousness of Ningsih's father and the love of the girl herself, who in his absence holds true to him, refusing the advances of Karmin.

Much of the narrative depends for its strength upon dialogue, the exotic even paradisiacal setting of tropical Indonesia being almost incidental; although superbly described when it impinges upon the tale, it is, nevertheless, just a backdrop. The force of the story hinges upon the intricacies of character and their interactions, which come to a head in a violent and ironic episode that, in a terrifying way, portrays all that Hardo himself does or stands for. That episode is cold-blooded, callous and cruelly without the hope it should promise.

READING the book, one is reminded in many repects of the stories of John Steinbeck. Although the diction is tauter, the description of place used to a lesser effect and action played down to a minimum except in a few bleak but compelling instances, the overall mood is similar. Pramoedya is concerned with the same interplays of human condition, of sorrow and injustice, of the dreams of men that either never fulfil themselves or come true at the expense of a terrible price.

Essentially, The Fugitive is a political novel. At its main level, one from which the reader can at no time escape -- such is the deliberate drawing of parallels between political concepts -- it cannot be divorced from the struggles of a people against colonialism or of the oppressed against their oppressors. At another level, however, it is an apolitical story of misplaced morality and personal tragedy.

What is certain is that the book deserves a substantial readership, for the story is gripping, one that haunts the memory rather than lingers as recollection. With good fortune, Pramoedya will establish with it the wide following he merits.

Martin Booth, author of "Dreaming of Samarkand," is a novelist who lived in Hong Kong for many years.