When starting out on my adventures in Indonesian literature, as is the case when I start reading more widely from any country or culture, I was on the look out for any must-read authors, and one name which cropped up repeatedly was Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The author of the famed Buru Quartet, he spent years in prison for his opposition to the Soeharto regime, and before his death he was often mentioned as a potential Nobel-Prize winner. Today, then, I’m looking at one of his other famous books, a tale of long ago, and a story closer to the writer himself than you might expect…
The Girl from the Coast (translated by Willem Samuels) introduces a beautiful fourteen-year-old girl living in a coastal fishing village. Rumours about her looks reach an important official in the nearby city, and before too long a marriage has been arranged, the girl being whisked from her comfortable existence to land in a new world. Suddenly, she is the mistress of a large house with servants, freed from the burden of labour and overwhelmed with fine clothes and jewellery.
Despite the wonders of her new life, the girl struggles to adapt. Her husband is kind, but rarely at home. She can enjoy the expanses of the house and gardens, with servants to do her bidding, yet in truth she has no freedom, or permission to leave the compound. The girl forces herself to accept that her status in life has changed, trying to become the wife she is told she must be. However, there’s always the secret wish to leave it all behind and head back to the coast…
Toer’s novel is very much a work of historical fiction, albeit one based on the true life story of the writer’s grandmother. Set in the Dutch colonial period, it gives a fascinating glimpse into a distant (and for many readers) alien past, but we’re not the only ones suffering from culture shock – the move from the seaside shack to a city residence has the girl reeling. Quite apart from the novelties of cushions and electricity, she senses a more telling change in herself:
As the girl looked in the mirror, watching as the servant continued her ministrations, she saw her face changing little by little, until finally she didn’t recognize herself at all.
When the servant finished and stepped aside, the girl stared in the mirror and whispered, “Is that me?”
“You’re very beautiful,” the servant sighed.
This was the beginning, the girl thought. This was to be her future world.
p.23 (Hyperion East, 2002)
This change of face brings about a realisation of the vast gulf between the two existences and cements her determination to make the best of the new role.
In truth, though, her newly found status is more fragile than she realises, and gradually we see glimpses of a darker future. We can’t help but notice the children running around the house from time to time (and wonder whose they might be). The girl’s servant begins to talk about previous mistresses, bringing the girl to eventually understand that she is not a real wife. Even when her husband allows her to visit her home village, there’s no respite from her new life. The way people see her has changed, their behaviour even more so – as friends, relatives and even her parents bow and scrape to her, the girl realises that if her new life implodes one day, she won’t be able to come back.
The Girl from the Coast is a moving tale focusing on injustice and the imbalance which existed (and exists) in society. In addition to examining the plight of women (forced to marry without having a say in the matter, having to serve their new ‘master’), Toer is particularly interested in the fate of the poor. In a society which still resembles a feudal system, quite apart from the awful living standards and the constant presence of death, the poor are treated like animals by their fellow citizens:
“Listen to me, Mardinah. I lived in the city for two years before you came along, but it’s only now that I realize what city people, people of the noble class, fear the most – it is to not be respected. And yet, you’re all so afraid of showing even a little respect toward people from the coast.” (p.155)
The girl’s words ring true. Mardinah, a distant relative of the girls’ husband, turns out to be a rather unpleasant character, sent to make the girl see that she doesn’t belong (as if the girl wasn’t aware of that already…).
The novel isn’t perfect, and at times I found it a little melodramatic. It’s at its best when following the girl’s psychological development, showing a young woman growing up quickly, forced to think through every decision with nobody to guide her along. It would have been interesting to see her grow further, which makes the five-page epilogue, compressing the events of decades into a few sentences rather puzzling…
…until, that is, you read the footnote in which Samuels explains what happened to the later adventures:
The Girl from the Coast was originally intended as the first volume in a trilogy of novels on the growth of the nationalist movement in Indonesia, with the story line based loosely on the life history of the author’s family. Because the other two novels in the trilogy were destroyed by the Indonesian military, this epilogue, which was not part of the original novel, was prepared by the author and translator specifically for the publication of this English-language edition in order to provide readers a greater sense of closure to the tale. (p.275)
All of which makes me feel a little guilty for daring to criticise the book…
The Girl from the Coast is an interesting novel, especially for those interested in Indonesian history, and while it’s far from perfect, there’s enough here to make me want to try more of Toer’s work. The next step, of course, would be to seek out the first part of The Buru Quartet, a series written (mentally) while the writer was in prison. I suspect that it’s a work which will provide even more of an insight into Indonesia’s turbulent past…