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The Girl From the Coast starts the way many fairy tales end: with a wedding. But this is a dark fairy tale riddled with the horrors of real life. In early 20th-century Dutch-colonialist Java, happily ever after isn’t in the equation. This much is obvious from the very first pages of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel. A lovely 14-year-old girl from a poor fishing village (who has no name except “the Girl from the Coast”) catches the eye of an important nobleman known as the Bendoro. He’s too busy to show up for their wedding, so she is married by proxy, with a dagger standing in for her new husband. Although her family and villagers are very impressed by this match, the girl gradually discovers that the Bendoro considers her “a practice wife,” a rehearsal for a later “real” marriage to someone of his class. Her heart sinks when she realizes that she is more a possession than a person.
The Bendoro’s lavish mansion in the city inspires both awe and claustrophobia in our heroine. Waited on by a squadron of servants yet at the mercy of her husband’s every whim, she’s kept a prisoner inside the house’s intricate routines. The book conveys her conflicted feelings through a textured array of sense-memories. “Her entire body felt strange, as if it weren’t her own. The perfumed scent emanating from her pores made her feel light. She had never smelled so fragrant before. That wasn’t her body’s smell. And the delicate cloth of her apparel made her feel as if she were wearing nothing at all. . . . But even as she dwelled on these new sensations, the servant’s voice never stopped droning in her ear, telling her that things must be done this way or that.” In the village she could express emotions, but here “there was no one willing to hear the sound of her voice.”
Pramoedya Ananta Toer spent 14 years imprisoned in much less pleasant circumstances—first in various Indonesian jails and then on the Buru Island penal colony, followed by more than a decade under house arrest. Regularly mentioned as a front-runner for the Nobel Prize, he is modern Indonesia’s great literary hero, though his work is still officially banned there. Pramoedya (as he is known) composed his most famous work, The Buru Quartet, as an oral tale which he read aloud to his fellow political prisoners at the penal colony. These four novels follow a Javanese boy in the dying days of Dutch colonialism as he gravitates toward revolutionary ideas and forges a new kind of Indonesian nationalist identity.
The Girl From the Coast has the feel of an oral tale passed down across the ages by storytellers, too: graceful and elliptical as a myth while occasionally veering into heavy-handed political messaging. Only an epilogue tacked onto the novel mentions that this story is based on a real person—Pramoedya’s grandmother, herself a “practice wife”—and that it was intended to be the first book of a multi-generational trilogy depicting the rise of the anti-Dutch nationalist movement (in which his parents and he were involved). The Indonesian military destroyed the rest of the manuscript, so we are left with a simple story that reverberates with epic overtones.
Pramoedya’s heroine exudes such a perfect combination of passion, right thinking, and strength that she sometimes comes across like a nationalist poster girl. And she’s so full of life that nearly all the book’s other characters seem ghostly in comparison. The sole exception is Mbok, a long-suffering servant who tutors the girl in the ways of the household (including how to speak cravenly to her husband—”Forgive me, Master . . . ” seems to do the trick) and instills an understanding of their country’s political inequality (“[T]he kings and princes and regents of Java have sold this sacred land to the Dutch. And now, to regain it you must fight them, but . . . it will take more than just one generation to complete”). Having left her mother behind in her village, the girl craves affection and companionship from Mbok. Theirs is the novel’s most bittersweet, strangled relationship:
The two of them talked into the night, without either the girl hearing the words she wanted the older woman to speak—a simple and direct declaration of affection, unfettered by bonds of convention and politesse—or the older woman finding from her mistress an assertion of the appreciation she felt for her obedience and service, the very things through which she herself showed her affection.
By the time the Bendoro banishes Mbok for insubordination, the girl has absorbed all her servant’s bleak lessons and seems well equipped to defend herself against the silly plot line that Pramoedya throws at her, almost derailing the last third of the book. This dramatic twist revolves around Mardinah, a pretty new maid who may be a spy sent to murder the girl from the coast; her brother Mardikun, a sexually ambiguous masseur; and Crazy Dul, a court jester who croons tales the villagers aren’t ready to hear. The madcap plotting feels like it’s wandered over from another book altogether (maybe some minor Shakespeare comedy) and detracts from this otherwise powerful novel.
The conclusions Pramoedya’s Everygirl comes to are fairly obvious: Would you be surprised to hear that she was happier being a poor nobody, because she was allowed to speak her mind and be herself, rather than a rich man’s starter kit? Or that she ends up believing her husband is the embodiment of evil, and that working folk are the real heroes?
Despite these substantial flaws, The Girl From the Coast is saved by its intensely evocative everyday details and its genuine affection for its heroine. She careens through the minefield of colonial society with her eyes wide open, both an emblem of Indonesian independence and the fleshly grandmother of a brave 20th-century novelist.