April 08, 2008

The Girl From the Coast (2)



Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Novel

Beautiful and poignant, THE GIRL FROM THE COAST is another brilliant examination of Javanese culture by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Illustrating a spectrum of Indonesian religion, traditions, gender roles, and socio-economics, the novel's style is as poetic as its story is frustrating. This delicate balance of politics, social criticism, history, and artistry is what has made Toer a likely and favored candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In THE GIRL FROM THE COAST, a powerful member of the aristocracy spots a young village girl, and she is soon married to him in a ceremony that he does not even attend. And so the girl from the coast must travel inland to the city, leaving all she knows and loves behind her, to become the latest "practice" wife for the Bendoro. This move is not only a physical one; it challenges her understanding of her culture and her very identity. Throughout the novel, the unnamed girl continues to identify herself as a poor village girl from the coast (even when surrounded by servants and riches) and longs for the familiar beaches and salty sea air. During her time with the Bendoro, the girl learns much about the inequalities present in society, the effects of colonialism, and the status of women. Her two servants (one old and wise and one young and deceitful) also teach her much and arm her with survival skills. They help her, each in their own way, to see the need to stand up for herself in the face of oppression. Forced to make a final, heart-wrenching decision, the girl eventually returns home to her fishing village but finds her marriage has altered her forever.

The Bendoro himself, an intimidating figure, remains, for the most part, in the shadowy background of the book. The women and the villagers in the story, those thought to be weak, uneducated and unenlightened by the aristocracy and Dutch colonialists, are at the fore of the story. Although she remains nameless in the novel, the girl exhibits a strength of spirit that should place her alongside the most admired fictional heroines in world literature. The naïve yet strong-willed girl makes an interesting transformation in the novel: she gains knowledge and faces devastating realities but remains constant in her values and desires. She is a perfect vehicle for Toer's politics. She is "every" person, representative of Java's traditions and pre-colonial history, and she is confronted with troubling modern situations. The girl from the coast is heroic in her ability to maintain her moral center in the face of adversity. Her two servants also represent certain Indonesian responses to socio-cultural and gender inequalities. All three women are victims yet all three rise above their victimization.

This emotional tale is deceptively simple: the rich history and landscape of Java surge against the economical use of words and the sparseness of the action. THE GIRL FROM THE COAST is masterfully crafted, which is apparent even in translation. It is often dark, often witty and always thought provoking. One reading of THE GIRL FROM THE COAST is likely to inspire many trips to the bookshelf to delve into other works by Toer and nonfiction about the island of Java.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
Cited from bookreporter.com