GABY RUSLI WRITES (in her ongoing series on classic Indonesian literature) — Through versatility and natural eloquence, Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s, The Girl From The Coast (1987), took a seemingly simple story based on the author’s grandmother’s life into a complex metaphor that simultaneously represents female oppression and the exploitative dynamics between the ruling class and the poor.
The Girl From The Coast is the semi-fictional story of an unnamed, impoverished fourteen-year-old girl, referred to in the book only as “the Girl.” She lives in an equally poor coastal village and finds herself married off to an unknown, wealthy aristocrat in need of another “practice wife” (a peasant woman made into a wife by an aristocrat only to be divorced and shunned when the aristocrat is no longer interested). As she traverses the rocky waters of her newfound societal station, she realizes how fragile and insecure life can be for a woman of no means in the face of a patriarchal caste-oriented society.
This poignant if lesser-known novel reflects Toer’s grandmother’s life story. Toer’s other works were more directly politically charged, criticizing Indonesia’s lack of reform and commitment to progress. One famous example is the Buru Quartet series, the first book being, This Earth of Mankind (1996). Toer’s inclination to touch on controversial subjects in Indonesia has led him to a life of imprisonment at the hand of one Indonesian president after the other. Even when deprived of his freedom, he never failed to speak on behalf of the powerless and ostracized, making him not only a literary legend but also a revolutionary hero in his own right.
Toer’s portrayal of the bizarre reality of women and the poor shows the absurdity behind the caste system. One witnessed an unspoken understanding that the poorer characters must unequivocally bow down and sacrifice themselves for their noble superiors. Such a mentality can be traced back to before centuries of Dutch colonialism. The inhumane nature of such practices in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ was commonly brought up not only by Toer in his other works but also by Dutch writer Multatuli in his famous work, Max Havelaar (1860), which was said to have inspired numerous rebellions against the Dutch government.
In Toer’s tale, tragedy befalls the Girl just as predicted from the sense of dread and the never-ending feeling of alienation that permeates his novel. Those who commit to understanding Toer will recognize that this foreboding sense was not merely to evoke sorrow. Dutch authorities and Javanese nobility were one and the same. The Girl would never have been able to fit as an aristocrat, for there would always be a massive, irreconcilable gap that sets them apart. In the Girl’s case, her gender and socioeconomic background rendered her completely isolated from any opportunity to ascend the societal echelon.
However, the Girl’s trials were not in vain: Toer believed that the struggle for justice must be undertaken even if there was no end in sight. His own grandmother’s struggles gave way to her grandson’s future accomplishments and success. An invaluable cultural titan, one cannot imagine an Indonesia deprived of Toer’s brutal honesty. The Girl From The Coast is one of Indonesia’s hidden gems.
Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate of LMU and an environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.