Pramoedya Ananta Toer is Indonesia’s best-known writer. A nationalist and social critic, Toer was imprisoned by the government of former Indonesian president Suharto for fourteen years and his books were banned until Suharto’s fall from power in 1999. Outside Indonesia, however, translations of his books circulated around the world. His best-known work, the Buru Quartet, consists of four novels—Bumi Manusia (1981; This Earth of Mankind, 1990) Anak Semua Bangsa (1982; Child of All Nations, 1993), Jejak Langkah (1986; Footsteps, 1990), and Rumah Kaca (1988; House of Glass, 1992)—composed during the author’s imprisonment on the eastern Indonesian island of Buru; they follow the development of Indonesian national consciousness. The Girl from the Coast, published in the original Indonesian in 1990, is the most recent of his books to be translated into English. Its social and political themes will be familiar to readers who know Toer’s earlier work. While the novels of the Buru Quartet are organized around the life history of a nationalist intellectual, however, The Girl from the Coast takes the perspective of a heroine from a poor fishing village.
Much of Toer’s writing consists of the fictional investigation of Indonesian history. This latest translated work looks back at the beginning of the twentieth century. Toer tells in a footnote at the end of the book that he had originally meant this to be the first volume of a trilogy about the growth of the nationalist movement in Indonesia, but the two following novels were destroyed by the Indonesian military. This was intended, then, to be the beginning of a much larger epic.
The central character, never identified by name, is a young girl who lives with her parents in a fishing village on the coast of Java. When she is fourteen, word of her beauty reaches the local Bendoro, a Javanese aristocrat in the service of the Dutch colonial overlords. The nobleman sends word to her family that she is to become his wife. Filled with hope for their daughter’s future, her mother and father agree to have her married in a ceremony in which the groom is absent and is represented by a dagger. The parents accompany their child to the great man’s house in the city. There, they find a disturbing omen of their daughter’s future. A servant is caring for a baby, child of a previous wife who had been divorced and dismissed at the Bendoro’s whim.
The servant, Mbok, becomes the personal servant and caretaker of the girl. The girl grows to depend on Mbok, who tells her stories and gives her advice on adjusting to the strange ways of the aristocracy. Among the stories is Mbok’s own tale of how she and her husband were taken away from their village by the Dutch to work on a plantation. After the pregnant Mbok had been kicked in the stomach by a foreman, killing the unborn child, her husband had run amok and had been killed by soldiers. Jailed and then let go to fend for herself, Mbok had eventually ended up in the service of the Bendoro. Mbok is sympathetic to the girl but also aware of her own complete dependence on her employer.
The Bendoro is a devout Muslim and insists that the girl learn her prayers. His religion is largely a matter of the observance of forms and rituals, and it does not give him any sense of charity or fellowship with other people in general. He regards villagers as dirty and lazy. The author of the novel clearly sees no more virtue in organized religion than in the traditions of feudal aristocracy or in colonialism.
Mbok’s integrity, courage, and care for the girl lead to the servant’s downfall. After some of the male relatives of the Bendoro, who live in the house, help the girl clean her room, the girl’s wallet proves to be missing. She is distraught, since this wallet contained money for household expenses. When the relatives respond to Mbok’s inquiry with contempt, Mbok brings the matter before the Bendoro. The lord discovers the thief and orders him to leave the house, but Mbok is also dismissed. She had dared to accuse a superior and can no longer remain.
Without Mbok, the girl is alone. A new servant, Mardinah, arrives, but Mardinah is a sinister figure. A relative of the Bendoro, Mardinah, who is the same age as the girl, has already been divorced. Unlike Mbok, Mardinah refuses to treat the girl as a superior and is often rude.
The appearance of Mardinah is the occasion for a...