Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 17, 2011

The Girl from the Coast, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Willem Samuels


I feel a bit as if I’m going out on a limb here, but I read The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer as a metaphor for Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule.

It’s a deceptively simple story.  From what I can translate of the Good Reads reviews in Indonesian (peppered with incomprehensible-to-me Javanese slang), most of its young readers see it as a tale about the oppression of women.  The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai) attracts the attention of a wealthy aristocrat, and is taken from her home (with her parents blessing) to live in his mansion as a ‘practice wife’ i.e. a concubine.  She has two roles to fulfil: to obey the Bendoro’s every whim whether she understands what it is or not, and to command the servants to obey his every whim (i.e. to be held responsible for their obedience whether she has the wherewithal to make them obey or not).

At this level, this semi-fictional story of Toer’s grandmother’s own experience is an indictment of the way women were exploited in Javanese feudal society.  This girl, never named except as The Girl from the Coast, is a child bride, removed from parents who really had no choice but to agree and genuinely believed that she had a better future with the Bendoro (Lord).  This relationship of unequals is purely sexual – in her loneliness the girl pines for the Bendoro, but since she can never speak to him as an equal their conversations consist entirely of her flatteries and protestations of undying love and his magnanimous acceptance of same.  He visits her only between disappearances elsewhere to places unspecified, and the servant scuttles out of the way quick smart when he comes home, because, well, although she doesn’t say so to the naive young girl, it’s been four days so he’ll be ready for it, eh?  (Nobody tells her about what to expect when it’s time for her defloration, either, and the girl is beside herself with distress afterwards.) In fact nobody tells her anything much at all, and she is left to discover for herself just what her ultimate exploitation might be, which makes her resilience all the more remarkable.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles 1781-1826. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Surely this is a metaphor for the way the Dutch arrived on the coasts of Indonesia, promptly established themselves as an incomprehensible superior force requiring unquestioning obedience, and discovered over time that Indonesians would meet the challenge with remarkable resilience?  No coloniser behaved well, but the Dutch in Indonesia were so cruel and exploitative that (from what I’ve read in scholarly tomes when doing Asian Studies at Murdoch University) the Indonesians regarded the brief period during the Napoleonic Wars when the British took over the colony (1811-1816) almost as a Golden Age: Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles introduced partial self-government and land reforms, abolished slavery and expressed respect for Javanese culture by restoring monuments such as Borobodur. When treaties returned the status quo, the Dutch immediately re-established their repressive rule and it was not until after WW2 that Indonesia was able to realise its long-cherished goal of independence (which I am proud to say was supported by Australia).

Prince Diponegoro 1785-1855, Wikipedia Commons

Read from this perspective, The Girl from the Coast makes fascinating reading.  The girl’s father, traditionally an authority figure in age-status-conscious Indonesia, is very promptly put in his place by the Bendoro, and this mirrors the way the Dutch imposed their will on the Indonesians and made them impotent.   Toer makes reference to the treaties that the priyayi (aristocracy) negotiated with the Dutch, and although there were princely rebellions notably by Prince Diponegoro, now a national hero, the price of their compliance was the brutal oppression of the ordinary people.  That the promises made under these treaties were a sham is shown by the girl’s immediate awareness that by accepting the Bendoro’s terms ‘there would never be anyone she could address as an equal’ (p40).  This means more in Bahasa Indonesia than many Western readers may realise: it is a language in which the word for ‘you’ has different forms depending on the status of the person spoken to.  There is no neutral form; when the girl addresses the servant as mbak it subverts her position as ‘young mistress’ because that form of ‘you’ means ‘sister’ (though not necessarily a sibling).  It is familiar, it is not the language of master and servant. It expresses a profound longing for an end to her isolation. But that is never going to happen.  Having been removed from her home the girl will never be accepted as one of them again.  Things can never be put back the way they were.

But she is never going to be made fit for acceptance into the higher castes either. One of the crucial differences between the British and Dutch as colonists, at least in India, was that the British educated some of the local population at least to the lower levels of the bureaucracy. (Gandhi, for example, studied law in Britain 1888-1891). This meant they were literate, and although they had always been precluded from the top jobs and paid less for the jobs they were allowed to do, they were, when granted independence, ready to govern.  For most of their regime, there were no such educational opportunities for Indonesians under the Dutch.  It was not until the Balinese Royal Family and thousands of their supporters committed putupan (ritual suicide) rather than surrender to the Dutch in the early 19th century that world opinion forced the Dutch to minor reforms, one of which was that some Indonesians were educated overseas (and these formed the nucleus of the subsequent independence movement).  So it is with the Girl from the Coast: she is taught only what she needs to know to serve the Bendoro’s needs.  Her ‘education’  is within a strictly limited field: traditional crafts such as batik and Muslim prayers[1] which she does not understand.

The serving woman who is the girl’s mentor and sole confidante is also her betrayer.  She is at pains to make the girl conform because her own position depends on it.  As a warning, she tells the story of her great-grandfather who was hung by the Dutch because he was foreman of labourers who had failed to build a road on schedule.  She explains about her grandfather who joined Diponegoro’s rebels, fled with another noble when defeated, eventually surrendered and then was beaten and imprisoned when he escaped after returning alone from a patrol that was attacked by a band of robbers.  She tells how she lost her baby when a Dutch foreman kicked her when she was working as a forced labourer and how her enraged husband was killed when he tried to defend her.  It is fate, she says, that common people such as they must submit, but it is also compliance.   What happens when her loyalty to the girl conflicts with her loyalty to the Bendoro is instructive.  In thrall to an uncompromising authority, one has no option but to surrender.

I wish I knew more about Indonesian history so that I could identify more correspondences.  This is a very fine book: great reading in its own right as a story with a compelling plot; fascinating about the role of women in a feudal society; and very revealing in terms of what it has to reveal about Dutch colonialism.

Highly recommended.

[1] Animism (the belief that non-human entities like rocks and the sea embody spirits) is still practised in Indonesia especially in remote communities, but also often side-by-side with other religions such as Hinduism as in Bali.  Perhaps one of the reasons Toer was banned in Indonesia was because he is critical of the hypocritical religiosity of the Bendoro and his ostentatious devotion.

Author:  Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: The Girl from the Coast
Translator: Willem Samuels
Publisher: Hyperion Books, 2002
ISBN: 0786887087
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository, $20.92AUD


Responses

  1. Your review is full of little facts I didn’t know before – such as the Dutch not educating their colonial subordinates. I think I would find this book just a little too harrowing – there is something about the exploitation of children that I find too painful to read about. Colonialism was a terrible thing and this book seems to present a new angle on it to other books in the same genre.

    • Tom, prior to this book, I think I’d mostly only read novels about British colonialism e.g. in India and Africa, and most of those were by British writers like Orwell, EM Forster and Paul Scott. However I did quite a bit of research for my own little book about Indonesia and when I was president of the Indonesian Language Teachers Association I had contact with many Indonesians as well as Australians who were widely read and knowledgeable about its culture and history as well. So I think that enriched my reading of this novel quite a bit.
      I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression of The Girl from the Coast. It’s not harrowing to read; in fact it is very restrained and in some places you have to read between the lines to realise what has happened, in the way that you do with 19th century literature.

      • Done a lot of research and am trying to find a female author… Thank you for sharing what you know, although: my Mom was born in Indonesian and left the country when the Japanese took over, going abroad to…Holland. If you really want to know, I’d ask the Indonesian women now living there (my Mom is 92 btw and can still discuss politics with me) – they are not so negative in their opinion about the Dutch as you.

        • Hello Monique, thank you for taking the time to comment. The only other Indonesian author I have read is Dewi Anggraeni, but it is 10 years or so since I read one of her books so I can’t really comment about her.
          My opinion about the Dutch period in Indonesia has been formed from a number of sources, mainly Indonesian men and women living here in Australia, but also from academics and university students in Indonesia, and of course from reading. I studied Indonesian language, history and culture at university, including some of that at Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, and for a long time I was a member of an Australia-Indonesia Friendship society, an active member of a gamelan group, and in my capacity as President of the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Association, in frequent contact with the local consulate. So I had plenty of opportunities to meet and talk to Indonesian men and women of all ages both here in Australia and in Indonesia, although I would say that the majority of these were an educated elite.
          It is not part of Indonesian culture to be ‘negative’; they would regard the direct way of speaking that Australians have as too blunt. Indeed, when forming the negative, the Indonesian language does not use ‘no’ or ‘not’, it uses ‘less than’ (kurang). So an ugly person or situation is not ‘ugly’, it is ‘kurang baik’ i.e. less than beautiful. Given that it is part of Indonesian culture to be courteous and to express criticism indirectly, I would expect the answer to any direct question about the Dutch to be positive or failing that equivocal. It would be very bad manners to tell any Dutch person that the Dutch regime had shortcomings. But when Queen Juliana died and an Indonesian spokesman was asked by Australian media to comment, he referred to her not using the respectful form ‘beliau’ but rather the common form ‘dia’ – an insult which was not translated for the Australian media but which every Indonesian would have understood.
          In the novel Toer uses the serving woman to catalogue the impact of Dutch repression on one woman and her family, and this is emblematic. Toer’s book speaks for itself, and this is of course why the Dutch government banned it and the rest of the trilogy was destroyed.

          • You are probably right – although our Mom is 92 we discovered her being born in Indonesian last year. Am writing a short story with multicultural background and decided: well, why not Indonesia? Am fascinated! Thanks for the tip: Dewi Anggraeni – only ONE female author… That’s a clear message!

            • Oh, there may be heaps of other Indonesian female authors: it’s just that I haven’t found them in the bookshops I go to. Try Goodreads for recommendations, if you look up the review of The Girl From the Coast you will see that lots of Indonesians have read it, and I’m sure if you ask them they will be able to tell you the names of female authors. Good luck!

  2. I am an indonesian, and I read this book in my own language. True this book is a bit more confusing for people that read it in another language aside bahasa, furthermore once must acquire a good understanding of the native language javanese and a good knowledge of history to understand this story. It is truly such a pity that the government has to burnt the remaining series of this book, coz I heard the remaining stories told about the girl from the coast triumphant story and how she will eventually find her kid

    • Selamat datang, Aretha! Betul, ini menyedihkan bahwa buku-buku ini hilang karena campur tangan pemerintah.
      Lisa

  3. It’s indeed a great book. I just finished re-reading it after the first time I read 2 years ago.This book provides me with more knowledge of my own culture (I am Javanese) and gives me more comprehensive references about Javanese culture in the past that still becomes the soul of Javanese culture in present life. And sadly to say…about the remaining books that we wouldn’t be able to read.

    • Selamat datang, Sekar. Ya, betul, buku ini bagus sekali!

  4. Great review! I feel like I have to go read up (a whole lot more) about Indonesia and its history – and then reread Girl from the Coast just to truly truly understand it.

    • Thanks:) I wish I could find more of his writing…


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