Seven years ago, I made one of the great discoveries in my life as a reader when a friend pressed into my hands a copy of "This Earth of Mankind," by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the first volume of what has come to be called the Buru Quartet. Pramoedya is one of those rare writers whose stature the reader perceives at once, from afar, like a tower. The Buru books, set amid the emergence of modern Indonesia, struck me then as one of the most ambitious undertakings in postwar world literature, and time has only heightened my admiration for this great literary artist. The Buru novels are Tolstoyan in humanism and scope, and reminiscent of Conrad in their philosophical profundity and exquisite tonal articulacy; they are also gripping narratives (the first two volumes, anyway; their impact diminishes in the later volumes). Yet as great as these dramas are, they are overshadowed by the author's own life story.
A survivor of the Japanese occupation during World War II, a soldier in the Indonesian Revolution, a political prisoner of the Suharto regime for 14 years, Pramoedya is one of the 20th century's great voices of conscience. Pram, as he is affectionately known in Indonesia, wrote most of his best books in durance. His first novel, "The Fugitive," a dark morality tale about an Indonesian patriot who is betrayed by his lover's father, was written while he was imprisoned by Dutch colonial authorities for possession of nationalist documents. Written when Pramoedya was just 22 years old, "The Fugitive" was one of the first accomplished works of literature written in modern Indonesian.
This new translation of "The Girl From the Coast," a novel written and first published (in serial form in a newspaper) in 1965, is a major contribution to the growing body of Pramoedya's works in English. It was written while Pramoedya was at the height of his creative powers, a commanding intellectual figure in the twilight years of the regime of Sukarno, Indonesia's founding ruler. Set on the north coast of Java at the end of the 19th century, the novel is a sort of pre-autobiography, telling the story of Pramoedya's grandmother. A nameless 14-year-old girl is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with a rich aristocrat, known as the Bendoro. A simple fisherman's daughter, she overnight becomes the lady of her husband's household. After she adjusts to her new life, she becomes pregnant, only to discover that she is a "practice wife" who will be not only discarded by the Bendoro but separated from the child she is carrying.
It is a classic tragedy, enacted with tremendous, restrained gravity, in Willem Samuels' polished, lucid translation. Pramoedya achieves his most devastating effects by discreet, elliptical indirection, a defining Javanese trait. The book's first moment of drama comes soon after the girl's arrival in the city, when the Bendoro's representative comes to claim her for his employer. He asks her parents whether she has begun to menstruate, the sole requirement for a girl to be married in feudal Java. Her mother asks her, and when it's clear that the child doesn't know what she's talking about, the mother takes her aside:
"The girl's mother whispered something, but all the girl could do was shake her head and stare. The mother frowned and shook her head as well. She then turned and looked at her husband, giving him a despondent stare. She left her daughter and went to her husband: 'Just tell him yes,' she said." Thus was the 14-year-old prepubescent virgin prepared for her wedding night.
What gives the novel much of its power, what makes it typically Pramoedyan, is that while it pulses with an angry moral indignation that flirts with melodrama--and sometimes crosses the line, as when the Bendoro strikes the girl with his cane when she tries to kidnap her own baby--Pramoedya's moral universe is complex and ambiguous. Through most of their false marriage, the Bendoro treats the girl kindly; it is her own family who betrayed her.
Today, Pramoedya enjoys the status of an icon in Indonesia, especially among the nation's younger generation, who treat him as he deserves, as a national treasure. Yet at the time he wrote "The Girl From the Coast," he was a contentious, controversial firebrand. He was a member of Lekra, the Institute for People's Culture, which was closely affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party (like Sukarno, he toyed with communism but never committed to it). Pramoedya became one of Indonesia's most powerful writers, frequently contributing to Lentera (the Lantern), the culture page of Bintang Timur, an influential left-wing newspaper sponsored by Sukarno's party. Although he was a stout supporter of "the Great Leader of the Revolution," Pramoedya was always an independent thinker: Indeed, he served a short prison sentence in 1960 for criticizing the government's treatment of the Chinese minority.