Pramoedya Ananta Toer is generally regarded as the greatest living Indonesian novelist, a fact I certainly did not know before reading the publicity material for his new book. But the immediacy, clarity and direct emotion of "The Girl From the Coast," the unpretentious story of a village girl torn from her family and married to a mysterious nobleman, make it a compulsively readable novel and in no way an exotic curiosity. (Even if you may feel a little lost during the discussion about whether the sea is more powerful than the characters in Javanese puppet theater. I think the answer is yes.)
In addition to his 30-plus books, Pramoedya (so famous in his homeland he is typically referred to by his first name) is also known for translating the works of Steinbeck and Tolstoy into Indonesian. "The Girl From the Coast" shares those writers' predilection for plain-spoken, salt-of-the-earth characters, along with some of the same quality of ageless folk tale or instructive moral fable. The nameless title character of this novel comes from a remote fishing village on the north coast of Java that is itself never named. Indeed her father, mother, husband and beloved servant are never named either. All we can say for sure is that the action unfolds in and around the provincial capital of Rembang at some point under Dutch colonial rule (the evidence in the book suggests the late 19th century).
If that suggests a kind of mythological abstraction, be assured that Pramoedya's characters and settings are intensely specific. The girl from the coast -- a slender, pretty but otherwise ordinary 14-year-old -- is plucked from her life of ceaseless labor as a fisherman's daughter and betrothed to the Bendoro, a local Javanese aristocrat whose luxurious lifestyle is light-years beyond anything the girl and her family have ever seen or imagined. Pramoedya's prose (as rendered here by translator Willem Samuels) is generally straightforward and unadorned, but in these early scenes he proves adept at layering light comedy atop the story's more ominous undertones.
When the Bendoro's servants ask the girl's parents whether she has begun menstruating, no one knows, and the mother's attempts to explain this concept to her daughter are interrupted when they sit on the Bendoro's sofa -- and are startled and alarmed by its unfamiliar softness. Ultimately, of course, the bride's meddlesome family are packed off to the village and the girl finds herself alone and terribly lonely, a stranger in a strange land. At first Pramoedya's apparent message -- that village life, hard as it was, offered more rewards to an ordinary woman than this privileged imprisonment -- may seem overly sentimental, but he is finally after something more complicated.
What everyone, even this girl from a backwater village, rapidly comes to understand is that she is only the Bendoro's "practice wife" (and the latest of several, at that). For a man of his station, marriages to common women don't count; such wives are kept around until they produce children or simply cease to amuse him and are then discarded. Pramoedya's Bendoro is not a monster, just an aloof, scholarly and occasionally affectionate man taking advantage of his station in life. But for our unnamed heroine and other women like her, such temporary marriages are life-changing events. Back in her village, the girl has become a local celebrity, the subject of popular ballads, an exemplar of the idea that even the poor and obscure can rise to unlikely heights. After several years as a rich man's wife accustomed to the finest batik fabrics and gold jewelry, how can she go back to grinding shrimp paste?
Amid the novel's fast-moving episodes -- the girl must deal with palace intrigue and even assassination plots in the Bendoro's house, along with the array of comic and sympathetic characters in her home village -- there is really no answer to this question. For Pramoedya, its resolution may lie in history. "The Girl From the Coast" is apparently intended as the first installment of a trilogy about the rise of Indonesian nationalism, and the girl's extraordinary story is based on that of Pramoedya's own grandmother. Given the richness of setting and incident in this book, its generosity toward both its characters and readers, we can only hope more is to come.