Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Toer : Girl from the Coast

As the author describes it in his postscript, "The Girl from the coast" (northeast coast of Java near Remblang) is every woman, age 14, trying to find her own way in the world - at the beginning of the 20th Century in Java as the pressure for nationalism and popular government is beginning to build. That every-woman is based upon the author's own grandmother - whose daughter (the author's mother) is the child sired by the pious  but cold-hearted aristocrat to whom  she was briefly married.

Tragically, for us readers, the two sequels to this novel were destroyed.  It would have been interesting to compare their description of the author's family with how he wrote about them in 'All that is Gone" - where his philandering father looses his job and turns to gambling.

This has become a well-known novel whose plot can be found all over the internet -- so I'll just focus on a few issues that interest me.

The cold-hearted aristocrat (the Bendoro) is described as a pious hajj who works as a religious advisor to the Dutch resident.  Apparently, his interpretation of Islamic law (or its local variant)  does not prohibit him from marrying a lower class woman whom he intends to divorce as soon as she bears him a child. The girl from the coast appears to be at least the third such instance of that behavior.  He presents himself as something of a religious jurist when he sits in judgment of his nephews and servants regarding the disappearance of a wallet filled with cash.  He remonstrates his nephews for their ignorance of the Koranic concept of "honor" - though he never gets around to defining it for them. When one nephew refuses to stand up and claim innocence, he throws him out of the house - which does seem like reasonable behavior. Yet he also throws out the servant who raised the issue of  theft in the first place.  He praises her diligence, but condemns her for accusing an well-born  aristocrat - even though her accusation was confirmed. I doubt Islamic would forbid true accusations from low born to high born - but perhaps it offers little to counter the immense social pressure that opposes it.  And  Koran 4:34 does allow a man to strike or beat  his wife if she disobeys him.

After condemning the servant for making that accusation, the Bendoro asks her what her punishment should be.  The servant replies that being low-born is punishment enough - which the Bendoro immediately rejects as blasphemy  All life is a gift from God and must be accepted with gratitude. I happen to agree with the Bendoro - although the servant might properly reply: "then you should not harm that gift by treating me so unjustly"  

By the way, I'm not really sure why the servant did make her accusation when, as the girl from coast understood, she knew that she would lose her job.  The Bendoro was not going to throw his wife out because the week's budget got lost once -- and he was eventually going to throw her out, anyway, as soon as she delivered a child.  Perhaps the servant wishes to punish herself - for having survived her husband when he was killed for standing up for her.

Why does the Bendoro take all these "practice" wives?  Does he need more illegitimate children? Does he want to avoid marrying a woman of higher status who might make demands upon him? Was it something his own father did? It's difficult to fathom his character because this novel only sees him though the eyes of his 15 year old, rustic wife, even if the novel is not a first-person narrative.

He is apparently intimidated by one of his female relatives who visits and tells him to dump his commoner wife so he can marry within the aristocracy. Perhaps he has been trying to avoid such a marriage because he'd really rather pray and study instead of invite social equals into his house. Perhaps he has also been trying to find his own way in the world.

Many of the consequences of his marriage to the girl from coast have been positive. The girl's family got enough money for two new boats; the girl had many experiences she would never have otherwise had access to.  She ends up living as an independent woman - who doesn't even want to move in with her daughter when given that invitation.  The  bendoro got another child  - and  sexual appetite does not appear to have been the issue. Most importantly for the author - the marriage produced the child who would eventually become the author's own mother.  The only downside was the emotional trauma for the mother of taking away her newborn child. Yet, as the postscript tells us, the child was well loved and educated while the girl from the coast would later take a second husband - and eventually meet, and be loved, by her daughter.



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