In my Intro to Asian Studies class this semester I am teaching Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl From the Coast The story is a fictionalized account of his Grandmother’s life and thus is set in Java around 1900 or so. One of the things I am finding interesting about it is that the book seems to me to have been heavily influenced by his time in China . Pramoedya was heavily influenced by the time he spent in China in the 50’s and he saw the Maoist model as a way of re-invigorating the Indonesian revolution. While in China he actually helped make “steel” in backyard furnaces, and when he returned to Indonesia he wanted to purge the literary world of those works and authors that did not advance the cause of revolution.
The Girl From the Coast has pretty clearly been influenced by Mao’s Yenan Talks. The protagonist , the nameless Girl from the Coast is so obviously representing the oppressed masses that in a movie version she would have to be played by Gong Li We get a few lengthy speeches about the class situation the characters find themselves in. The story is about the Girl’s life after she is trapped in an arranged marriage, but as Pramoedya had already rejected what he called Universal Humanism the solution is not Love, a concept that does not turn up much in this book.
On the other hand the solution is not Revolution either, which makes the book a more interesting than a lot of the Maoist stuff. Instead Pramoedya valorizes the life of the fishing village she came from. The village is -not- oppressed like the urban people are. They are too remote and poor for that. When they fake a pirate attack to cover up their killing of an aristocrat one of the villagers wonders who will believe that pirates would attack a village so poor that “even the jellyfish stay away.” They pay no taxes and the only oppression they get comes from the Sea, and the ultimate solution to problems seems to be a return to village life. It sound more like Shen Congwen than Mao Dun. The book is more similar to contemporary Chinese writing, which may criticize the feudal past but does not find the solution in the Red Sun of Chairman Mao. On the other hand is does seem to have a serious Maoist hangover, in that it is the story of the Girl’s growing class consciousness, and perhaps it is intended to encourage class consciousness in the reader. Or maybe I just see China everywhere.
It sounds like Pramoedya is following the localist/anarchist tradition of folks like Wendell Berry, more than any conventional leftist line. It also reminds me a bit of the agricultural/traditional nationalism of pre-war Japan, siting the locus of national character and anti-modernist solution in the village community model.
It shares a critique of statism, capitalism and industrialism with the Left, but the solution is deeply conservative.
Yes, the “solution” is pretty conservative, but the attack on the traditional class system, marriage, and family is a lot more radical and traditionally leftist, or at least it sounds like it. Or maybe I am reading too much of Pramoedya’s 60’s statements about the role of literature in revolution into this book.
Well, nothing says Pramoedya has to follow in the footsteps of previous radicals: there’s always a new synthesis somewhere between the cracks.