J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom

J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Handheld Press (Bath, England), 2019: Handheld Classic, 9. Introduction by Arie Pos and Wendy Gan. 19341

I posted on another Dutch classic, Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, back in May. Its co-translator, David McKay, offered review copies of his newest translation – today’s subject – via the GoodReads/NYRB Classics online group discussion, and he kindly arranged for this small westcountry imprint to send me a copy.

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) served as a ship’s doctor in south-east Asia, experience on which he drew for Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. This is its first English translation. The narrator is an Ulsterman called Cameron, a radio operator on cargo ships plying between Indonesia and other Asian ports and China. The cargo often includes contraband, including opium, which brings him and his ship into abrasive, dangerous contact with criminal smugglers and dealers.

They also transport exhausted migrant workers, their health shattered by working in slave-like conditions in the plantations of Java, returning home for whatever short time remains of their lives. They’ve hoarded what little capital they might have scraped together in the long years of toil.

Slauerhoff Adrift in the Middle Kingdom coverUnlike some other novels by westerners at this period, the picture given of the inhabitants of these oriental countries is not patronisingly exotic and romanticised. This is largely the sinister, darker side of the far east, a place of seedy opium dens and sordid dockside brothels and bars catering for the sailors and merchants intent on indulging their sensual appetites after long suffering and voyages, or lucrative deals (‘whooping and shouting to drown out your own despair, your shame and your transgressions, for the sake of mere survival’, as Cameron wearily characterises it).

But most of the indigenous inhabitants endure a life of hardship and deprivation. The treatment they receive from westerners as well as their own people is often heartless and exploitative.

Here is Cameron’s sardonic view of Taihai, China’s ‘largest port’:

where out of three million people at least two don’t know if tomorrow they’ll eat or die.

We also see the unnaturally opulent side, especially the French concession, occupied by the western entrepreneurs and colonialists, and also some wealthy Chinese who are essentially gangsters or drug lords and gun-runners. It was a zone notorious for its hedonism and criminality, according to the writers of the useful Introductions to this edition.

At that decadent, multinational port of Taihai (a thinly disguised version of Shanghai) Cameron jumps ship, intent on losing himself in the ‘middle kingdom’, a literal translation of the ancient Chinese name for their country. His quest can be seen as an oriental equivalent of Marlow’s journey into the Congo’s heart of darkness, but Cameron resembles not so much stolid, judgemental European Marlow as a less demonic Kurtz figure, attracted by this alternative culture as superior to or more enlightened than the atrophied, stultifying version offered by the west.

Cameron is an intriguing figure. He’s Melville’s Ishmael in reverse. He’s grown to hate the life of a seaman, and seems to be suffering from a Sartrean identity crisis. In this sense the novel is a strange amalgam of Buddhist fantasy-allegory – a quest for spiritual enlightenment – and an existential quest for some kind of authenticity in a meaningless world, an escape from ennui and terror.

The quest takes Cameron, after a relatively fulfilling time with a simple but starving watchmaker’s family, on a long trip across the forbidding hinterland of China at the bidding of an obese, amoral boss of a crime syndicate. Their cargo is modern European guns and munitions, carried in a bizarre camel train to the distant city of Chungking. Along the way Cameron had fallen in (and out) with a range of marginal, corrupt characters, symbolically representative of Russian, French and other decadent European cultures.

At Chungking, a traditional Chinese city whose rulers detest and resist modern western influence, the clash between western industrial capitalism and militarism with Zen Buddhism comes to its climax. It’s expressed in terms of a modernist European alienation narrative, and comes to its hallucinatory, mystical conclusion in a kind of Chinese-Elysian poppyfield of earthly-heavenly delights. Cameron desperately seeks to join the enigmatic, alluring figure of Buddhist Tibetan monk Wan Chen, beckoning him from a shifting, distant mountain peak.

This possibly sounds a bit of a dog’s dinner, but it somehow works. The novel’s tone and style reminded me weirdly of the prose and poetry of the 19C French Symbolists and decadents, and the Beats – who discovered the attractions of drug-enhanced mystical escape a couple of decades later. But the tendency towards self-indulgent egotism by the likes of Kerouac is tempered by a moral seriousness more reminiscent of Kafka and Camus.

 

 

Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.