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.
Unlike 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.