"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 16, 2014

The Forbidden Kingdom by Slauerhoff

The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of J.J. Slauerhoff, is a classic of modernism with an experimental narrative, and at the same it is also a romantic tale of travel and adventure.

The novel starts with two historical tales: the founding of Macao in the 1550s, by Portuguese soldiers and colonists, the fortress-trading city on the South Chinese coast, and back in Portugal itself, we get the story of Luís de Camões ("Camoens" in the novel), courtier and poet, author of the classic epic, The Lusiads. Camões is exiled to the new colony by the King of Portugal for having an affair with the prospective bride of the Infante. After suffering shipwreck near Macao, Camões is helped by Pilar, the daughter of the Administrator of Macao, who has fled her father's house to escape an unwanted marriage. He is finally arrested and taken away with a Portuguese embassy that enters China bound for its capital but that looses its way in the country's vastness. The narrative not only switches between these two historical story threads, in each thread there are also shifts between third person and first person narration.

[Illustration from The Lusiads - Wikipedia]

The shifts in perspective which keep the reader from settling down comfortably in historical novel mood, already indicate that The Forbidden Kingdom is not an ordinary, realistic novel. This becomes all the more clear when, about halfway through the book, Slauerhoff once more surprises us by shifting to a story about a nameless 20th century Irish radio operator. This man works on a small ship steaming around Asia, and finally ends up in Macao. He describes himself as "the most rootless and raceless person alive."

[Camões - Wikipedia]

But also these two stories have been closely linked together by Slauerhoff. Much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. Slauerhoff even goes so far to drop hints that the 16th century Camões and the 20th century radio operator may be the same person! The radio operator recognizes places where he cannot have been before, his memories become a mixture of his own and those of Camões. At the end, like the 16th century poet, his highest wish becomes to be absorbed by the anonymous millions of China. Past and present merge as if a hidden passage through time has been opened.

[Macao in the 19th c. - from Wikipedia]

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) was born in Leeuwarden in the northern part of the Netherlands. He studied medicine in Amsterdam before in 1923 enlisting as a ship's surgeon and making numerous voyages to the East and West Indies, China and Africa, until his death from malaria in 1936. From the publication of his first poetry collection in 1921, he came to be regarded as one of the foremost poets of the Netherlands, a poète maudit in the style of Baudelaire and Verlaine. He wrote about the sea, about travel, about outcasts and outsiders, often concluding on a note of cynicism or bitterness.

{Slauerhoff - Photo Wikipedia]

Slauerhoff wrote 3 novels (one published posthumously) and 2 collections of short stories - all just as unconventional as his poetry. His first novel is his greatest, The Forbidden Kingdom (1932). His second, Life on Earth (1934), can be seen as a loose sequel to the first, as it also concerns the theme of self-destruction by merging into the anonymous masses of China. In contrast, his third novel is set in Mexico.

Of course, the China in Slauerhoff's novels has little relation to the real China - he only knew China from the colonial port cities as Hong Kong and Macao, and had not studied its culture or language. But the vast realm of the "Forbidden Kingdom" became a sort of imaginary paradise for him, an elysium to which entry was forbidden - a paradise in the Buddhist sense of Nirwana, of annihilation - returning to Nothingness was Slauerhoff's ideal, as he saw himself as a piece of driftwood in the sea of time.

Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Published by Pushkin Press.
Original at DBNL.