On the Trail of Rimbaud In Java
(The Jakarta Globe): Arthur Rimbaud is best known for what he wrote — the Frenchman’s blasphemous poetry broke the barrier between reality and hallucination. But Rimbaud is also notable for the life he lived. Highlights include a tempestuous relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine that culminated in Verlaine shooting and wounding Rimbaud in a quarrel. Despite finding literary success during his teen years, Rimbaud renounced the world of verse at the age of 20. But he did not go quietly into obscurity. Instead, Rimbaud became a world traveler and led a vagabond life as a merchant and trader, spending much of his time in Ethiopia. He died at 37, after his leg was amputated due to a knee tumor. One of his many adventures included joining the Royal Army of the Dutch Indies in 1876. Rimbaud sailed to Java on the Prins van Oranje, but shortly after landing he deserted and fled into the jungle, returning to France a couple of months later. During this period, it is known that Rimbaud spent time in Salatiga, Central Java, but what actually happened to the young man remains largely unknown. The mystery of Rimbaud’s lost months in Java intrigued Bali-based author Jamie James enough to inspire him to write “Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage.” The book is James’s account of what Rimbaud might have experienced during his time in Indonesia. The book will be officially launched on Thursday. In the preface, James — an admirer of Rimbaud’s body of work — warns his readers: “The Rimbaud fascination can lead to a consuming enthusiasm, which brings with it the need to spread the word.” It is a fair warning, as the book turns out to be an infectious read. Operating in the right historical context, James’s eloquent writing invites the reader to follow Rimbaud in his Javanese adventures. James effortlessly weaves native culture and tradition into a story that paints a vivid and colorful picture of how life must have looked on the island during the 19th century. Readers who might not be familiar with Rimbaud’s life and work need not worry. James dedicates a whole chapter to introduce the poet at the age of 21, when he first set foot on Java. In a recent interview with the Jakarta Globe, James talked about the project that took him nine years to finish. Before talking about the book, tell me more about yourself. You were an art critic for The New Yorker until you resigned and moved to Indonesia in 1999. Why did you decide to settle down here? My move to Indonesia was basically a midlife crisis that worked out very well. I was getting burned out in New York. People often ask, ‘How could you ever quit a job at The New Yorker?’ The answer is simple: Working at a weekly magazine is a grind. At the same time, I was doing a lot of travel writing in Southeast Asia. I soon found that being based in the region was a great career boost. If you live here, the editors think they’re getting an expert. I chose to settle in Indonesia for many of the same reasons that most foreigners live here, but the main motive was personal. I wanted to be with my partner, Bonita, who was already running a business here. My work is totally portable, so the choice was an easy one. I’ve never regretted it. Since you moved to Indonesia, you’ve published three other books — two novels and a biography. How are they different from ‘Rimbaud in Java?’ The experience of researching and writing ‘The Snake Charmer’ was excellent training in biography, whereas the novels were purely works of imagination. Yet the four books have, at their core, the same theme of cultures colliding. [Author Rudyard] Kipling was wrong when he said that East and West will never meet — the twain met centuries ago and have been on a very interesting date ever since. The subject of ‘The Snake Charmer’ was an American scientist who died while leading a disastrous expedition in Burma. ‘Andrew & Joey’ is about an American dancer who comes to Bali and gets into trouble because he thinks he understands the place but actually hasn’t a clue. ‘The Java Man’ reverses the direction of migration with the story of a Javanese man who comes to rural England and makes a conquest of the local gentry, who woefully underestimate him. ‘Rimbaud in Java,’ of course, is about one of the most brilliant writers who ever visited the archipelago. How difficult was it to find information about Rimbaud’s time in Java? The research was both easy and difficult. I read everything that’s been published on the subject, which didn’t take long. Really, almost nothing is known about what Rimbaud did while he was here apart from the basic facts of his brief military career. In my book, I admit that I didn’t turn up any new information. After 135 years, that would have been impossible without a miraculous stroke of luck, the discovery of Rimbaud’s lost Java journal in a moldering trunk in an old warehouse somewhere. Such things do happen, but it’s less likely than digging up a gold nugget in your garden. Concerning the passages that you had to speculate about or reconstruct, did you see it as a unwelcome challenge or a fun chance to use your imagination rather than stick to historical facts? That was definitely the fun part. After Rimbaud deserted from the army and went on the lam, he might have done nothing interesting at all except skulk through the countryside, stealing food and sleeping in rice barns. But he might have smoked opium, witnessed magic rituals, had a brief love affair, spent an evening watching a performance of the wayang kulit in a village or a Western opera in Semarang. How deeply do you think Rimbaud’s time in Java influenced him? He never wrote about his visit here, and precious little of what he told his friends and family about the voyage has survived. The trip may have influenced him in one important way: it was his first visit to a predominantly Muslim land. A few years after Java, Rimbaud moved to the Horn of Africa, where he spent the last decade of his life. He was fascinated by Islam, and there’s some evidence that he converted in Africa. He grew up with an intimate exposure to the religion. Rimbaud’s father was a soldier who served in Algeria, where he translated the Koran into French. You said it took nine years to complete this project. How do you feel about the finished book? I mention the nine years almost as a joke: How could anyone take so long to write such a little book? But most of that time was spent reading about life in Java during the period, books about Rimbaud’s life and, of course, always reading his poetry and letters. The book started out as a novel, which I toiled away at for years without getting anywhere very promising, so last year I decided to go nonfiction. It took me six months to write the book. It went quickly, because I had already done all the research. How do I feel about it? It’s a funny little thing and I’m glad it’s out of my hair. My main satisfaction is the gorgeous production the book got from Didier Millet. Do you already have a new project in mind? Of course, but I’m much too superstitious to talk about it at this point. ‘Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage’? By Jamie James ? Published by Didier Millet? 128 pages? www.rimbaudinjava.com? Official book launch: Thursday, Oct. 6, 5:30 p.m.? Betelnut, Ubud
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