Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Rimbaud in Java by Jamie James

Rim­baud in Java

by Jamie James

Edi­tions Didier Millet

Sin­ga­pore , 2011



Of the biogra­phies of poets, it is that of Arthur Rim­baud (1854-1891) which con­tin­ues to per­plex and con­found. Why is it that some­one so gifted should aban­don poetry at the age of twenty-one for the life of a trader, fill­ing his head with account­ing ledgers rather than vision­ary poetry? Why did he, in 1876, enlist in the Royal Nether­lands Army, tak­ing an ardu­ous jour­ney to Java, only to remain there for a few short weeks before return­ing to France, most prob­a­bly, though not con­clu­sively, on the ves­sel The Wan­der­ing Chief ?  Jamie James, nov­el­ist and critic and res­i­dent in Indone­sia, turns his atten­tion to those few short weeks. In his exquis­itely writ­ten and pre­sented lit­tle book Rim­baud in Java, James invites us to explore the very nature of poetic con­scious­ness through the writ­ings and jour­neys of this poet of the mod­ern. He has suc­ceeded in tak­ing the reader on a jour­ney by Rimbaud’s side, from the poet’s early days at school in Charleville in France, to his desul­tory wan­der­ings in Europe, to his love affair with poet Paul Ver­laine, and finally to the pos­si­ble tra­jec­to­ries for his brief jour­ney through Java. The book con­cludes with an enthralling account of the per­va­sive influ­ence of Ori­en­tal­ist imagery on the art and lit­er­a­ture of France in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies, while at the same time con­nect­ing it with Rimbaud’s expo­sure to that cur­rent of thought.

In all its dizzy­ing bril­liance, it is the great work and the giv­ing up of it which entrances us. How would Rim­baud be viewed say, if he had died at twenty-one, a poet of youth­ful mas­ter­pieces, a poet whose life was trag­i­cally cut short? In such a case the response would be over­whelm­ingly ele­giac. It is the giv­ing up, these journeys-trajectories with­out art which alarm, fas­ci­nate and com­pel us to haz­ard an answer.  As James demon­strates, there is a sense that the trad­ing, the jour­neys have become for Rimbaud’s  read­ers  part of the work, part of the way we per­ceive it. A trader in Abyssinia, a fugi­tive in the wilds of Java, are they not unwrit­ten Illu­mi­na­tions in which we search for the touch of the pen on the paper, for the hand dic­tat­ing the invis­i­ble words?  We are drawn into the char­ac­ter of an artist who appears both impetu­ous and strong-willed, mer­cu­r­ial and know­ing, and in regard to his legacy, the cre­ator of a poetic per­sona both indif­fer­ent and cal­cu­lat­ing. As James so elo­quently puts it:

The aes­thetic, polit­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons are much more reward­ing to the imag­i­na­tion [than his sta­tus as a fugi­tive] …Rim­baud was already on his way toward a mythic iden­tity as a pro­tean hero, capa­ble of becom­ing what­ever one wanted him to be. The glam­our that has attached itself to Rimbaud’s odyssey-in-reverse, the rea­son some peo­ple care so pas­sion­ately about recon­struct­ing the itin­er­ary of his cease­less efforts to escape from home, par­takes of the mag­netic attrac­tion of his poetry (67).

Jamie James orig­i­nally con­ceived the project about Rimbaud’s miss­ing weeks in Java, of which no con­vinc­ing expla­na­tion has been estab­lished, as a novel, as an account of his lost voy­age, but the num­ber of direc­tions in which the nar­ra­tive could run ‘saw dis­as­ter lurking’:

Above all it was the prospect of writ­ing dia­logue for Arthur Rim­baud that ter­ri­fied me: he prob­a­bly ordered a cup of cof­fee like any­one else, but who knows? Per­haps he made order­ing cof­fee an inter­est­ing lit­tle event. Every pre­vi­ous attempt to put words in that pretty lit­tle mouth that I was aware of had ended in unin­ten­tional bur­lesque … (75)

On tak­ing a ‘Rim­baud pil­grim­age’ through Java some years ago, James writes that he could ‘do lit­tle more than tread in the Master’s known foot­steps to the van­ish­ing point’ (75). In his jour­ney from Batavia to Semerang and to Salatiga, site of the army bar­racks where Rim­baud was bil­leted, the author found that, ‘The decom­mis­sioned train sta­tion in Tun­tang [from where Rim­baud would have con­tin­ued by foot to Salatiga] was the only place I sensed Rim­baud at my side’ (77).  James del­i­cately  guides the reader through Java, from Batavia’s old port dis­trict of the still-extant Sunda Kelapa, to the capital’s colo­nial streets, to the com­pellingly rich land­scapes of rural Java – those of Rimbaud’s ‘pep­pery and water-soaked lands’  (54) of ‘Democ­racy’ in Illu­mi­na­tions. He evoca­tively presents a ‘scorch­ing two-hour march’ from Tun­tang to Salatiga, with a glimpse of what Rim­baud would have seen, ‘The sol­diers passed through ter­raced rice-fields, swampy lakes where carp were farmed, and small set­tle­ments of bam­boo houses in the for­est, sited beside the creeks that criss­crossed the dense jun­gle’ (54). A fort­night after that march, Rim­baud had dis­ap­peared, leav­ing his mil­i­tary uni­form behind, prob­a­bly wear­ing ‘a flan­nel vest and white trousers, stan­dard colo­nial mufti’ (54).

It is at this point in the nar­ra­tive that we reach the unknown, mov­ing from that which can be faith­fully por­trayed, to a return to a deeper engage­ment with the enigma of the poet, and his pro­tean con­scious­ness, as he dis­ap­pears from view. The only known account of these miss­ing weeks is by his first biog­ra­pher, brother-in-law Paterne Berri­chon, who had noted that Rimbaud’s gaze ‘remained fixed with obsti­nacy on the Orient’(39).  In a tale which James amus­ingly char­ac­terises as Rousseau-like, Berri­chon claim­ing that Rim­baud ‘had to con­ceal him­self in the redoubtable vir­gin for­est, where orang-utans still thrive. They taught him how to live under­cover, to sur­vive the attacks of the tiger and the tricks of the boa’ (29). The mis­placed orang-utan and boa pale beside the real­ity of what, as James points out, any reader of the nat­u­ral­ist Alfred Rus­sell Wal­lace would know, of the trop­i­cal jun­gle crawl­ing ‘with tigers and rhi­noc­eros, mon­i­tor lizards and croc­o­diles, pythons and kraits’ (70).  As for Berrichon’s fable, would it be pos­si­ble to imag­ine Rim­baud telling a gullible con­fi­dant this story? Could we add the help­ful orang-utan to an imag­ined unwrit­ten text?

Did Rim­baud plan his escape dur­ing that fort­night domi­ciled in the bar­racks, con­ceal­ing him­self near a port before embarka­tion back to Europe? Was it the sheer real­ity of what con­fronted him in colo­nial Java, of what he had pre­vi­ously cap­tured in A Sea­son in Hell:   ‘The white men are com­ing. Now we must sub­mit to bap­tism, wear­ing clothes, and work’ (69) that com­pelled him to up and leave?  Did he travel to Dar­win? Did he visit opium dens, encounter monks at spir­i­tual retreats, tra­jec­to­ries act­ing as a coda to what had been writ­ten, to what would no longer be writ­ten? Rim­baud in Java  con­cludes with a lively sur­vey of the Ori­en­tal­ist imag­i­na­tion in France, cov­er­ing the bizarre fan­tasies of writ­ers such as Eugene Sue and his improb­a­ble Ori­en­tal prince, Djalma, the cen­tral­ity of the East in the art of the Roman­tics and its impor­tance to the Par­nass­ian poets (of imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to Rim­baud) such as Leconte de  Lisle. Baudelaire’s aborted voy­age to Cal­cutta is amus­ingly recounted, as is the Javanese painter Raden Saleh’s depic­tion in a let­ter to a friend of Paris as an exotic par­adise, ‘Paris is a gar­den at the cen­tre of the uni­verse, full of fra­grant and deli­cious flow­ers and fruits…’ (113). A text pre­vi­ously unknown to this writer is men­tioned, Balzac’s imag­i­nary My Jour­ney from Paris to Java (106).

Through­out his book Jamie James has included quo­ta­tions from Rimbaud’s poetry ‘at every plau­si­ble occa­sion’ (12). He is right to have done so, as his trans­la­tions are excel­lent, com­par­ing favourably with John Ashbery’s recent Nor­ton trans­la­tion of Illu­mi­na­tions (2011).  Rim­baud is depicted with much love and respect, as well as with delight in the way the poet has left his read­ers with the enigma of his dis­ap­pear­ance. In this indis­pens­able book, Rim­baud in Java leaves us to con­sider the tan­ta­lis­ing ques­tion: did Java in fact rep­re­sent the very image of the hal­lu­ci­na­tory which Rim­baud had deter­mined to leave behind forever?


JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Tran­sit Lounge 2009) reprinted in Indone­sia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lon­tar, Jakarta 2012)