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)