March 2013

James Orbesen


The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated by Paul Vincent

Consider the wireless radio and its ability to transmit and receive signals across great distances. Marconi's invention was instrumental in tying together the developing world of modernity. Being tethered by wires, leashed in a sense, would be a thing of the past. The human voice, language, could truly go airborne, not constrained by copper cables or limited vocal cords. Indeed, this ability to send information over vast distances means that the human voice can travel not just miles but also through time. Our early transmissions are star bound, no longer tethered to our planet.

So what is the fate of these words ultimately once they've been set loose? For those who remember Contact, our own transmissions might revisit us one day. Our words might embarrass us. Radio telescopes scan the sky for trace transmissions. Given the vast distances involved, any transmission picked up might as well be the dead communicating with the living. If our transmissions are ever picked up, what might they tell the listener?

In Dutch author Jan Jacob Slauerhoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, the ability of the human voice to carry great distances is very much at the center of the narrative. The novel is fixated on a sixteenth century Portuguese exile. But not just any exile and not simply a fictional character. It is the famous poet and disgraced nobleman Luís Vaz de Camões. Having fallen in love with, and deflowered, the Infante's perspective bride, Camões is sent east by the king of Portugal to Macao, the fortress-trading city off the Chinese coast that perpetually teeters between destitution and disaster. On his way east, Camões, shackled in chains and then shipwrecked, must navigate the politics of scheming colonial elites and the bloodthirstiness of not just the Chinese but his own countrymen as well.

However, the narrative is not as straightforward as it seems. Camões's story is prefaced with the Portuguese soldiers' near-mythical fleeing from the conquered stronghold of Lian Po and founding of Macao. It is a classic story of conquest, repeated again and again. The soldiers make landfall on an island with a mysterious shrine to long-vanished settlers. The Chinese shun the island, believing it to be cursed, and this gives the Europeans their foothold. Over time, a city rises above the endless waves that lap against the palisades just like the passing of time.

This lends The Forbidden Kingdom a sense of historical distance. The founding of Macao is relayed in the third person. Camões's story starts in the first. Sounds clear-cut? Not exactly. Slauerhoff switches back and forth, like the tides, between a first- and a third-person narrator. While it prevents the reader from forming a comfortable vantage point, its predictability is soothing. The switches become habitual. A rhythm is felt and embraced. However, two-thirds of the way through, Slauerhoff pulls the rug out once more.

The vast majority of The Forbidden Kingdom is contained in the sixteenth century, yet the future comes knocking. An unnamed narrator from the twentieth century is introduced. He is a destitute, depressed radio operator aboard a tramp freighter. Like Camões, he belongs nowhere but at sea, exiled from his homeland. During a trip east, this twentieth century narrator "tunes in" to the story of Camões. In this regard, The Forbidden Kingdom is a forerunner of magical realism. But the introduction isn't cold. Camões is troubled by dreams he cannot reconcile. Here is a potent example provided well before the intrusion of the future:

My dignity is diminished; I am a lowly figure among men and have to work and obey for a paltry wage. Yet I am more powerful than when I laboriously assemble words and ordered them on paper. Now I hurl my words into space; they travel infinite distances, driven by a vibration that I nonchalantly produce with my hand. They circle the globe, they fall where I wish -- like seed from heaven.

Camões dreams of the future. Somehow, a pathway has been opened between the centuries. The unnamed twentieth century narrator doesn't just tune in to Camões with his radio but opens a dialogue between the two. Much like the waves that crash around Macao repeatedly, two characters are sharing a recursive journey separated by centuries. The waves never change. Much like the Portuguese soldiers fleeing conquest and becoming conquerors themselves, there is a rhythm to human history.

What is Slauerhoff doing here? What does the radio and the shifts in time and perspective do? Essentially, Slauerhoff is making a case for time travel. It is not the time travel of H.G. Wells but the repeated experience of human drama. Time travel is possible through the faculties of the mind. A man in the sixteenth century travels east and finds disaster. A man in the twentieth does the same. Both are users of language. Camões is a poet, a manipulator of verse. The unnamed twentieth century narrator is a radio operator, a tinkerer of signals and sound. The two are able to communicate, not directly, but through their shared experience as users of language. They feel each other's story. They dream of each other.

The shifting perspective in narration is essential. Though the initial effect may be disorientation, once a rhythm is established, the narrative becomes disembodied, impersonal. The teller of the tale doesn't matter. It could be anyone. The voice becomes the choral murmur of endless waters. Since the lives humans lead are repeatable, recyclable, individuality collapses. Camões could be anyone. You could be Camões. Through the use of language, the signals that we send out, we can communicate with the living and the dead, the past, present, and future. Even within the same time frame, this echoing occurs. Camões is forced to leave behind the woman he loves in Portugal. Yet he encounters almost the exact same person in Pilar, the daughter of Macao's vicious governor.

It would seem to be a blow to one's ego, to accept Slauerhoff's thesis, to think of oneself as a piece of driftwood floating on an endless sea. Isn't the form of the novel a celebration of individuality and subjectivity, the ability to revel in having a self? I don't think so. Language isn't just the ability to signal. It's also the ability to receive. Much like the transmissions between Camões and the unnamed narrator, reading novels is entering another's consciousness. Even if the terrain is familiar, the ability to communicate is essential. It breaks down barriers and not just those of time and space, but of judgment and background.

Slauerhoff is demonstrating the overwhelming power of language. While the radio and other technological means can give our words unimagined range, it only amplifies a tool that we already had. With haunting prose that channels the timelessness of the sea and the uncertainty of exploration, this is a modernist novel with tinges of the sublime and surreal. For those looking for a book that not only keeps one on their toes but is a classic from one of the finest Dutch writers of the twentieth century, journey to The Forbidden Kingdom.

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated by Paul Vincent
Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1906548889
193 pages