The Forbidden Kingdom – Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (translated by Paul Vincent) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

One of the delights of working your way though translated fiction award lists is you become exposed to a number of small independent publishers. As translated fiction makes up only a small part of the “consumable” market, it is primarily left to the small houses to produce the gems that sparkle on these lists. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a case in point, produced by Pushkin Press, they tell us that “this book is part of the Pushkin Collection of paperbacks, designed to be as satisfying as possible to hold and enjoy. It is typeset in Monotype Baskerville, based on the transitional English serif typeface designed in the mid-eighteenth century by John Baskerville. It was litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owner printer TJ International in Padstow, Cornwall. The cover, with French flaps, was printed on Conqueror Brilliant White Board. The paper and cover board are both acid-free and approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

In other words, this is a beautifully presented work, small in size but the presentation itself is a joy to hold and read. Something that e-readers cannot offer.
Onto the novel itself, originally published in Dutch in 1932 over nine seperate instalments, it tells the tale of Portuguese National poet Luis Camoes (1524/5 – 1580) and best remembered for his epic work Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads). Our “hero” Luis is exiled from his homeland of Portugal and we follow his journey to the trading outpost of Macao in the East.
“Why was I surrounded by statues since childhood, graceful and silent, as if that were the attitude one should take to life? Why so many paintings on the wall, so that it seemed to me that they were the windows, giving a view of a world where everything was beautiful and harmonious and near at hand, making it unnecessary to travel dangerous roads! If only you’d brought me up in the woods with an axe and double-edged hunting knife for my toys and the fleeing game as my target, then I’d have become efficient and decisive! As it is, I’ve done nothing but ponder and my deeds were badly aimed shots at a vaguely glimpsed reality.”
Hold on a minute, why not introduce an unrelated story of an unnamed Irish ship radio operator in the 20th Century? One who is also exiled, but from the ships themselves, as he is losing his sanity, of course he ends up in Macao. Are these seemingly unrelated stories actually related?
Not a woman then! What then? A mind in this state, open to outside influences, becomes and easy target for demons eager to prey on a living being like parasites. But at sea there are no spirits, at least so I firmly believed. That absence, or that belief, saved me for a long time; when I yearned to be freed from my emptiness, I would not have excluded even the most malevolent of them. The sea saved me, it’s true. But I wasn’t grateful to the sea.
Of course we have a novel that jumps across time, one that also jumps across language, with sections written in the first person, others in the third person and as each chapter unfolded I found myself becoming deeply involved with the plot, only to be violently shaken free as a new chapter, place, person or style began.
The “Afterword” by Jane Fenoulhet, from University College London, gave me a little more context and assistance with this work. Jon Jacob Slauerhoff was already established  as a well known poet before his first prose works were published, he began with short story publications in 1930 before this work appeared in 1932 in nine instalments in the literary magazine “Forum” and was immediately published in book form.
Slauerhoff is most frequently described as a Romantic poet because of his themes of loss, longing, doomed love, dreamlike landscapes, and of roaming the seas.
This novel covers all of those themes, with Camoes or our unnamed radio operator battling storms, trips through rugged landscapes in China, loss of homeland or true loves, and numerous dream sequences. In a way it reads like an eighty year old David Mitchell work!!!
This is an interesting observation of potential time travel from the 1930’s, however my lack of knowledge of Camoes or “The Lusiads” was definitely a hindrance in enjoying this work. And as per my usual blog posts I don’t want to give away the plot or premise so revelation of the two characters becoming one, being only one across different times, or being totally separate threads will not be revealed here.

An enjoyable work? Yes. One that I’ll revisit? No. I think I’ll leave the analysis, the debunking of myths, the placement of this work in Slauerhoff’s oeuvre, the connection to other 1930’s works on time travel and Romantic styles, to the academics. I’m sure they’d enjoy it a heap more than me.

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