Thursday, July 14, 2011

American author traces Rimbaud's mysterious Java journey

In1876 French poet Arthur Rimbaud joined the Dutch colonial army, sailed to theIndonesian island of Java and then deserted and fled into the jungle. No oneknows what happened next.

More than 130 years later, an American author followed in the Frenchman'sfootsteps to try and solve the mystery.

"It's like a Sherlock Holmes story," said Jamie James, alluding tothe detective work needed to trace where the enigmatic Rimbaud, who was born in1854 and died just before turning 37, wandered to.

Nearly 200 letters by the tortured poet, who described his process of attainingvisionary insights as "a long, involved and logical derangement of all thesenses," map out all -- or nearly all -- of his travels in Africa and theMiddle East.

But little detail has escaped Java island about what transpired in Indonesia,then a Dutch colony.

"It remains one of the most elusive enigmas among the many that constitutehis tumultuous life and is often overlooked outside Rimbaud circles,"James wrote in "Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage," published lastyear.

"He never wrote anything about Java because he was a fugitive. He couldhave been arrested" by the Dutch for desertion, said the Texan, who haslived in Indonesia since 1999 and has been a Rimbaud enthusiast sincechildhood.

The only fact known about Rimbaud's eastern sojourn is that he embarked on June10, 1876, at age 21, for the Dutch East Indies, or modern-day Indonesia.

In a typically whimsical decision Rimbaud, who wrote the anti-militarist"The Sleeper in the Valley", embarked on the journey after signing upfor six years in the Dutch colonial army.

"It was the call of money and the Orient," said James, adding that300 florins were paid to all recruits, a small fortune at the time.

Rimbaud, he said, grabbed the opportunity to finally reach the East, which hadattracted him so much.

On July 22 he and hundreds of other recruits arrived in Jakarta, or what wasthen called Batavia, to join their garrison at Salatiga, a village in centralJava perched on the foothills of Merlabu, a dormant volcano.

In Java "The man with the wind at his heels" -- as fellow poet andfriend Paul Verlaine once described Rimbaud's wanderlust -- had never been thisfar from home.

Author of "The Drunken Boat," and a big fan of alcohol, Rimbaud musthave been overjoyed that gin was not only permitted but encouraged by the Dutchas a way of instilling bravery in soldiers.

"It's possible he kept a journal and it could turn up in a flea market inParis," he said.

"But no French poet has been subject to so much research, so chances ofdiscovery are slim.

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