Review: Rimbaud in Java, The Lost Voyage

Long before Rambo, there was Rimbaud.

In fact, the poet Arthur Rimbaud can be seen as a kind of anti-Rambo: a literary child prodigy, army deserter, and blue-eyed French fop who was up for adventure tourism some two centuries before annual swarms of young backpackers would dare to go abroad, clutching the Lonely Planet and their cell phones.

It sounds like an appropriate title for a Sly Stallone action movie sequel, but the punchy phrases are taken from an extraordinary prose poem, self-published by an openly gay teenager in 1873, which still is considered a milestone in French literature.

Rimbaud's hallucinatory words from A Season in Hell, along with his two other poetry collections, Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) and Illuminations, won the boy poet white hot fame in the salons of Paris. Talk about runaway success: he promptly dropped out as soon as he reached adulthood and left all his symbolist cult followers in the lurch. He clocked up 50,000 kilometers, and spent 21 of the next 36 months on the road or the high seas to explore "the hot countries of his desire." Years later Rimbaud would end up running guns after a short stint trading coffee beans and feathers from far-flung European colonies in Africa and Arabia, his former fame kept secret.

The ultimate antihero, Rimbaud also was an adept linguist who mastered 10 foreign languages before he turned 20. He bridged sexual and sensual frontiers while indulging in copious amounts of absinthe (aka "the Green Fairy"), hashish, opium, and public scandal. He was wounded by one pistol-wielding married lover, the poet Paul Verlaine, and stabbed another who tried to silence him in public. No wonder this iconoclast youth became a decadent touchstone for the beats and the punks. Some two dozen biographies have attempted to decipher his talent over the years, but contained perplexing gaps and contradictions.

Jamie James, a novelist and former art critic for the New Yorker, has written an intriguing new book about this wild child poet that also leaps boundaries. Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage is difficult to classify. Equal parts lit crit, biography, linguistic anthropology and social history, this non-fictional work examines the remaining mysteries about Arthur Rimbaud as a fugitive from justice and puts them into cultural context. It's documented that Rimbaud joined up as a mercenary soldier for the Dutch Colonial Army but went AWOL in the jungles of Java. Somehow, he managed to live on the lam in the tropics for nearly a month before making his way back to France. But how? And why? What might he have encountered? James spent nine years researching this pet project, originally intended as a novel, and it reads like a literary detective story crossed with the speculations of an erudite fanboy. He can be quite droll or catty -- not always the dogged sleuth -- and hints of feverish obsession draw the reader in.

"Rimbaud invented the artist as bad boy shtick, inspiring Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain plus legions of losers and wannabes," James told me in an email from Indonesia, where he has lived for the past 13 years. In his preface, he elaborated on his fascination:

"Rimbaud is one of those writers who can change a reader's life -- not in the sense of being an inspiration or a moral guide but by changing the way one thinks. "

James ultimately abandoned his fictional treatment because he was too enthralled by the poet's actual words and despaired of making up dialogue for a novel.

"Every previous attempt to put words in that pretty mouth that I was aware of had ended in unintentional burlesque," Jamie mused. "It seemed like an act of pure hubris to predict retroactively what this utterly original and unpredictable artist did in a place that was totally alien to him...Rimbaud habitually avoided doing things the easy way and he was never dull."

The resulting text is a spare 121 pages, pared down to the essential, and it examines intensely how the adolescent poet must have embraced his manhood. After trying to expand his conscious for years through cultivating hallucination and madness, Rimbaud might simply have had enough and decided to re-close his mind, get back in the closet, stay off the booze and pose as ordinary. Or maybe not. The crucial episode happened in Java, the furthest Rimbaud travelled from his small town in France.

The book details Rimbaud's inspiration and desperation to keep a low profile in a weird bygone Java replete with magic and carnal mysticism, then traces his travels back to Europe incognito as a deckhand aboard a steamer. Detours into sexual deviancy in the Victorian age and amorous French attitudes towards Orientalism and Islam are relevant and gripping.

Nearly all the French verses are translated by James himself, who confessed he

"quoted Rimbaud's writings at every plausible fully as I thought I could get away with...The translation of poetry is a subjectivity as deep as wine or chocolate. The point is to create your own Rimbaud."

Unfailingly, James is up to the task, and a series of period graphics and color plates adds to the documentary feel of his unusual book, with the ruins of Borobudur displayed like a vintage cameo brooch on the cover. Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage will be launched next week at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, in Bali.

Rimbaud in Java, The Lost Voyage by Jamie James
Didier Millet, 121 pages