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Conrad's Eastern mirage

Millennium markers - British colony

ALMOST a century after they were first conceived, Joseph Conrad's expatriates in the East continue to generate interest among readers and scholars alike. Indisputably, a very significant aspect of Conrad's literary achievements is his abiding preoccupation with the Malay Archipelago and the romance associated with it in his time.

The first novel Conrad (left) ever wrote is Almayer's Folly (1895) while The Rescue (1920) is among the last titles of his career as a writer. The fact that both stories take place in the region of Borneo demonstrates the writer's lifelong fascination with his notion of ``Malaya,'' a fictional landscape of tremendous narrative possibilities.

Conrad's Malay fictions are important to us insofar as these narratives coincide chronologically and historically with the consolidation of colonial powers in South-East Asia: the British in the Malay peninsula and parts of Borneo (between 1874 and 1896), Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and the dawning of American imperialist intervention in the Philippines.

He was friends with at least two notable colonial administrators serving the British Crown in Malaya at the turn of the century, namely Sir Hugh Clifford and Sir Frank Swettenham, with whom he kept up a rather sardonic relationship. Indeed, all three were, arguably, involved in a competitive scramble to represent the Malay world to an exotica-hungry Western audience.

Conrad's ironic disavowal of any knowledge pertaining to Malays and their culture is well known: ``Of course I don't know anything about Malays.'' This emphatic confession is perhaps a reaction against the two established ``authorities'' on Malays at the time, Clifford and Swettenham; in fact, Swettenham had actually produced a book entitled The Real Malay (1900). As another point of interest, Conrad was Clifford's literary mentor and had this to say in reviewing one of the latter's books: ``One cannot expect to be, at the same time, a ruler of men and an irreproachable player on the flute.''

In his disdain towards his contemporaries (and rivals), did Conrad see himself as having the better insight and interpretation among the three of them?

He had originally intended to publish Almayer's Folly under the pseudonym ``Kamudi,'' a Malay word meaning ``rudder.'' One is tempted to link the word with its intrinsic verbal action of ``steering.'' Conrad's choice of a pen-name speaks volubly of his own desire to make an impact on readers. It is also redolent of his restlessness, a quality which had piloted him all over the world in his former profession as sailor and master mariner with the British Merchant Navy and once as the captain of a river-steamer in the Congo (an African journey which was later to feature greatly in the classic Heart of Darkness).

In 1923, Richard Curle, a close friend of the writer and a critic of his works, summed up his own reception of Conrad's vision of Malay life: ``Whether he be successful in his reading of Easterners is difficult to be sure of - who is to be the judge? - but certainly his Malays appear to have a convincing actuality, which, if more the result of intuitive observation than of long experience, is, at any rate, all of a piece.''

The roots of fascination

Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, the only child of a noble Polish landowning couple. His early life proved to be a difficult one: plagued by an oppressive Russian regime and exiled from Poland with his parents on more than one occasion.

Orphaned by age 11, Conrad was placed under the guardianship of his mother's brother, Thaddeus Brobrowski, a man who grew to be his closest adviser and confidant. Conrad was 18 when he began his career as a seaman based in Marseilles, France, sailing to the West Indies on board the Mont Blanc, the first of many voyages to come.

After four years in France - during which he managed to become embroiled in the smuggling of arms into Spain and even tried to kill himself due to severe debt problems - he quit the continent for Britain although he ``did not know six words of English.''

This paucity of vocabulary did not prevent him from acquiring the language at an astonishing rate and from eventually becoming the naturalised Englishman and weathered seaman-novelist known to many.

From English shores he set sail for the Far East and plied Eastern waters between the years 1881 and 1889, a crucial period during which he came into contact with the people and places who were later to form the basis of many of the characters and settings in his novels.

His first glimpse of the East took place in March of 1883. Conrad was second mate on the Palestine bound for Bangkok. It was an ill-fated journey for the vessel caught fire in the Bangka Strait and its crew had to abandon ship and finally land at Muntok on Bangka island, off the coast of Sumatra.

Norman Sherry writes in his biographical sketch of Conrad, Conrad and His World, that this episode proved a watershed in Conrad's life: ``This was Conrad's first meeting with the East and its people, with the environment that was to inaugurate the change from seaman to novelist.''

The panoramic view that greeted Conrad inspired him with its enigmatic quality. The voyage of the Palestine is enshrined in Youth, in which he describes his initial response to the East in his impressionistic style: ``And this is how I see the East ... I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset. I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision

of a scorching blue sea in my eyes ... suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night - the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight ...

``And then I saw the men of the East - they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the color of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement ... I have known its fascination since; I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations.''

That discourse of enchantment illustrates the writer's intention to evoke the sensory impressions of a scene or experience: ``My task, which I am trying to achieve, is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see (author's emphasis).''

The emphasis on ``see'' is naturally thought-provoking and, to this day, the extent to which Conrad went in order to fulfil his literary mission continues to stimulate critical debate. The polemical statement above is plausibly an expression of his own ambivalent contact with the East. As such, responses to Conrad's perceptions of the ``Orient'' vary from Chinua Achebe's denunciation of the writer as a ``bloody racist'' to the praise heaped on him for adopting a romantic antiimperialistic stance in his novels.

In 1887, Conrad embarked on his last passage to South-East Asia as chief mate on the Highland Forest destined for Samarang, Java. On this trip, he suffered a physical injury and had to be hospitalised in Singapore. This close encounter with the thriving port yielded much in terms of stories and characters for his yet-to-be-written novels.

In The Rescue, he depicts the Settlement and its harbour office, Esplanade, Occidental Bank and streets of Chinese shops. The ``mass of praus, coasting boats and sampans ... jammed up together in the canal'' is recognisably Boat Quay circa 1890.

It was also during this time in both Singapore and Borneo that Conrad encountered the sources for the ``heroes'' of his Malay fictions: Kaspar Almayer, Lord Jim and Captain Tom Lingard - names which conjure images of seafaring adventures, trade, piracy, hidden treasure, the colonial enterprise, romantic liaisons, natives and indigenous peoples.

Conrad and the White Rajah

At this point, Conrad's link with the Brooke dynasty of Sarawak deserves mention. It is clear that he had been influenced by the life story of Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah. John D. Gordan has traced indirect allusions to Brooke in Conrad's novels. A Malay warrior and statesman in Almayer's Folly makes this complaint: ``Even I have sailed with Lanun men, and boarded in the night silent ships with white sails. That was before an English Rajah ruled in Kuching.''

Historically, we know that Brooke had been granted the title of ``Rajah'' of Sarawak by the Sultan Muda Hassim for his help in quelling a revolt. Brooke then undertook to rid the Bornean coast of `lanun men'' or Malay and Dayak ``pirates'' as he deemed them to be. Reports of massacres and brutalities carried out by him almost led to his indictment in Britain. Nevertheless, he came to embody a myth of Empire: a ruler of his own kingdom and a shining example of colonial initiative in his exploitation of the resources of Borneo.

The mirage continues

Conrad died in 1924, a celebrated writer, husband to Jessie, father of Borys and John and a major figure in English literature. His Polish background as well as his seaman's sensibilities never left him even as he became assimilated into English life and wrote prolifically in a foreign tongue.

Edward Garnett, Conrad's friend and adviser and literary talent-scout, declared once: ``He throws a mirage magically before you; he enmeshes your senses, you are in his universe, you accept it all.''

Complete acceptance may prove tricky where Conrad's construction of the Malay Archipelago is concerned. As Christopher GoGwilt points out: ``Conrad's `Malay' world cannot simply be mapped against any one of the new nation-states of South-East Asia to emerge from anticolonial struggles: Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia.''

Evidently, Conrad's ``mirage'' continues to challenge critics and charm readers today with its powers of illusion.

 Agnes Yeow is a lecturer in Universiti Malaya's English Department.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.


Notes: STF- In this instalment of Millennium Markers, AGNES YEOW looks at the mark this part of the world made on one of English literature's giants, Joseph Conrad.

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