I don’t know whether Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Eastern World confirms to the requirements set down by Harold Bloom in his How To Write About Conrad – a small, trembling fear in me suspects, sight unseen, that Bloom just may be recommending writing about what everybody else writes about – i.e. the “topical matter” – that being 1) racism (Heart of Darkness) – a topic not likely to leave us in peace ever (or do you really believe we can manage one day to spit, roast, and eat the world’s last racist?); and (what else – yahhhhwn – how does one yawn with distraction?) 2) terrorism.
It is hard being a literature professor, is it not: how do you make yourself relevant? Pursuit of relevance – the mirage of that ultimate consulting contract from the Homeland Security, no doubt – makes people do silly things – write about books – and topics – which Conrad clearly did not think terribly significant in his life experience or work. Neither Africa nor Anarchism earned more than one slim volume from him.
What was significant to him – a place he kept coming back to all his life from his first book – Almayer’s Folly – to his last – The Rescue – was a place about which he says that it swarmed with people who haunted him, demanding be brought to life. It was – what? — ready? – Berau: a stinking mud hole on sticks 40 miles up a crocodile infested swamp on the remotest east coast of Borneo; a place he visited four times in his lifetime, during one of his shortest berths ever, a mere seven-month stint as first mate of a barque – a barque! God damn it, barely a cut above a floating chamber pot – the S. S. Vidar.
And Sherry tells us about Berau: the place, the people, the ships, the trade. He tells us what Conrad saw there, the people he met there (Jim, Lingard, Almayer, Willems, Abdullah were all men he personally knew), the stories he heard about the place and books he read about it. He tells us how close to reality Conrad cut his work: almost nothing is invented, it turns out (the little that is has been exposed by SEA hands at the time of publication) – in Conrad´s words, “one owes a truth to the visible world” – even the broken bamboo stick Jim uses to propel himself over the stockade has an identifiable source.
Conrad spent a very short time in South East Asia – not quite 18 months all told; perhaps no more than a total of 12 days at Berau; yet he spent the rest of his life writing about them. How do fascinations like this happen? How does one go to a place like Berau, spend less than two weeks there, and then go back to Europe and spend the rest of his life dreaming, reading and writing about the place? Its weirdness, I suppose, its odd, wild nature, its cacophonic mixture of radically different peoples, its pure rawness which strips men down to their primitive warrior self, all contribute; indeed, some are able to become fascinated today — a hundred and forty years later –despite the Toyota SUVs and the karaoke bars — I bet the place has its Willems and Almayers today, some find it fascinating, then — but not all. Too dry, says a friend to whom I recommended it. I rub my ears: dry? To my mind Eastern World seems an incredible insight into the author’s mind and method; to her – it seems dry.
What does she find interesting in Conrad, I wonder – surely, not the totally predictable, boring, endless lovers’ quarrel in the Outcast during which I skip and skip and skip and finally whisper to myself with exasperation – pull the God-damn trigger, woman, will you?