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Slauerhoff, Jan

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

(1898-1936) Dutch poet and author, who spent much of his adult life as a ship's doctor in exotic climes, and whose two published novels treat China as a symbolic and fantastical creation. Het verboden rijk (November 1931-September 1932 Forum; 1932; trans Paul Vincent as The Forbidden Kingdom, 2012) haunts a contemporary Irish wanderer with the memories and experience of the Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes (1524-1580), retracing Camoes' journey in China with a form of surreal Identity Transfer.

Het leven op aarde ["The Life on Earth"] (1934; trans David McKay as Adrift in the Middle Kingdom, 2019) names the formerly anonymous protagonist as Cameron, and plunges him into a second journey, deep into the Chinese hinterland, which he compares to the allegorical kingdoms to be found in Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships (1726; rev 1735). Only four of its 24 chapters deal with the coastal cities of China as known to Slauerhoff, and even then he pointedly renames Shanghai as Taihai, establishing that the world described is a China of the mind, beholden to his somewhat orientalist belief that, in the words of the critic Wendy Gan, "the value of China lies in its rejection of modernity." Slauerhoff's characters intend this literally, suggesting that the foreign conquest of China (see Imperialism) is "a mere illusion", a contagion infesting a few enclaves in cities, but not troubling the majority of the population, except where it risks unsettling feng shui by prospecting for oil and metals.

Despite a gritty, unrelenting realism in his depiction of life in China, Slauerhoff frames it as a form of beguiling, addictive Faery: "This land would shut me out at first and then absorb me – suddenly or gradually, but irresistibly – until nothing was left of me as I was now." While reminiscent of James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), Slauerhoff's inland Ruritania of "Chungking" is presented not as a secluded Keep, but as a venue for the benign and beneficial use of opium (see Drugs). Terminally addled, or perhaps magically lucid, Cameron believes himself to be a hero and, ultimately, a casualty in an endless war between Secret Masters and malevolent spirits. The shadow of the oncoming World War Two is writ large on Slauerhoff's tale, although he died before hindsight could confirm it as Prediction. [JonC]

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff

born Leeuwarden, Netherlands: 15 September 1898

died Hilversum, Netherlands: 5 October 1936

works (selected)


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