Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet  (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)
Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)

Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.

Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese. 

The 19th-century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib always evoked strong opinions about his literary worth. An early 20th-century critic proclaimed, “India has just two scriptures or divine gospels, the holy Vedas and the poetry of Ghalib.” Meanwhile an anonymous Delhiwallah  quipped: “I get the verse of Mir[1]Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor but Mirza’s just too odd. Maybe he gets himself, or maybe only God.”

Notes   [ + ]

1. Mir Taqi Mir 1725-1810, Ghalib’s most illustrious predecessor
A Companion to The Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, Susan Chan Egan, Pai Hsien-yung (Columbia University Press, April 2021)
A Companion to The Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, Susan Chan Egan, Pai Hsien-yung (Columbia University Press, April 2021)

The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is widely held to be the greatest work of Chinese literature, beloved by readers ever since it was first published in 1791. The story revolves around the young scion of a mighty clan who, instead of studying for the civil service examinations, frolics with his maidservants and girl cousins. The narrative is cast within a mythic framework in which the protagonist’s rebellion against Confucian strictures is guided by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. Embedded in the novel is a biting critique of imperial China’s political and social system.

Despite being separated by the sea and eight centuries, both of these poets share feelings of exile and displacement and exile as they wander more or less aimlessly around their respective countries, attempting to sort themselves out through writing poetry. They also share the good fortune of having attracted excellent biographers, who let them speak freely and directly through their poetry rather than simply writing about their deeds and personalities. Readers as a result vicariously travel with the poets, feeling their experiences directly and responding to them viscerally and emotionally as well as intellectually.