In the year 1876, a 21 year old French poet Arthur Rimbaud completely abandoned writing and joined the Royal Army of the Dutch Indies as an infantryman and sailed for Java. After he landed there, however, he deserted the army, fled into the jungle, and then just disappeared.
Part biography, part historical investigation, “Rimbaud in Java” by Jamie James is the reconstruction of everything that is known about Rimbaud’s rogue voyage, the informed speculation about what he might have seen and done, which in turn paints a vivid picture of what life was like in 19th century Java, that include colonial rule, pre-Islamic culture, and magic.
It is also quite possibly the first history of Indonesia from the vantage point of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC).
According to James, Rimbaud’s life “changed in so many fundamental ways around the time of the Java voyage that it almost seems at times as though a doomed doppelgänger was magically substituted for the shining youth that captivated Paris in 1872, as in a weird tale by Edgar Allan Poe.”
Because, after few months missing Rimbaud did eventually resurfaces back in France, in his mother’s house tanned and bearded. He then went on to work in Scandinavia where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus, lived in a monastery for a while, became a stone quarry foreman in Cyprus, worked in the coffee trade business in Yemen, and briefly sold firearms in Ethiopia, before he died relatively young at the age of 37 not long after he got one of his legs amputated.
But if you think all of these are crazy, wait until you read chapter 1 on what he’s done before the age of 21, which includes being shot at, wrecking a marriage, experimenting with homosexuality, learning multiple languages, crossing the Alps on foot, being arrested and jailed, and at one time got so drunk and passed out in Austria he ended up being robbed and stripped of everything but his street map of Vienna.
Indeed, Arthur Rimbaud was a bizarre character, whose poetries went on to exert enormous influence on French literature, but whose incredibly random and daredevil life raises more questions than we can ever find answers.
And his few months adventure in Java could be key to figure out this man.