“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.”
Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s narrator, Cameron is Adrift in the Middle Kingdom, a man sure of himself at sea, but increasingly out of his depth on land as he journeys ever inwards from the coasts on a mission to a distant city. On the way, he experiences a China that both is and isn’t the real-world place of the year 1934, when Slauerhoff wrote this novel, only now translated into English.
There are two Chinas nested in Slauerhoff’s narrative. One is born of his the author’s visits to the ports of the Chinese coast as a ship’s doctor – a gritty, realistic, and beautifully detailed snapshot of life in inter-war Amoy and Shanghai (here renamed Taihai). “People here may earn ten times more than in Europe, but they spend it twenty times as fast and enjoy it a hundred times less,” he writes, of the city that is a playground for the European visitors, but a ghastly sentence for its Chinese inhabitants, with “the ruthless grind of the city consuming its people.”
But as he travels into the Chinese hinterland, he leaves behind the sure-footed, personal observations of the author, and comes to rely increasingly on a China of the mind. One imagines Slauerhoff in his cabin on yet another long voyage, putting aside his diary and devouring the reportage and fictions of his era – James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), before spinning his own story of a man adrift in China.
Slauerhoff’s protagonist ends up in “Chungking”, a place that cannot possibly be the Chongqing of the real world, since it is on the wrong river and in the wrong location. It is not quite the lost world of Shangri-La, but instead a bastion of the true China, a trading post beyond the Great Wall where the local authorities diligently hold foreign corruptions at bay. The value of Slauerhoff’s China, in the words of Wendy Gan’s introduction, “lies in its rejection of modernity.” In a book suffuse with gentle orientalism, but also a melancholy assurance of the decline of the West, Slauerhoff’s Chungking is China at its purest, stoically resisting an onrush of foreign trinkets and concerns. Cameron even tries to dissuade a local warlord from acquiring a radio, pleading that it will be an anticlimax: “What you would learn about Western science and wisdom would greatly disappoint you. You will not like opera or music, propaganda speeches will offend your ears, sermons will bore you. The voices of science cannot be heard with this device. Most European countries are driving out whatever great minds remain to us.”
Beyond human traffic, two commodities dominate Slauerhoff’s book. One is oil, the discovery of which in Chungking creates a literal flood of problems for a town out of time – the onrush of the twentieth century. The other is opium, which, like China itself, is an addiction that washes gradually over Cameron until it consumes him. By the book’s final chapters, he is either so addled that he can no longer see straight, or finally, magically lucid, able to see the truth of the world, and the nature of an eternal struggle between ancient masters and the spirit realm. He is another drunken, broken expat in a Chinese village, smoking his life away, or a recuperating casualty in an ongoing war with another world.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by Jan Slauerhoff is published in the UK by Handheld Classics.