It’s long been known that Rimbaud journeyed to Java in the spring of 1876, a few months after the death of his beloved sister Vitalie. That voyage hasn’t received much attention, though, until Jamie James turned his attention to it in 2011’s Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage. It’s a beautifully designed, brief but fascinating book, more about Rimbaud’s world in 1876 than about his journey, since the details of that are scarce. What James does is piece together likelihoods with a brilliant Sherlock Holmesian zeal. Now and then he strays a bit far from the story, but he always returns to the central plot with plenty of spices picked up along the by-way.
We read, for example, that Rimbaud, in Holland after one of his legendary walks, joined the Dutch Colonial Army for reasons unknown but ripe for speculation. The bonus he received in advance, in gold coins, was certainly a key incentive. He joined “in some Flemish town” but ended up in Harderwijk, where he joined the first battalion of the infantry on May 18, 1876. The Dutch Department of War recorded his induction, noting these particulars:
Distinctive signs: None
Height: 1.77 m
These quotidian details exist side by side with insightful descriptions of the Dutch colonial enterprise in a way that, for me at least, shone a fresh light on the poet, who by 1876, at age 22, had already put poetry behind him.
What was it that drove him to Java? The death of his sister? His disenchantment with his violent older lover Verlaine? His disgust with all things European (those deliquescent empires collapsing on every side)? Or the realization that his magical poetry could not and would never change the ways of the world? All of it together, certainly, but however we read his story Rimbaud stands as a chastening example of immense talent destroyed by a money-mad system that couldn’t allow itself to acknowledge the visionary forces he gave voice to in his work.