Runner-up 2021 Vondel Translation Prize

Translated from Dutch by David McKay

After reviewing the winner of the 2021 Vondel Translation Prize last Friday, here I am with the runner-up. (Don’t say I don’t spoil you. 😉) Actually the only reason Slauerhoff’s novel was in my TBR, is because of the effusive praise that Handheld Press titles have been receiving in my twitter and blogs feeds. Not for this rarely-reviewed title admittedly, but once upon a time young Lizzy studied Dutch, and older Lizzy – having forgotten every word of Dutch she learnt – still keeps an eye on Dutch literature that makes its way into English.

Adrift in the Middle Kingdom (AMK) is the sequel to Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (published by Pushkin Press), but can be read stand alone. Fortunately, because the first novel in which a nameless ship’s radio operator makes his way across the seas to China, torturing himself with the existential hollowness of his solitary life, his spirit merging for a time with the spirit of a C16th century Portuguese poet is not my kind of novel at all. Thankfully by the time AMK begins, the protagonist has some sense of identity. He has a name for starters – Cameron – and he knows he wants to leave the sea behind and travel deep into the Chinese interior, where he will either lose himself in the delights of opium or find spiritual enlightenment.

The problem is this – he is a stranger in a very foreign land, he cannot speak the language and he has no money. So he cannot be choosy about his acquaintances. After a series of visits to the opium dens of Taihai (“a place where London’s commercial districts and Paris’s nocturnal pleasures combine to make life more intense, by day and by night”), he signs up for a trip to the interior with a business man (aka shady dealer and swindler) , named Hsiu. Before long he finds himself sailing down the Yangtze river with Hsiu and other recruits (a prostitute, an opium addict, an exile returning to his home city on pain of death, an ex-military commander), selling rice and beans to starving villagers, whose farming land is under flood. This is no mercy mission; Hsiu is shamelessly profiteering from other people’s misery. But is this the real purpose of the trip?

Of course, it is a decoy, and it is only towards the end of part one that Cameron begins to realise that he has become embroiled in gun running. Not only that but the city awaiting delivery, Chungking, is extremely hostile and does not allow strangers to leave … alive. A fact which injected some much needed suspense, for at this stage the novel was flagging and I was unsure, if I was going to continue.

I’m glad I did, because the second half of novel differs substantially from the first in ways beyond suspense. The gritty geography and realistic feel of Taihai (a thinly disguised Shanghai of the 1920s) contrasts greatly with the almost medieval, closed-in city of Chungking; a city borne entirely from Slauerhoff’s imagination, and which spectacular developments, including the discovery of oil, show cannot survive. Modernity will have its way.

Further shifts from Chungking to the poppy fields of the “western paradise” and from there to the Land of Snows move us to more hallucinatory landscapes (or further allegorical stages on the Buddhist’s road to Nirvana) and back to Cameron’s search for enlightenment. Does he find it? Well, that depends on how you interpret the title of the English translation. Does it refer to his drifting along the Yangtze during the course of the novel or is he left adrift in the Middle Kingdom (the literal meaning of China) at its end?

From the Handheld Press website: “The Handheld Classics are new editions of fabulous forgotten fiction and lost authors, with introductions by experts and astonishingly useful notes.” I agree about the notes – I would have been completely – er – adrift in Slauerhoff’s allegory without them! Adrift In The Middle Kingdom is also the the only translated novel in the Handheld Catalogue.

For more information about the genesis of Handheld Press and the story so far, watch Kate MacDonald’s talk below.