Historical Science Fiction Romance Adventure!?: The Perplexing World of Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom


Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking nonstop about this year’s crop of Best Translated Book Award nominated authors, translators, and publishers. Now it’s time for us to take a deeper dive into what this award really celebrates: the beauty of storytelling and the art of translation. Over the next few days, leading up to the announcement of the winner on the 28th, we’ll take a closer look at different aspects of several of the nominated titles.

When I first saw the Best Translated Book Award shortlist this past Tuesday morning the biggest surprise to me was in the inclusion of Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s 1932 novel The Forbidden Kingdom. Not because it doesn’t deserve its place along side the other nine finalists (oh boy does it ever), but because it’s such a difficult book to describe. With its many independent sides forever spinning in seemingly different directions, it feels like the literary equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. As a reader, just when you think you’ve got one of its colored sides complete, and thus understand at least one facet of what’s occurring, Slauerhoff quickly scrambles things up, leaving you bewildered, perplexed, pissed off …and at least personally speaking… head over heels in love with his brash defiance of the conventional “rules” of storytelling.

Okay, fine. To be be perfectly honest, most of the time I never knew what the fuck was going on, but Paul Vincent’s intelligent and compulsively readable translation kept me gleefully slipping forward, backward, and sideways through time, even when I was totally ignorant as to the how or the why. Allow me to attempt to explain.

The Forbidden Kingdom is historical fiction (but then again, no, it’s not)
Things certainly start off flowing in this direction. With a preface that squarely places the story in the sixteenth century, Slauerhoff introduces a third person narrative that documents the defeat of the Portuguese settlement of Lian Po and the subsequent founding of the colony of Macao.


Luís Vaz de Camões

However in chapter one he abruptly switches to first person and introduces the famous poet Luís Vaz de Camões who begins to tell a tale of forbidden love, one that eventually leads him to be exiled from his homeland. As the story moves forward by alternating between these two narrative modes, Camões trying journey finds him shipwrecked on an island that the Chinese believe to be cursed. It’s here that he stumbles upon some sort of ancient looking type of whacked out shrine. Hold these thoughts.

Did any of this stuff that he’s describing actually take place? Sort of, but I wouldn’t exactly put my faith in Slauerhoff’s abilities as an accurate historian if I were you. Then again though, how much worse than wikipedia can the guy’s factual reporting actually be?

Holy shit, what just happened? (the sixteenth century becomes the twentieth)
Suddenly, 122 pages into this 211 page ebook, time skips ahead to the nineteen hundreds and a new unnamed narrator is introduced into the mix. He’s an exiled Irishman who acts as a radio operator aboard a ship. On one voyage he becomes shipwrecked and sort of “picks up” on the plight of Camões. As this nameless man peers into the past, the poet that becomes the focus of his attention begins to dream of the future. Even though they’re kept apart by the boundaries of space and time, eerie similarities in each of their stories begin to appear and overlap.

It quickly becomes obvious that they’re doing more than just listening to each other through the ages though. Impossible as it seems, these two are clearly beginning to share a single narrative. Are they’re breaking through the walls of time that separate them? Are they combining to become a new entity? Are they’re building a time machine by utilizing only the power of their minds? Uh. Yes to all of the above. I think. And they don’t even speak the same language! See the symmetry. See the you in me.

Paul Vincents’s translation (from chapter 7 of The Forbidden Kingdom):

Then he begged for more light. He still had a gold coin and offered that. But the guard refused and left. He lay down with his face to the wall, ashamed and weary of life. When he looked up many hours later, a narrow beam of light struck his face—a jet of cool spring water could not have been more refreshing. Where did the light come from? Had the guard rolled away a stone up above, so that that the light found its way through a straight, narrow opening? Or had the sun or the moon reached a point in the heavens where the light could shine in through half-collapsed passageways? He suspected the latter. That meant that the light would soon disappear again. He wanted to enjoy every minute of it, drink it in. But the light roused another desire in him and he started writing, half reluctantly at first, perhaps so as to be able to know later, to feel tentatively what these light hours had meant to him, perhaps also so as to stay awake, for as long as it lasted. Then again he reproached himself for not deriving pure enjoyment from the light, instead of using it to write. And he sat and gazed into it and thought of it without moving. But a big cockroach ran across his foot; now it was light, he was able to grab it and kill it; he was seized by a great urge to clean out his cell. He began hunting for them, but there were too many. More and more kept appearing from the corners of the cell. And suddenly it was dark. He blamed himself for having abused the divine light, and resolved, if it came back, to do nothing but worship it. But the following day too poetry and hunting for vermin alternated.

Historical fiction becomes science fiction and/or magical realism (time machines? we don’t need no stinkin’ time machines!)
You can already see the overlaps, right? Both men are exiles, both are shipwrecked, but it’s more than that. Many of the small details, thoughts, and feelings that Slauerhoff first introduces in Camões’s tale are then subtly repeated when the nameless Irishman finally arrives on the scene. More perplexing still is the eventual melding of the two characters into a single being without either having travelled through time with the aid of a machine or some intervening force to meet the other. There’s no time machine (H.G. Wells – The Time Machine [1895]), no ghosts (Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol [1843]) and no suspended animation (Philip Francis Nowlan – Armageddon 2419 A.D. [1928]). No, these two are traveling by using only the power of thought. After stating that though, I should probably mention how the nameless one eventually ends up babbling in the desert, clutching ancient golden coins from the city of Macao, and how he suddenly understands only Portuguese instead of English.

Has Camões conquered his futuristic counterpart?  Has the nameless man found the freedom from his current day burdens he was seeking? Are they now operating as one person? Sure. Why not. And then it all just sort of ends with talk of another journey to come.

Wait, WHAT? (you mean there’s MORE?)
The biggest bombshell is perhaps revealed in Jane Fenolhet’s eye opening afterword where she informs us that there’s a sequel titled Het leven op barde (Life on Earth). Um, Pushkin Press, hello, please tell me this book is being translated by Paul Vincent RIGHT NOW. No? Then perhaps the fact that this one is a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award might persuade you to at least strongly consider the idea?

Of the ten titles that are finalists for the Best Translated Book Award this year, The Forbidden Kingdom is the only one that’s so brilliantly undefinable.  It’s an action/adventure colonization shipwrecked love affair time traveling science fiction magical realism epic in which its author executes every one of these genres at an extremely high, perplexing, near maddeningly perfect level. Reading it is like watching the most confounding magic trick get executed right before your very eyes. You could dedicate years of your life to breaking it down and figuring out exactly what you just witnessed, but even if you finally reach a place where you technically understand how it occurs, there’s no way you could ever pull it off successfully yourself or explain to others how it’s done. This brain bender is all about the sheer beauty and elegance of the illusion. And the illusion? Well that’s the very notion of time itself apparently.

Het verboden rink (The Forbidden Kingdom) is available in Dutch from Nijgh & Van Ditmar and in English translation from Pushkin Press.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.