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Times Literary Supplement, 11 November 2011
"Lived at Hazard," by Nigel Barley

Jamie James's Rimbaud in Java is a delightful work on many levels. In the age of the Kindle, it comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book whose production values are so high. From its sepia prints to its bevelled edges, it evokes a lightly self-mocking and nostalgic charm that precisely echoes that of its prose. James introduces the bad boy of French poetry by listing his accomplishments by the age of twenty-one, when he embarked on the lost voyage of the title. Apart from writing the classics of modern literature that made him the toast of Paris, Rimbaud had found time to seduce Paul Verlaine away from wife and child and torture him to the point of attempted murder, had brawled, idled, smoked hashish, drunk absinthe, been arrested, wandered across Europe, wallowed in the violent excesses of the Commune, enlisted in and deserted from the Carlist army, and renounced literature. He also learnt to play the piano. In the light of this frenetic activity, his subsequent gap year in Java has been a tantalizing empty space, but one central to his passage from the visionary child prodigy to the prosaic arms dealer, interested in engineering, photography and science, that he would become in the Horn of Africa. At the core of the Rimbaud enigma lies his extraordinary walking away from his own prodigious talent.

Almost no reliable records of Rimbaud's time in Java exist, apart from the military. We know that he enlisted in the Dutch army in June 1876 and that by Christmas he had deserted and clawed his way back to his mother's house in Charleville. Everything in between is speculation and - with the declaration that for Rimbaud the journey is greater than the goal - James follows him through the documented embarkation and debarkation, across the city of Batavia and up to the hill station of Salatiga where he stayed for just two weeks before deserting. The wild editorial surmise of biographers, subsequent secondary accounts of the journey and the most recondite historical sources are mined with a humorous ruthlessness, with the result that the very notion of any simple, "real" Rimbaud begins to recede together with the possibility that heavy-footed lit crit could ever catch him. For the rest of his life Rimbaud would be literally and metaphorically a "man on the run" and only he would have had the nerve to become a tout recruiting for the Dutch colonial army from which he was a fugitive.

Rimbaud was well on the way to becoming the mythical figure of cult and James sums the research process up thus: "the longer one ponders Rimbaud's life, the more it can be seen as if the pattern of riddles thrown in one's way is a deliberate creation, a premodernist adumbration of a witty postmodernist gesture, rather than a life lived at hazard, like any other life".

It is this playful indeterminacy that drives James to kick away the ladder and leap to another level, an extended "thought experiment", exploring what Rimbaud might have seen and experienced in Java, for it is only the imagination that can grasp the many possible Rimbauds created by biographers and cultists. James explores the opium dens and brothels of Java, its complex sexualities and the alleged conversion of the later Rimbaud to dutiful "normality", before moving on to an elegant excursus into orientalism in nineteenth-century Europe. Among other gems are the sight of Queen Victoria getting her fix of exotic violence in the pages of Captain Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, rushed to her unbound from the printers, and Raden Saleh, the European-trained Javanese painter, himself dressing up as Djalma, Eugene Sue's fictional hero, to exploit the success of The Wandering Jew in Paris.

Enthusiasts, says Jamie James, would thrill to the discovery of even an old pair of socks that belonged to Rimbaud. He offers much more than socks.