In 1876 French poet Arthur Rimbaud joined the Dutch colonial army, sailed to the Indonesian island of Java and then deserted and fled into the jungle.No one knows what happened next.
More than 130 years later, an American author followed in the Frenchman's footsteps to try and solve the mystery."It's like a Sherlock Holmes story," said Jamie James, alluding to the detective work needed to trace where the enigmatic Rimbaud, who was born in 1854 and died just before turning 37, wandered to.
Nearly 200 letters by the tortured poet, who described his process of attaining visionary insights as "a long, involved and logical derangement of all the senses," map out all -- or nearly all -- of his travels in Africa and the Middle East.But little detail has escaped Java island about what transpired in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony."It remains one of the most elusive enigmas among the many that constitute his tumultuous life and is often overlooked outside Rimbaud circles," James wrote in "Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage," published last year."He never wrote anything about Java because he was a fugitive. He could have been arrested" by the Dutch for desertion, said the Texan, who has lived in Indonesia since 1999 and has been a Rimbaud enthusiast since childhood.The only fact known about Rimbaud's eastern sojourn is that he embarked on June 10, 1876, at age 21, for the Dutch East Indies, or modern-day Indonesia.In a typically whimsical decision Rimbaud, who wrote the anti-militarist "The Sleeper in the Valley", embarked on the journey after signing up for six years in the Dutch colonial army."It was the call of money and the Orient," said James, adding that 300 florins were paid to all recruits, a small fortune at the time.Rimbaud, he said, grabbed the opportunity to finally reach the East, which had attracted him so much.On July 22 he and hundreds of other recruits arrived in Jakarta, or what was then called Batavia, to join their garrison at Salatiga, a village in central Java perched on the foothills of Merlabu, a dormant volcano.In Java "The man with the wind at his heels" -- as fellow poet and friend Paul Verlaine once described Rimbaud's wanderlust -- had never been this far from home.
Author of "The Drunken Boat," and a big fan of alcohol, Rimbaud must have been overjoyed that gin was not only permitted but encouraged by the Dutch as a way of instilling bravery in soldiers.But he remained only two weeks at the garrison. On August 15 he deserted, leaving his possessions to be sold for the benefit of the local orphanage.He reappeared only on December 31, 1876, when he returned to his mother in Charleville-Mezieres in northern France.Between the dates of his disappearance and reappearance lie four-and-half months of mystery, which have raised all manner of speculation.Paterne Berrichon, who had never met the poet but became his self-proclaimed biographer after marrying Rimbaud's sister, affirmed that his late brother-in-law had hidden in the jungle, where orangutans had taught him to survive -- despite the fact orangutans disappeared from Java two centuries ago."No, Rimbaud was not Tarzan," James said.Rimbaud experts are at odds over when he sailed back to Europe. Most believe it was aboard the "Wandering Chief", a Scottish ship that sailed from Java on August 30 and arrived in Ireland on December 6, 1876."That may be true," said James, although there is no evidence Rimbaud was on board.James has made numerous trips to Java for clues to Rimbaud's whereabouts, and despite the absence of new information his book attempts to interpret the troubled poet's state of mind at the time."Since it's impossible to know, I tried to describe the environment at this time and how he (Rimbaud) was influenced by the readings he'd have had," James explained."It's possible he kept a journal and it could turn up in a flea market in Paris," he said."But no French poet has been subject to so much research, so chances of discovery are slim."It's as likely as snow in Bali."