The Forbidden Kingdom

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff

translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
Pushkin Press 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Largely set in the 16th century, The Forbidden Kingdom begins with a dramatic prologue describing the founding of Macao and has as its protagonist Portugal's most famous poet, Luis de Camoes, sent into exile after incurring the displeasure of the king. Other historical events that feature include the loss of the first Portuguese embassy to Peking and a temporally transplanted version of the 1622 Battle of Macao; these are decorated with a sprinkling of shipwrecks, pirates, dungeons, and fair maidens.

This romantic subject material is, however, given modernist form and presentation by Slauerhoff. It is the protagonist's personal crises and existential doubts that hold the centre, and even his identity becomes confused. Nearly two thirds of the way through, but prefigured in Camoes' dreams, the story starts to follow a second protagonist, an unnamed 20th century radio-operator working on run-down merchant vessels in the coasting trade. He and Camoes dream of each other's lives, which contain echoes of each other, and eventually their identities start to overlap, at one point leaving a man on the quay in modern Macao who is dressed in antique clothing and can understand only Portuguese and speak only English. This uncertainty in point of view is heightened by a narrative which switches backwards and forwards between first and third person.

Other aspects of the story include fragments of the complex colonial mosaic: the historical rise of Hong Kong, supplanting Macao; the role of contact with other cultures in shaping individuals; class differences — Camoes comes from a noble family, the radio operator from the poorest of Irish rural backgrounds; and the hierarchies of status and power. All of these bits and pieces, however, feature because of their significance for the central protagonist(s).

The Forbidden Kingdom (Het verboden rijk, 1932) draws on Slauerhoff's firsthand nautical experience and Camoes' obsessive poetising surely has an autobiographical parallel as well. It can be appreciated as a rollicking adventure yarn, a psychological study, and for its insights into the colonial experience.

December 2012

External links:
- buy from
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- books about China + Chinese history
- more Dutch literature
- more historical fiction
- books published by Pushkin Press
%T The Forbidden Kingdom
%A Slauerhoff, Jan Jacob
%M Dutch
%F Vincent, Paul
%I Pushkin Press
%D 2012
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781906548889
%P 301pp