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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Adrift in the Middle Kingdom

by
J Slauerhoff


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Adrift in the Middle Kingdom



Title: Adrift in the Middle Kingdom
Author: J Slauerhoff
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Adrift in the Middle Kingdom - US
Adrift in the Middle Kingdom - UK
Adrift in the Middle Kingdom - Canada
  • Duthc title: Het leven op aarde
  • Translated by David McKay

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unusual personal story, cleverly using the China of the times

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Adrift in the Middle Kingdom is not a literal translation of the original title -- that would be: 'the life on earth' -- but accurately reflects protagonist Cameron's circumstances in this novel. He understands his fate in the Middle Kingdom -- China -- from early on, before he has even really begun his descent inland (or even just on land), sensing:

This land would shut me out at first and then absorb me -- suddenly or gradually, but irresistibly -- until nothing was left of me as I was now.
       Again featuring the same main character as in The Forbidden Kingdom -- though he remained unnamed in that novel --, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom is a sequel of sorts, a next stage in the character's life. Cameron is not so much down and out at this point as in every way exhausted. He isn't just ready to abandon a life at sea -- he has spent much of it sailing the world --, he needs to. And vast, teeming China seems to offer the opportunity.
       The first stepping stone is the (then still international city of) Shanghai -- thinly disguised as 'Tihai --, as:
To me, Taihai was something else: the last stage, the final hurdle before I could become my other self, fulfil my destiny, as I still too often doubted that I would, a destiny I feared as a poor man fears wealth, as a believer in predestination fears the hereafter, and often I yearend for the inescapable misery of the old days.
       The temptation of opium is strong but on the whole he resists it, knowing the danger of succumbing and trying to hold off until it wouldn't matter any longer. Yet beyond the easy escape in the pipe he does have difficulty finding any sort of hold, purpose, or direction.
       Cameron has a notion where he wants to go -- the Chinese interior -- but isn't sure what can get him there. He is an outsider, constantly reminded that he does not belong as he takes his first stabs at gaining a foothold on solid land. There's an element of inscrutable Orient to Slauerhoff's depiction of the world Cameron is confronted with, but much of it comes also simply from how unmoored the character is in general. So also he wonders:
Even if I was moving in circles and detours, wasn't it possible I was drifting towards my goal ? Had the drifting itself become my goal, or was I merely on the run from emptiness ?
       Cameron is provided with a contact, Hsiu, who is willing to hire him for one of his undertakings. It takes a while for them to get going, but Cameron does finally begin his journey into the Chinese heart of darkness. Hsiu engages in some trade along the way -- among desperate, starving locals -- but his real goal is much more ambitious, bringing arms to the distant city of Chungking.
       Isolated, distant Chungking is very different from the crowded Chinese coast. Cameron notes it: "remained outside, savage in the external forms of culture, exposed to influences from Mongolia, Turkestan and the countries beyond". It has also remained long "undefiled" -- "In recent centuries, not a single alien has been admitted". But Cameron and a few others that Hsiu has brought here -- and, especially, the Western weapons he delivered -- are a new threat, an opening and connection to a world until then kept at bay. Cameron seems anything but a threat -- and seems to merely want to sink into the background, if they'll let him, but demands are placed on him: a radio operator, he claims to be able to build such an unknown receiving device for the locals -- his life then depending on being able to accomplish this feat.
       Obtaining at least some freedom -- explaining that he needs to be able to roam somewhat freely, in order to gather the materials needed to build the device -- he also discovers that there is oil beneath the land here, a discovery that is then unleashed on the locals in catastrophic form. The climactic cataclysm that comes with both the radio receiver and then the flood of oil seems to take Cameron -- and much else -- along with it, but Cameron's fate is not so simply decided .....
       The setting of Adrift in the Middle Kingdom is, at almost all its turns, grim and harsh. Life is cheap, suffering so deep and widespread that it barely stands out any longer. Cameron's wanderings, journeying, and seeking are beautifully, horribly evoked, but rarely is he allowed much of a respite or hope. If not entirely defeated, he certainly comes across as largely exhausted, in every sense.
       Not entirely told by Cameron -- the narrative includes, for example, a chapter that is a letter between two of the Chinese characters, allowing Slauerhoff to make more clear what they fear from the outside influence on Chungking --, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom is in many ways an unsettled novel (mirroring also its protagonist's uncertainty), shifting between realism, near-hallucinatory visions, and allegory. It captures a twentieth-century world that is still apart, with more of clang than clash of cultures, the isolated Western figures (and technological advances) disturbances in this strange land but also overwhelmed by an incredible might beyond control.
       If not entirely dispiriting, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom is a dark if vivid novel, a fascinating glimpse of China during the tumultuous late 1920s that goes well beyond the usual, deep into the Chinese hinterland. The atmosphere can be, practically without let-up, almost too oppressive, but there's considerable action and drama, too; Camron's quest-tale is unusual in many of its fundamentals, but even with its exhausted central figure offers surprising excitement along the unusual way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 July 2019

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Links:

Adrift in the Middle Kingdom: Reviews: Other books by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Jan Jacob Slauerhoff lived 1898 to 1936.

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© 2019 the complete review

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