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Storyteller of the sea

From my room in The Oriental hotel, I can gaze endlessly at the muddy Chao Praya, as it flows sluggishly past the concrete and glass buildings as well as the golden ornate pagodas of Bangkok. By day, the small powerful tugboats pull an endless proces sion of loaded barges to their industrial destinations and at night, when the dinner cruise boats begin to float, the river becomes a party. It is a strange river: it changes direction often, sometimes twice a day, depending upon the tides in the Gulf of Thailand. It was on this river, then known as the Menam that the Melita came up in January 1888, carrying on board one of English literature’s greatest prose stylists, Joseph Conrad, excitedly looking forward to his first command at sea.

Early life

The 31-year-old Conrad had already seen a lot. Born 150 years ago in 1857, under a Sagittarian sky, Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski had followed his Polish parents into political exile in Russia when a child. He was an orphan by age 11 and a seaman on a boat from Marseilles at 16. Soon he was involved in gun-running for the supporters of a Spanish pretender — the experience was to be later fictionalised in The Arrow of Gold — and then obsessed by self-doubt, he attempted to kill himself. Fortunately for English literature, the bullet passed clean through his chest and he survived to sail as second mate and then first mate on British merchant ships to the Far East. In 1886, he received two certificates, one that made him a British citizen and the other that made him competent to be Master of a ship. And along the way, the man who was to go on to write Heart of Darkness — a journey not only into the heart of the African continent but into the depths of the human soul — also acquired fluency in the English language at the age of 21! He would speak the language all his life with a thick Polish accent, but he would write it like a master, all the more amazing since it was his third language. His influence can be found in later modern masters — Hemingway, Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Powell… and many would acknowledge his contribution to English prose. T. E. Lawrence wrote: “He’s absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops.” Conrad’s own ambition was far more direct: “By the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel…before all, to make you see. That, and no more, and it is everything.”

But when he reached Bangkok, the iron barque Otago was not quite ready. For two months Conrad waited, supervising the loading of the ship and waiting for the malaria-ridden sailors to recover their health. He spent many evenings at the bar of The Oriental, trading tales of the sea, much like Marlow, his fictional alter ego and narrator of many of his tales. He wrote: “We talked of short rations and of heroism…and now and then silent altogether, we gazed at the sights of the river.” And what he looked upon can be found in his fine late novella, The Shadow-Line: “There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital, which had as yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river.”

When the Otago finally weighed anchor and set sail for Singapore, difficult days were to start for the young captain and much of that experience has gone into The Shadow-Line, the line that marked the “change from youth, carefree and fervent, to the more self-conscious and more poignant period of maturer life.” The experiences of that voyage and the underlying moral issues — the realisation of one’s weakness, the limitations of one’s actions against human destiny, personal culpability, human courage under test and so on — floated around Conrad’s mind for a long time, needing to “be caught and tortured into some kind of shape”. First conceived under the title “First Command”, the novella was finally written under its more philosophical title as late as 1915. Conrad spent less than a year in the region but so deep was the impact of this set of experiences that the material appeared in varying forms in many books — Lord Jim, The Secret Sharer, Falk, The End of the Tether, A Smile of Fortune — and over three decades. He himself recalled that the material of The Shadow-Line belonged to “that part of the Eastern seas from which I have carried away into my writing life the greatest number of suggestions.”

Personal experiences

He goes on to explain: “it is personal experience seen in perspective with the eye of the mind and coloured by that affection one can’t help feeling for such event of one’s life as one has no reason to be ashamed of. And that affection is as intense…as the shame, and almost the anguish with which one remembers some unfortunate occurrences, down to mere mistakes in speech, that have been perpetrated by one in the past.” As good an answer as any to that perennial question that every author faces: “Is it autobiographical?”

Today, The Oriental has an Author’s Lounge, with white walls, leafy plants and colonial wicker furniture. Here one can have a peaceful old-fashioned cup of tea with delicately baked cakes and listen to her mention of other writers who have stayed here — Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene….But one look beyond the window towards the muddy river, already dissolving in the twilight and there is no doubt. There could be Lord Jim on that wharf, Marlow could be lighting up a pensive cigar on that silent verandah, about to begin a tale among the buzzing of the thousand evening insects: the place belongs only to Konrad Korzeniowski.


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