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From Singapore to Berau

In Conrad’s Wake

Story by Eric Madeen

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel. It is, before all, to make you see.

— Joseph Conrad

Preparations for the trip had been fraught with anxiety. Not a single person contacted in the sprawling branches of the travel industry could tell the journalist or the photographer how to get to a remote upriver settlement — Berau — in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), though one enterprising soul offered to find out for an exorbitant fee. Even guidebooks came up short. There were inoculations and confusion as to malaria medicine — for some reason not vended in Japan — for the nebulous B and C malaria zones ahead. Yet the trip was indeed on.

At last we were bound for Singapore. Our goal was to follow loosely — but somewhat literally — in the wake of Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born English novelist (1857-1924). I, who also wore the hats of university professor, unpublished novelist, Conrad enthusiast, and new member of the Joseph Conrad Society (UK), had devoured, repeatedly, Conrad's Heart of Darkness while living in the wilds of Gabon as a Peace Corps volunteer nearly 20 years before. Over the years I read selectively in his oeuvre, concentrating most recently on what critics and academics have largely ignored, the Malay quartet. As Linda Dryden points out in Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance, this early work of Conrad subverted the 19th century romance/adventure genre. Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly, ruptured this escapist fiction based on notions of cultural superiority with a sad little comedy of a pathetic, morally and financially bankrupt colonial merchant, Almayer, stuck in an upriver, tropical "backwater."

Aye Aye, Joe

Norman Sherry, in Conrad's Eastern World, notes that the characters in his early fiction were largely drawn from his experience in the merchant marines. Conrad was first mate aboard the steamer Vidar out of Singapore, a man with an ear for shore talk and an eye that didn't miss much. He made four trips up the Berau River to a settlement of the same name in Dutch East Borneo, a route we planned to trace after tracking down any Conradiana left in Singapore.

Our guide at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore listed a wealth of authors who have visited over the years. Conrad, Kipling (who coined "Feed at Raffles," later a hotel slogan), Coward, Hesse, Grass, Michener and others. One name, though, threw me. "Mogom?" I asked. Then got it when she added W. Somerset before the mangling.

This writer of the novel Of Human Bondage supposedly turned the gossip heard at Singapore dinner parties into his famous stories. Many of his Asian tales were penned in the morning shade of a frangipani in the Palm Court. What a brilliant place to work! The depth of literary history at this "cultural confluence of East and West" had me vigorously taking notes as we struck out for the Joseph Conrad Suite. Just walking through the lobby itself was impressive enough. Streaming down from a skylight three floors up was a pearly light illuminating magisterial columns scrubbed powder white and wooden balustrades along sweeping verandahs. Ceiling fans turned the warm air.

I found a photo of Conrad in the Writers' Bar — alas, not much of a bar. Too sterile, pinched, the drinker's/writer's back too exposed to the lobby at large. (The Long Bar is where you want to quench a tropical thirst.) We walked past the Bar & Billiard Room and East India Rooms, nearing our goal. Through a terracotta-tiled courtyard pressed by trimmed vegetation, sunlight skated over a cast-iron fountain and the aroma of soy sauce, onions and things unnameable. Then up a flight of stairs to a river of morning light running down the corridor off the Personality Suites. Cane chairs and tables evoked the scene in Lord Jim where, amidst the glow of cheroot tips in the gloomy night, Jim tells Marlow his sad story of desertion.

Writing Room

The Joseph Conrad Suite was certainly handsome enough with its lofty ceilings, four poster bed and roll top desk. But the hotel's investment in Conradiana was cautious: one reprint (of Nostromo), a tiny illustration of Conrad's mug, and a framed autograph. The hotel museum also showed prudence, displaying only a single tome with a highlighted quote from Conrad in which he lambastes the literary merit of travel books "the Suez Canal is responsible for."

Conrad may have never spent a night at Raffles — too rich for a sailor's blood. Norman Sherry wrote that Conrad slept aboard ship or at the Sailors' Home, where his fictional Lord Jim, who "hadn't a penny in his pocket to bless himself with," also lodged. And contrary to a Raffles' fact sheet in its press kit, Conrad's description "as airy as a birdcage" in The End of the Tether and another hotel description in Lord Jim "indicates," as Sherry determined, "that he had the Hotel de l'Europe in mind."

A wizard at describing, Conrad could, in precious few words, evoke place while often remaining faithful to the real, as in his description of Singapore's Esplanade in the Colonial District, which I found as delineated in his The End of the Tether: "The avenues of big trees ran straight over the Esplanade, cutting each other at diverse angles, columnar below and luxuriant above." On my resonant stroll under the canopy there, I could see St. Andrew's Cathedral, as referred to in Almayer's Folly: "... they made love under the shadows of the great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on the Singapore promenade."

Onto Cavenagh Bridge (built in 1868 by Indian convict laborers), near the mouth of the Singapore River, I had a postcard view of the sweep of the Boat Quay, the river there plied by no more than an occasional craft with no boats docked along it. In The Rescue, Conrad describes the view from the same vantage point, his Captain Whalley seeing a "mass of praus, coasting boats, and sampans. . . jammed up together in the canal. . . flooded by the cold moonlight, with here and there a dim lantern burning amongst the confusion of high sterns, spars, masts and lowered sails." Along with much of the honky-tonk then, gone is the mass of boats from the time of the young sailor Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski. Singapore, needless to say, has cleaned up its act. All the more reason for us to strike out for Berau, also known as the village of "Patusan" in Lord Jim, "Sambir" in Almayer's Folly and The Outcast of the Islands, and "Batu Beru" in The End of the Tether. To the site Conrad's alter ego Marlow in Lord Jim calls "one of the lost, forgotten, unknown places of the earth."

Mall of the Wild

Kalimantan. Fresh and wild. I like it. A steady stream of taxis and scooters circle the block. Every 20 seconds a cabbie pulls over shouting, "Hello, mister! Taxi!? Taxi!?" At the brand new minimall in Balikpapan shoppers smile, say hello, and give the impression of having just got into town themselves, but from the scorched-earth interior or on the boat up from Java. At the Adika Hotel Bahtera, we trudge into the disco and a thick pudding of sound. The music is so unbelievably loud that the bass — boom boom, boom boom — rattles the bar and reverberates up through me. Hands out against obstruction, we grope through the dark, cavernous space as if blind. Back at the entrance, however, there's this net of light. In which girls multiply. Where three lingered, there's now a dozen. Apparently the only paying customers, the photographer and the journalist are spellbound when suddenly a spotlight appears and into it with abandon dances a young lady, hips swaying to the beat — boom boom. Angelic, she lifts her very long hair up on both sides to make wings, then lets them fan down slowly at the same time. Then she bows and — poof! — vanishes. There's a girl at my side now. To clarify my question, she screams in my ear: "You mean my years?" She leans back holding up two fingers then three. A flash of teeth, a dazzling smile. Being tested in this Conradian/Marlovian moment, I resist the urge to go ashore "for a howl and a dance." And just sit there in a daze, nursing a sore throat, a beer, and a suspicion that this whole theater (of lust) is being orchestrated solely for the photographer and the journalist.

Next morning finds us in a taxi heading up to the logging town of Samarinda, the place where most backpackers arrange inland journeys upriver to the Dayak regions. Banana trees here and there along the road. Not much else other than many wild curves. No defensive driving here, our taxi man a road hog driving down the middle of the highway. Much horn honking at pedestrians and slower traffic. Ragged clouds blackening. Sprinkling. Tires making that Scotch-tape sound over wet road. Then a wall of rain hits us. Crawling along at car-wash speed, windows up, dehumidifier and AC on the fritz, the driver keeps mopping at the windshield.

Berau or Bust

In town now, storm behind us, our cab cutting a wake through flood water up to wheel wells, the driver crooning, "Ohhhh Samarinda." Schoolgirls hike their skirts up, carry them in a wadded ball, and somehow manage to wave and smile. Everyone greets us with genuine warmth. You know you're in the bush when banks won't take traveler's checks and accept only hundred-dollar bills in mint condition. No yen. Sorry. For this last leg we?re determined to go as Conrad went and finally learn when the ship sails for Berau. (Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10:00 a.m.) We interview guides and settle on Petrus, from Flores, after probing his knowledge of Berau — not as a tourist destination. He's confident. He was there six years ago.

A cacophony of engine noises and beeping from the street made the night interminable. The Call to Prayers, a recording, looped and loud, just when I dropped off. Followed at dawn by a maintenance man's hammering in the next room. Nose running. Fever. Then Petrus knocked, took his place near the telephone. The photographer was summoned for the first of several meetings throughout the day concerning how to get to Berau. Petrus listed options on his fingers, skillfully walking us up the price ladder, his eyes owlish, to determine our ceiling. Then fingers, for options, began to disappear, like Hydra heads in reverse: The ship was out, the berths already oversold. Flights were booked solid until the following week. A private plane was already engaged. Bush taxis were packed. Chartering a speedboat was simply too expensive. That left a jeep and driver. For a hefty sum. Which then doubled to cover the driver's return — or to line Petrus' pocket? Snookered.

For 22 hours we bounced like jumping beans in a joint-venture (Indonesian-Japanese) jeep. Stalled out in the dead of night, the moonless sky laid open by shooting stars, we swatted at mosquitoes for three hours, waiting our turn at a bottleneck of four-foot ruts of muck in a no-man's land called Mawe. Our driver, a Buginese from Sulawesi, wrestled the wheel with what appeared to be six hands, engine wailing like a banshee, tires throwing muck over cheering, pushing boys paid off with half a pack of cigarettes.

Hours later, Petrus noticed the driver nodding off and had us pull over for a catnap. At false dawn four men woke to the roar of a truck, then staggered out of the cab in different directions as if after a fight that had no winners. Then that unique sound of liquid drumming in a drenching of the earth.

At noon, tropical sun blazing, stomachs growling like wild animals, we stopped in the tiny village of Muara Wahau and wolfed down a delicious meal of fresh venison and rice at a home-restaurant. Giddy from sleep deprivation, we chuckled at a faux Japanese sighting by the photographer. "That guy?" Petrus asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "He's Dayak. You won't see any Japanese out here."

The River Speaks

Conrad country. At last. I can see why his imagination fed so greedily on this place. There are two splendid rivers — the Kelai and the Segah — flowing together to form the Berau where, on the spit of land between the tributaries, the town of the same name sprawls (pop. 105,000). The houses along the Kelai still "crowded the bank, and, as if to get away from the unhealthy shore, stepped boldly into the river, shooting over it in a close row of bamboo platforms elevated on high piles, amongst which the current below spoke in a soft and unceasing plaint of murmuring eddies" (OI).

At rare times, I feel like an astronomer who notices only constellations when he views the night sky, seeing as I can these rivers and community through the intrigues of Conrad's fiction and the accounts of Conrad scholars who came later. One was Gavin Young, who got a book out of his travels (In Search of Conrad). At the Family Restaurant we met by chance the kind fellow who showed Young around Berau about a dozen years back. Suparno, now the chief environmental-impact officer for the region, is destined to help Conradians find their way, driving us hither and yon while at one delightful point before lunch shouting, "Kaspar! Makan!" My confused look teased out a deadpan look — duh — and explanation: "The first line of Almayer's Folly." Snookered again.

Walking along the colorful main drag of shops, pedicabs and assorted traffic that skirts the Segah, I have my maps and Conrad stuff at the ready. Despite our best efforts in a long boat under a blistering sun out on the lake-like confluence, we were unable to locate the elusive Twin Hills of Lord Jim fame that one Ron Visser of Amsterdam, writing in The Conradian, reduced to "two humps" on his tour of Berau back in 1992. Molehills, maybe.

In Conrad's day there were two minor kingdoms with palaces — one on the Segah, the other on the Kelai — which faced each other across the town's promontory, Tanjong Redeb (Conrad's Sambir). Since Conrad locates his rajah of his first two novels at the palace of Gunung Tabur, it was there we went by river taxi.

Sultan of the Scene

Putri Kanik Sanipan is an octogenarian and the daughter of the last rajah of Gunung Tabor in Berau. A childless spinster (no suitor was equal to her status), she lives with her sister in a bungalow beside the rebuilt palace, complete with belfry, that's also a museum with many sultan artifacts (a silk-canopy sultan bed, a birthing table, etc.) in the sultan's color — call it sultanate yellow. On the porch I have the luxury of seeing directly across the river to the site of Almayer's Folly, thus enjoying the view of Almayer's friend, the Rajah, who was dethroned by Almayer's enemy Lakamba, his factotum Babalatchi, Syed Abdulla and, obliquely, the Dutch, as "Almayer lay ruined and helpless under the close-meshed net of their intrigues ..." (AF).

Where there's now a single palm, a customs house and warehouse, there was once a shop and godown of one Charles Olmeijer. In between, out in the middle of the Segah, long boats cut the water with the steady growl of lawnmowers. Petrus is interpreting for me. Yes, she may have heard her father mention a Captain Lingard, the Rajah Laut, or Sultan of the Sea, who inspired Conrad's Captain Tom Lingard. Then she becomes animated, "Oh, Olmeijer!" She definitely registers the name and points downriver to the cemetery, saying that two of his children are buried there, adding that she remembers hearing that Olmeijer used to visit her father regularly. The make-over that Conrad worked on Olmeijer, monkey-wrenching the merchant and father of eight into the loser Almayer, could win the historical Olmeijer a libel suit if he were alive today. This, together with a novelist's desire to avoid biographical reduction of his work, may be the reason Conrad was, until later in his career, reticent as to his sources and influences and only roughly sketched a tropical shoreline with palms/estuaries/headlands/horizon on the title page of a first edition of Almayer's Folly presented to a friend. In the book Conrad makes a Freudian slip, once writing "Brow," a variation of Berau prevalent then.

As for the real power in "Brow," it's no longer at the palaces, or this bungalow. It seems to lie in large part with H. Muhammad Al Joofree, a Straits Arab merchant and descendant of Syed Mohsin bin Salleh Al Joofree, who, in his day, was also an influential merchant in the area. In fact, the latter kingpin lived in Singapore and owned a fleet of steamers, including the S.S. Vidar on which Conrad served. In An Outcast of the Islands, Syed Abdullah crushed Lingard and Almayer's hold on the river trade after the despicable Willems showed him the secret navigable channel into Sambir.

The Literary Lure

As with his blood and fictional kin, this man — and father of 17 children — sitting before me has got the juice. His son offers to share some of it with us: "If you have any problem with the people of Berau, you come to me." Excluding rattan (no longer profitable), Al Joofree still exports what his ancestors and Olmeijer/Almayer did — bird's nests, gutta-percha, sandalwood, and a bit of gold the Punan bring in from upriver. All interesting to know, but I'm more into fiction, the stuff that sprang from this setting, and yearn to feel the place as Conrad did.

So I get up at dawn. Then grope around outside, inside one of the master mariner and novelist's more ephemeral and nebulous characters, hearing the constant, warning jingle of pedicab bells, their scoops and drivers, however, invisible, as are the long boats grinding up the Segah. I stroll down to where the fictional Syed Abdulla lived, onto the ironwood promontory, then turn to walk up the Kelai, marveling at the fog burning off into a light mist tumbling down like the finest mosquito netting of silk. Past the market and its aggressive heckling and stinks, now on the bridge spanning the Kelai, I stand, look out, see things. The hills beyond the confluence, like the shoulders of a woman undressing, the way the shroud of mist lifts off the feminine curves, higher and higher... I tingle all over, feeling there in Brow, for an instant, part of the dream tug that is Joseph Conrad's fiction.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.