Monday, December 03, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mr. Korzeniowski!

I hope you can find enough space on your cake for all 150 candles, Mr. Korzeniowski. Or would you rather that we called you by your later name, Joseph Conrad, which you adopted when you became a naturalised Brit in 1886?

You're undoubtedly an inspiration to every would-be writer here who struggles with eccentricities of English grammar and vocabulary. You didn't even begin to learn the language until you were in your twenties ... and yet became one of the greatest writers of the C20th, critically praised for your style and precision.

I had to read Heart of Darkness as a set text three decades ago, but this story of a journey up the Congo and into the nature of evil affects me profoundly even now. But I never did think that Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, which was based on it (albeit with a setting shifted to Vietnam) even remotely matched up.

Of course, in this part of the world we have particular reasons for celebrating your birthday: a large proportion of your work was set in:
... the Eastern Seas from which I have carried away into my writing life the greatest number of suggestions.
This excellent New Straits Times article about your connection with the region points out that:
Although Conrad only spent about eight of his 20 years of sailing in the “Malay World", his experiences inspired him to start writing and formed the setting for novels such as Lord Jim, Victory and The Shadow-Line.

The people he met can be seen in his work. For example, the real-life Captain William Lingard in Sarawak was the model for Captain Tom Lingard, the central character in a trilogy — Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue. Conrad also referred to “an English Rajah” in Kuching, Sir James Brooke, in Almayer’s Folly.

The novelist was aware that the Malays — whether of Bugis, Sulu or Javanese origin — were all “Mohammedans” (the term used for Muslims at that time), says Dr Agnes Yeow, head of the Department of English at Universiti Malaya.

She points out that his tales are “punctuated with hajis, pilgrims both returned and en route, invocations to Allah, as well as references to pilgrimage, the Holy Shrine and the Quran".

The Chinese are also found in most of his tales from this region, ranging from waiters, cooks, tellers, labourers, rickshaw-pullers and boatmen at one end of the spectrum, to a small group of Chinese who made their fortunes and became upwardly mobile, notes the academic whose PhD thesis was Envisioning the Malay World: A Study of Conrad’s Eastern Tales.

And Conrad also includes the Straits Chinese whose ancestors had settled in the Malay World for more than a century. They were Chinese by descent, had intermarried and interacted with the Malays, and were politically allied to the British.
The article also suggests that your work helped to sow the seeds of independence in this part of the world, by being critical of colonialism in your work. (It's a point of view, by the way that Ng Tze Shiung on the NST letter page objects to a few days later ... )

What's the truth? I think that we should reread your work and decide for ourselves!

So, a very happy birthday. And thanks.

*I am very sad that I missed the travelling exhibition Joseph Conrad: Twixt Land and Sea held in November at Times bookstore at the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Bintang. I just didn't know about it! (Times - why don't you have a mailing list, and why don't you slip the word out to bloggers????)

7 comments:

rani said...

Was he a former Polish?

bibliobibuli said...

he was indeed polish by birth, although now the place he was born is in the ukraine

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

Hearts And Jungles

savante said...

There was an exhibition?! I didn't even notice it while I was there! :O

Janet said...

Sharon--I think they did inform Times cardholders or something like that. A friend of mine told me about it, he has a card (I think they sent an email). I only knew because of my lecturer. But didn't go...

BK said...

Hi Sharon, I've been a silent (slightly addicted) visitor of your blog for some time now.

I have just started working for Times Bookshop at Pavilion recently, and kept wondering if you knew about us. When you blogged about your late knowledge of the store, I just had to let our marketing folks know. I trust that they're now in touch with you.

The irony is I had told my marketing colleague just a few days ago, that the recent Joseph Conrad exhibition was just the kind of thing that would have been interesting to you. I didn't know just how spot on I was, I had to *slap forehead* for not informing you about it myself! But then I wasn't even working there yet at the time.

If I do see you in the store, I'll come up and say hi. :)

bibliobibuli said...

janet - am a holder of all the cards of all the bookshops, but still didn't hear anything

bk - hello lurker! only "slightly addicted", huh?

many thanks for passing the message on ... within a few minutes of posting i was in touch with your colleague. i will come over and would love to meet you too. (need to conduct the squidgy test!)