How’s this for a plot: the 16th century poet, Camões, is exiled from Portugal, his native country, for, what else?, falling in love with the wrong woman. He is sent East to the dysfunctional, claustrophobic, and imperiled colony of Macao. On the way there, the ship he is a prisoner on wrecks; he barely escapes with his life. After finally and fortunately arriving on Macao, he falls in love with Pilar, the governor’s daughter, essentially repeating the mistake the got him banished in the first place…
That alone would be worthy of your attention, but there’s more: in the 20th century, an unnamed radio operator, a man who says he is neither sailor nor landlubber, begins, as the ship he sails on moves further east, to tune into Camões’ story, essentially transferring places with the poet, who has somehow managed to tunnel through time. Late in the novel, after Camões has been banished yet again, this time to the then inhospitable Chinese mainland, he trades places with the radio operator…
In its rough outlines, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (translated by Paul Vincent) sounds like the a great genre novel—time-travel! possession! conspiring monks! But like other great modernist works—this one was originally published in 1932—it uses its subject matter as a means to play with expectation and certainty. It is a strange book, at times difficult to follow as it shifts between characters and centuries, but it is also something of a page-turner. It brings to mind Joseph Conrad, but without quite the same ponderousness, and somewhat remarkably, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Paul Vincent’s translation captures the odd beauty of Slauerhoff’s singular novel, rich in atmosphere and incident. It’s the kind of book many of us on the BTBA panel live for: an undisputed classic that, after an inexplicably long time, makes its way into English. Thank god we have publishers like Pushkin Press who endeavor to bring books like this to light. It stands on its own, but taking all of this into consideration, The Forbidden Kingdom deserves to win the award.
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