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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Forbidden Kingdom

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff

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To purchase The Forbidden Kingdom

Title: The Forbidden Kingdom
Author: Jan Jacob Slauerhoff
Genre: Novel
Written: 1932 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 301 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Forbidden Kingdom - US
The Forbidden Kingdom - UK
The Forbidden Kingdom - Canada
The Forbidden Kingdom - India
Le royaume interdit - France
Das verbotene Reich - Deutschland
Il regno proibito - Italia
El reino prohibido - España
  • Dutch title: Het verboden rijk
  • Translated by Paul Vincent
  • With an Afterword by Jane Fenoulhet

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Our Assessment:

A- : an unusual but surprisingly rich semi-historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 30/10/2012 Alfred Hickling

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t's a confounding read, full of false starts, chronological quirks and unreliable narrators" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in The Forbidden Kingdom is Luís de Camões -- the towering figure of Portuguese literature and author of the classic epic, The Lusiads -- but Slauerhoff isn't just loose with the historic record -- he completely reimagines it. In a time where historical fiction places such a high value on accurate detail this may seem jarring, but then Slauerhoff's novel shouldn't really be seen as traditional historical fiction (as also a game-changing second storyline that comes well into the novel confirms): Camões is a figure of convenience, and Slauerhoff feels very comfortable completely adapting a few facts of his life for his own purposes. Thus, while Camões did fall in love with someone at the royal court, was sent abroad, did stay in Macao, and was shipwrecked, the description (and often timing) of these events all differ markedly in the novel from what actually happened.
       The Forbidden Kingdom begins with a Prologue describing the fall of the Portuguese outpost of Lian Po in 1540 to the Chinese (presumably loosely based on the historical Tamao/Tunmen, from which the Chinese expelled the Portuguese in 1521) and the founding of Macao. Much of the action in the novel takes place in Macao, where the Procurador -- the Attorney General -- Campos has to deal with everything from the local merchants to the uppity Dominicans, who seem to have gotten their claws into his seventeen-year-old daughter (by a Chinese wife), Pilar. Campos sees his best course of action to be to marry her off to Ronquilho, who has long tried to win her over; Pilar, however, has other ideas -- which sets into motion events that lead Campos and Ronquilho to believe they can kill several birds with one stone (like getting rid of those annoying Dominicans) though in fact they are initially only partially successful in their efforts (specifically in bending Pilar to their wills -- and, indeed, even just in finding her).
       It is this Macao that Camões eventually makes his way to -- though it's a ways before he gets there. Camões' own story unfolds separately at first -- and is presented both by a third-person narrator as well as, in part, in Camões' own voice. Just twenty, he's a restless young man -- "I'm living now and want the world !" he exclaims -- and when he falls in love with the wrong woman at court -- the Infante's intended, whom he calls 'Diana' -- he gets himself "honourably banished" from his homeland. He has ambivalent feelings about Portugal in any case -- "The country is monotonous and melancholy, and so is life there"" -- and if he can't be with the woman of his dreams:

I want to forget everything, my homeland, my origins, but especially antiquity, poems and that woman.
       The young Camões sees poetry as his Achilles' heel -- both the reading and the writing of it. Even in his youth it was something he: "kept hidden and from which I hoped I would recover", but he can't escape it. On his long voyage to the East he works on his epic poem -- though since he winds up imprisoned below deck for most of the journey he actually sees nothing of the foreign countries they pass and has to rely on his imagination (and mythology) to create his work. His poetry is one of the few things he salvages when shipwrecked -- and it is his poetry that will eventually also betray the woman who helps him when he washes up on shore, a woman who looks like his beloved Diana, except for her eyes .....
       Well past the midway point of the novel, with Camões captured by Campos and Ronquilho in Macao and imprisoned yet again, there is an abrupt cut, another first-person suddenly popping up, announcing:
     In the autumn of 19... I was living half sick and completely destitute in a room on the top floor of a village hotel.
       The narrator, who remains unnamed here, is a ship radio operator; at this point he had just lost his position because the ship he had worked on had been shipwrecked, but he is destined to wind up back on board another ship, in the same position, again. At this point already he finds:
I was beginning to yearn for a power that would take possession of me
       He's hoping for a woman to be that power, but recognizes that's unlikely; instead, it's something rather different that takes possession of him -- and winds up complicating his properly doing his radio-duties. As becomes clear, this man in some way channels Camões. It's not a completely obvious and clear possession, but the two characters do, in a way, overlap -- more obviously as the story comes to a close, the radio operator in a way following Camões own path to China (into which Camões is eventually sent from Macao).
       Slauerhoff manages this transition from relatively straightforward historical fiction to metaphysical tale remarkably well, and to surprisingly strong effect. As Jane Fenoulhet also points out in her Afterword, much of the groundwork was already laid earlier on, as much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. The text and the two storylines, as disparate as they seem, do not so much intertwine but rather merge -- though only at some levels. It feels very modern -- it's hard to believe this is a text from the early 1930s -- and even now, in a time where we have seen similar things pulled off in many contemporary works of fiction, is striking for how well it's done.
       As Fenoulhet also notes, The Forbidden Kingdom is the first in what was a planned trilogy; the second novel, Het leven op aarde directly continues the story (and gives a name to the radio operator), and certainly The Forbidden Kingdom feels a bit open-ended -- in part also because Slauerhoff seems to have just begin exploring the possibilities his dual-protagonist of Camões and the radio operator allows him. Nevertheless, it is sufficiently complete in and of itself to stand on its own. One wishes for more, but even just in these pages Slauerhoff has taken readers on a hell of a ride.
       Both a remarkable text and story, The Forbidden Kingdom is a very nice little discovery, long overdue in English. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 September 2012

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The Forbidden 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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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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