There’s a story that a unique, the authentic, version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam went down with the Titanic. I don’t know if that is true or not; but it is certainly the case that a package containing the manuscript of Joseph Conrad’s 1897 tale Karain was aboard and lost in the shipwreck. It was on its way to New York because John Quinn, Irish American, corporate lawyer, art collector, and aficionado of original mansucripts, had bought it, as he bought many other Conrad mss. Conrad replaced the drowned script with that of another story, The Informer.

Karain was important to him because it was the first thing he published in Blackwood’s Magazine, which paid him 40 pounds: it proved a lucrative association. In those days magazine publication was far more remunerative than book publication. And Conrad, like so many other writers of the time, usually published his longer works in installments in magazines anyway. This could lead to complications, especially in a writer as slow-working and highly-strung as Conrad was. Once, when he stalled in the writing of Nostromo, and the next excerpt was due, Ford Madox Heuffer, his sometime collaborator, undertook to write enough pages to satisfy the magazine in question, T.P.’s Weekly – and did so. He managed to imitate the master’s style without significantly advancing, or altering, the plot.

Conrad was initially optimistic about Karain. ‘A Malay thing. It will be easy and may bring in a few pence.’ This soon changed. ‘That infernal story. I can’t shake myself free of it, though I don’t like it – never shall! But I can get rid of it only by finishing it coûte que coûte.‘ Later, when he sent the beginning of the story to Edward Garnett for comment, he wrote: ‘If you say ‘Burn!’ I will burn – and won’t hate you. But if you say ‘Correct – Alter!’ I won’t do it – but shall hate you henceforth and forever!’ In the event he did accept Garnett’s criticisms, and revised accordingly.

Although Karain is set amongst Bugis people in an unamed part of island South-East Asia – somewhere on the shores of the Straits of Macassar – the main plot of the story comes from a Polish ballad, Czaty (The Ambush) by Adam Mickiewicz, whose verses Joseph’s father, Apollo, used to read to him aloud when he was a boy. Typically, however, there is another dimension to this tale, which resolves as a savagely ironic, Kiplingesque fable about superstition; and a framing story too, which contrasts events in the archipelago with life in London. Karain ends in a profoundly dystopic view of the metropolis; not that its view of island life is any more comforting:

‘”The sea met us—the sea, wide, pathless, and without voice. A sailing prau leaves no track. We went south. The moon was full; and, looking up, we said to one another, ‘When the next moon shines as this one, we shall return and they will be dead.’ It was fifteen years ago. Many moons have grown full and withered, and I have not seen my land since. We sailed south; we overtook many praus; we examined the creeks and the bays; we saw the end of our coast, of our island—a steep cape over a disturbed strait, where drift the shadows of shipwrecked praus and drowned men clamour in the night. The wide sea was all round us now. We saw a great mountain burning in the midst of water; we saw thousands of islets scattered like bits of iron fired from a big gun; we saw a long coast of mountain and lowlands stretching away in sunshine from west to east. It was Java. We said, ‘they are there; their time is near, and we shall return or die cleansed from dishonour.’

“We landed. Is there anything good in that country? The paths run straight and hard and dusty. Stone campongs, full of white faces, are surrounded by fertile fields, but every man you meet is a slave. The rulers live under the edge of a foreign sword. We ascended mountains, we traversed valleys; at sunset we entered villages. We asked every one, ‘Have you seen such a white man?’ Some stared; others laughed; women gave us food, sometimes, with fear and respect, as though we had been distracted by the visitation of God; but some did not understand our language, and some cursed us, or, yawning, asked with contempt the reason of our quest. Once, as we were going away, an old man called after us, ‘Desist!’

“We went on. Concealing our weapons, we stood humbly aside before the horsemen on the road; we bowed low in the courtyards of chiefs who were no better than slaves. We lost ourselves in the fields, in the jungle; and one night, in a tangled forest, we came upon a place where crumbling old walls had fallen amongst the trees, and where strange stone idols—carved images of devils with many arms and legs, with snakes twined round their bodies, with twenty heads and holding a hundred swords—seemed to live and threaten in the light of our camp-fire . . .

“We came back to the coast. Our feet were bleeding, our bodies thin. We slept in rags under the shadow of stone enclosures; we prowled, soiled and lean, about the gateways of white men’s courtyards. Their hairy dogs barked at us, and their servants shouted from afar, ‘Begone!’ Low-born wretches, that keep watch over the streets of stone campongs, asked us who we were. We lied, we cringed, we smiled with hate in our hearts, and we kept looking here, looking there, for them—for the white man with hair like flame, and for her, for the woman who had broken faith, and therefore must die . . .

“We sold the carved sheaths of our krisses—the ivory sheaths with golden ferules. We sold the jeweled hilts. But we kept the blades—for them. The blades that never touch but kill—we kept the blades for her . . . Why? She was always by our side . . . We starved. We begged. We left Java at last.

“We went West, we went East. We saw many lands, crowds of strange faces, men that live in trees and men who eat their old people. We cut rattans in the forest for a handful of rice, and for a living swept the decks of big ships and heard curses heaped upon our heads. We toiled in villages; we wandered upon the seas with the Bajow people, who have no country. We fought for pay; we hired ourselves to work for Coram men, and were cheated; and under the orders of rough white faces we dived for pearls in barren bays, dotted with black rocks, upon a coast of sand and desolation. And everywhere we watched, we listened, we asked. We asked traders, robbers, white men. We heard jeers, mockery, threats—words of wonder and words of contempt. We never knew rest; we never thought of home, for our work was not done. A year passed, then another. I ceased to count the number of nights, of moons, of years.”‘

This sounds like one of those crazy Rimbaldian journeys, both those imagined in the literary work and those accomplished in the real world, whose warrant is the letters sent home to the farmhouse at Roche from Aden or Abyssinia or Djibouti or Cairo. The metropolitan passages towards the end of Karain are just as eerie; they are like outtakes from Illuminations. The narrator has met in the street one of his shipmates from his island days, a man called Jackson, whom he thinks has been too long away:

‘A watery gleam of sunshine flashed from the west, and went out between two long lines of walls; and then the broken confusion of roofs, the chimney-stacks, the gold letters sprawling over the fronts of houses, the sombre polish of windows, stood resigned and sullen under the falling gloom. The whole length of the street, deep as a well and narrow like a corridor, was full of a sombre and ceaseless stir. Our ears were filled by a headlong shuffle and beat of rapid footsteps and an underlying rumour—a rumour vast, faint, pulsating, as of panting breaths, of beating hearts, of gasping voices. Innumerable eyes stared straight in front, feet moved hurriedly, blank faces flowed, arms swung. Over all, a narrow ragged strip of smoky sky wound about between the high roofs, extended and motionless, like a soiled streamer flying above the rout of a mob.

“Ye-e-e-s,” said Jackson, meditatively.

The big wheels of hansoms turned slowly along the edge of side-walks; a pale-faced youth strolled, overcome by weariness, by the side of his stick and with the tails of his overcoat flapping gently near his heels; horses stepped gingerly on the greasy pavement, tossing their heads; two young girls passed by, talking vivaciously and with shining eyes; a fine old fellow strutted, red-faced, stroking a white moustache; and a line of yellow boards with blue letters on them approached us slowly, tossing on high behind one another like some queer wreckage adrift upon a river of hats.

“Ye-e-es,” repeated Jackson. His clear blue eyes looked about, contemptuous, amused and hard, like the eyes of a boy. A clumsy string of red, yellow, and green omnibuses rolled swaying, monstrous and gaudy; two shabby children ran across the road; a knot of dirty men with red neckerchiefs round their bare throats lurched along, discussing filthily; a ragged old man with a face of despair yelled horribly in the mud the name of a paper; while far off, amongst the tossing heads of horses, the dull flash of harnesses, the jumble of lustrous panels and roofs of carriages, we could see a policeman, helmeted and dark, stretching out a rigid arm at the crossing of the streets.’

(pic is a page from a Conrad manuscript; in this case Heart of Darkness)


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