Friday, May 14, 2010

Rimbaud, Aden, 1880 (or: Mystery in Aden, part II)

(Parts I, III, IV)

* * *

I wanted to revisit this extraordinary photo again, only this time, instead of viewing it through the lens of a microscope, I wanted to look at it through the imagination.

                         Alfred Bardey (coffee trader), Jules Suel, Arthur Rimbaud, and others in front of the Universe Hotel, Aden

Graham Robb, author of Rimbaud: A Biography, and Charles Nicholl, author of Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa (1880-91), paint the scene.

* * *

"At steamer point, under the jagged skyline of volcanic rock, the open arms of the bay revealed a long smile of white buildings: arcades on the grand floor, verandas above. A vast sign, visible from the ship, proclaimed one of these buildings to be the GRAND HÔTEL DE L'UNIVERSE. Originally named 'Hotel Suel' by its owner, Jules Suel, it now declared its infinite superiority over its neighbour, the relatively modest Hotel de l'Europe.

Rimbaud was rowed ashore to the 'Bender', where trophies from the vast African hinterland were sold to travellers and whetted the appetite of explorers: silver and amber necklaces, spears and swords, ostrich eggs and animal skins, priced according to size: 3 rupees for a monkey, 8 for a panther and 15 for a zebra, but there were no recommended prices for these in the official Aden Handbook.

The owner of 'the Universe Hotel' was a large, lively man in colonial white cotton and pith helmet who seemed to thrive in conditions that made other Europeans dissolve in their own sweat. There were few pies in which M. Suel did not have a finger. His hotel was an information exchange and a source of capital for trading ventures that would have been illegal if legislation had been able to keep up with colonial enterprise.

The last Frenchman to stay at 'the Universe' had been an energetic young man called Henri Lucereau. He had just left on a government-funded mission to find the source of what he believed to be an important tributary of the Blue Nile: the Sobat. (The Sobat is an affluent of the White Nile, 350 miles further west.) Having heard the tales of explorers who fell prey to hostile tribes, suffered horrible mutilations and were left for the hyenas or forced to drink boiling water, Lucereau had provided himself with a phial of strychnine. This was standard equipment for African explorers."

* * *

"So now Rimbaud is here, on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, on a day in August 1880, another stranger to be sized up by the canny Monsieur Suel and his louche clientele of traders and travellers.

The former poet, Arthur Rimbaud...

This is where I began, struck by that piquant sense of anonymity: the great 'master of phantasmagoris' glimpsed at Steamer Point with his suitcase, and his grubby cotton suit, and his letter of introduction from a trader called Trébuchet.

What do they see, I wondered, as he walks up the flint-block steps of the misleadingly named Grand Hotel? Now that we have followed him all the way here -- in a biographical sense, at least -- one can perhaps understand more clearly what they see. They do not see a poet because the poet is long gone: dismantled, abandoned, quite forgotten -- 'je ne m'occupe pas de ça!'. They do not see a poet, also, because they are not the sort of men who expect to see poets. They see instead the former soldier, deserter, seaman, tout, circus manager, quarryman and building-site foreman Arthur Rimbaud. They see a tall, young man with big hands and burning blue eyes, and that secretive air of a man on the run from everything.

They see him, and they recognize him. He is one of them. What was once a kind of disguise is now his real face.

They doubtless think he is just passing through: de passage. He doubtless thinks so too. But events will prove otherwise. Aden will become, bizarrely, a kind of home for him. It will become, at any rate, his base. The great African adventure begins here, and will end here eleven years later, when he is carried aboard a ship bound for France.

But for now he is just a new face: the object of a casual interest. He tells them what he chooses. His past is his own affair. His past is no more than a few stories from back up the line.

'Unfortunately I had to leave Cyprus... I looked for work in all the Red Sea ports... I tried to find something.' And now Aden, in August, forty degrees in the shade. He makes light of it: 'I only wish it was sixty, like it was when I was at Massaouah!'

(His actual conversation on this occasion is of course unrecorded. I take these phrases from a letter he wrote shortly after this. The letters are from now on the primary source for Rimbaud's life. Their clipped, nonchalant tones, explanatory but somehow evasive, certainly approximate to his conversational style. He 'spoke little', says Bardey; his comments were 'brief'; this is amply confirmed by others.)

Soon the questioners drift away, their curiosity quickly sated. It is too hot for curiosity. He sits alone, stretches out his long skinny legs, his size 41 shoes. The quiet of Aden settles over him; the quiet of having arrived. He thinks of that afternoon long ago at the Cabaret-Vert, coming in tired and dusty like this. He remembers the ticking of the clock, the green of the table-cloth, the sunlight turning his beer to gold, and that waitress with the gorgeous tits, who served him bread and butter and Belgian ham, and wanted a little kiss in return.

She had leaned down to him, and touched a fingertip to her face. 'My cheek's caught a cold,' she said. 'Just there!'

It is just ten years since that first great escape, on the tramp through the blue summer evenings of 1870, and he sees her now, quite clearly, but as if from a great distance: another country, another lifetime.

* * *

17 August 1880.

I have got a job at a coffee trader's. At present I get only seven francs a day. When I've got a few hundred francs together, I will head down to Zanaibar, where they say there is work to do.

Send me your news.

Aden Camp.

* * *

"Zanzibar remained a dream: he never got there. Nor to Bombay or Peking or Panama, or all the other places he yearningly mentions in his letters. He is here now."

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