Jan Slauerhoff: African Elegy (From Dutch)

It was recently brought to my attention that I might do well to focus more on work that hasn't been translated at all into English.

Very little of Jan Slauerhoff's work is available in English currently, and as Anglophones seldom study Dutch, one of Europe's greatest poets remains virtually unknown to them. To my knowledge, this blog post contains the first English translation (and the first discussion in English of any length) of one of Slauerhoff's major, and all-too-neglected poems.

The Congo was the last region in Africa to be colonized. Hostile natives, forbidding terrain and, above all, disease, were major obstacles to safe travel, let alone settlement, prior to the Belgian colonization in the late 19th century. Twenty years before the publication of this poem, the État Indépendant du Congo had been under the direct personal control of King Leopold II of Belgium. Ostensibly a philanthropic endeavor, the Free State of the Congo was in fact an exploitative affair in which the region was subject to some of the very worst sacking and brutalization Europe's barbarians had to offer. Even in its own time, the many atrocities committed by King Leopold's proxies against natives gained international infamy, inspiring numerous works of fiction including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Dutch critics have at times read Slauerhoff's Afrikaaansche Elegie in these terms. The poem does seem to be less inspired by Slauerhoff's real life experiences than by damning fictional portrayals of the atrocities committed under the Belgian aegis in earlier decades, and the original even uses a number of English loanwords (Toddy, Body, Twostep, Platform, Revolver) in a way that evokes (to me at least) the Anglophone ambiance of Conrad's novel.

But my contention is that it would be a mistake to read the poem as merely another such work of self-congratulatory "racist colonial guilt." Guilty it certainly is, but not self-righteous. Though we may be at first tempted to read the European's words as yet another caricature of cannibal tribes and whatnot, we should note the placement of such statements in the mouth of a cruel and inhumane person who obsesses over how miserable he is far from home in Darkest Africa with ne'er a thought, outside his conscience-plagued fever-dreams, for the misery he is inflicting on others. I don't know whether Slauerhoff did as of 1927 sincerely believe that Africans are cannibals who consume flesh, but in any case, in this poem shows he knows it is Europeans who are buying and selling that flesh. In a connotative reversal of stereotype, the sense of Europeans feeding on Africans in primal fashion is quite present in the words mijn eet- en minnelust "my appetite of food and of lust." We're all human beings, because we're all savage animals.

It is furthermore likely that the European cannot know first hand all of the things he claims to. How, for example, could he know what she promised her brother, unless he heard it from her after the fact? He may be fabulating things. Or she may have told him her brother would cannibalize him purely in order to make him wary. He also doesn't know her native language, but remembers how she screamed in it. We really learn nothing for certain about the actual natives that does not have to do with their mistreatment and impulse to resistance.

Having done the things he has done, consigned to the hellish Congo, there is nothing left for the speaker now but death. His death would be a heil, not merely a bounty for a European trapped in colonial tedium, but salvation for the natives. This true salvation and goodness of his death contrasts sharply with the vivacious pomp of bullshit religiosity that figures in his reminiscence.

Though Slauerhoff was not by any stretch free of race-thinking, it was his belief that the white man's time in Africa would come to an end, that the colonial mission was doomed to violent failure. In his own French version of the poem, published a year later in the volume Fleurs de Marécage, the final lines are far more explicit, with the words "ce sera pour une autre fois" placed in quotation marks, making clear that the would-be assassin will indeed get his mark, sooner or later.

The Dutch text of the poem given here is slightly emended from the original 1928 edition of El Dorado, the collection in which it first appeared. Spelling has not been modernized.

African Elegy
By Jan J. Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

He sits on the platform of his factory,1
The yellow Congo slowly slushing by 
With gurgling and interminable ado. 
He sees through cracks in the old floor's bamboo 
Black trunks and crocodiles floating in the night. 
He muses bitterly: "Idyllic sight! 
It's Sunday in Europe everywhere today, 
In Brest, Bordeaux, on every harbor quay. 
Bathed in soft sunlight, every city street 
Is clear of carriages, in peace so sweet. 
Each church's choir sings with sacred calm 
And even folk outside can hear a psalm. 
At evening drunken sailors dance about 
With barmaids, till they bumble and pass out... 
While I sit here with a bad glass of Toddy2,
Six tropic years' exhaustion in my body. 
I haven't had the stomach in seven days 
For pleasure in my negro girl's embrace. 
She's there to appease my every appetite 
And sure enough she'll strangle me one night, 
And the Chief - her brother - feast on the white slaughter 
Just as she promised him the day I bought her. 
I now forget the word that filled her screams, 
Though it obsesses me in fever-dreams." 

He fires three pistol shots. Down drops an ape's 
Corpse from a tree into a grave that gapes 
Suddenly from the brown and muddied deep 
Where a crocodile slept, soon to fall back asleep. 
He puts on an old, grating gramophone 
A twostep plays: despairing monotone. 
From trees across the river whooshes an arrow. 
He hopes for Death's Salvation in that narrow  
Moment, as a child seeing a shooting star 
Stammers a heart-swelled wish. But it is far 
Off. The plumed kill-dart vibrates in hard wood.  
Confounded steps retreat through the dark wood.... 

1 - The word "factory" here refers to a colonial storage and trading facility. See this Wikipedia article for more.

2 - Toddy: here a kind of low-quality palm wine produced locally.

The Original:

Afrikaansche Elegie

Hij zit op 't platform van zijn factorij.
De geele Congo kabbelt traag voorbij
Met onophoudelijk borrelend rumoer.
Onder de spleten van den bamboevloer
Drijven boomstammen door en krokodillen.
Hij mijmert bitter: "Dit is mijn idylle.
't Is in Europa Zondag, overal,
In Brest, Bordeaux, aan iedren havenwal.
En in die steden zijn zachtzonnige straten
Nu onbereden en vredigverlaten.
In alle kerken zingen kalme koren,
Ook buitenstaanders kunnen psalmen hooren.
Vanavond danst de dronken varensgast
Met zijn barmeid, tot hij is volgebrast,
Terwijl ik hier zit voor een slecht glas toddy,
Moeheid van zes jaar tropen in mijn body.
Ik heb al sinds verleden week geen zin
In de omhelzing van mijn negerin,
Die voor mijn eet- en minnelust moet zorgen,
Mij weldra op een goeden nacht zal worgen
En braden voor haar broer, het opperhoofd;
Zij heeft het hem, toen ik haar kocht, beloofd.
't Woord dat zij krijschte, dat ik heb vergeten,
Maakt me in doorkoortste droomen wild bezeten."

Hij schiet driemalen zijn revolver af:
Een aap valt uit zijn klapperboom in 't graf
Dat plotseling uit de bruine modder gaapt,
Waar 'n kaaiman sliep - die weldra verder slaapt.
Dan draait een schor geschreeuwde gramofoon;
Een twostep schalt - wanhopig monotoon -
Uit het geboomte aan de' oever snort een pijl:
Een oogenblik hoopt hij zijn dood, zijn heil,
Zooals een kind bij 't vallen van een ster
Een hartewensch snel stamelt; maar 't is ver
Mis, het gevederd moordtuig trilt in 't hout,
Verward gekraak verwijdert zich in 't woud...

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