and Statement of Intent
The fall of a European in Malaya. That is what Conrad wanted to write about when he started his first book, Almayer’s Folly.
And he did write about that but about much more besides.
The action unfolds in Malaya, not far from Borneo in the 1950s when Malaya was still under the control of the English.
In a little isolated village far from anywhere.
On a wide river and the river will play a very important role in this story that is simple yet deals with passion and dream, racism and money.
Yearning for independence and cowardice, but above all the love of a father for his daughter which, when he loses her to another man who is not even white, will go as far as madness and his complete downfall.
Vast amounts of gold and diamonds are supposed to exist in the land that Captain Lingard is said to know how to get to.
He is known to have been behind the career and life of Almayer to whom he married off a Malay girl he had taken in and given a white woman’s education that she very quickly rejects.
All in exchange for the gold he would find one day.
But Almayer has entered into a fool’s bargain in marrying the Malay girl. Captain Lingard dies without having found the mines and Almayer neither loves nor is loved by his wife who rejects everything about the western way of life.
A mixed marriage that produces a little mixed-race child, Nina, who will also have a white girl’s education against the wishes of her mother who risks her life running away with her daughter.
She will be caught and little Nina too will go off to a Singapore boarding school to get a western education befitting a white girl, like her mother.
And she too will suffer from it.
She returns a beautiful, tall, young woman, but she is impassive and totally unsmiling.
Almayer does not understand, in any case he does not want to understand.
He wears himself down trying to find the way to the gold so as to be able to take his daughter to Europe where he hopes that, with their wealth, her mixed race will be accepted and her beauty celebrated. Europe is where true life is found. Not on the banks of this river where he is the only white man and where his business interests are falling apart.
He suffers from his daughter’s indifference when he talks to her about his dreams. Dreams he thinks he can share with her.
Western civilisation he wants to take her to, whatever the cost.
The only form civilisation takes moreover.
For him, the people living along the river are just savages.
But the girl has been irreparably damaged by the long years of humiliation she has spent in boarding school. And she loathes everything that reminds her of that civilisation.
She knows her father harbours dreams. Dreams for both of them.
Her father who never stops telling her he loves her.
It’s for her that he wants to make a fortune and he thinks that money will overcome prejudice.
Prejudice that dwells within him. He looks down on his wife who has totally gone back to Malay ways. For him she is foreign, a savage. Nothing binds them but mutual disdain.
And it’s his wife who will thrust his daughter into the arms of a Rajah’s son, a handsome, strong, young man who is part of the group of insurgents intent on liberating their country.
He comes to see Almayer to ask him for gunpowder when trading in it is totally prohibited.
Almayer agrees however on condition that Maroola with his men and boats helps him find the way that leads to the gold.
The young man agrees and falls madly in love with Nina.
Who loves him in return. And for the first time, she smiles.
And when the young man has to leave the village to go off to attack a gunboat protecting the colonists, they swear undying love, whatever may happen and whatever the cost.
She and her father begin the wait for him.
And the young man, on a night of storms and wild seas, does come back, risking his life to do so, but without his boat.
He is in a dugout canoe with just two of his men.
The morning after the stormy night, Almayer finds, caught among logs floating by the bank, the body of Dain.
All his dreams are in ruin. He wants to die. Die and drink.
He does not suspect that the man he has found with his head smashed in is one of Dain’s sailors and that Dain himself, after a night in the wild waters of the river, has been reunited with his daughter who has hidden him in a far-off clearing.
Nor that it is his wife who had the idea of passing off the dead sailor for Dain Maroola.
He will be questioned by the English soldiers but will only tell them what he knows.
During a drunken night spent with them, he will show them the man with his head smashed in.
Then he will fall asleep on his verandah.
It is there that a servant girl will wake him and tell him everything.
Dain is not dead and his daughter has run off with him. She tells him where the young couple is hiding, waiting for a boat to take them down to the sea.
Almayer will find them, pleads, shouts and weeps for his daughter to leave this young man, a savage.
When he learns that it is too late, that his daughter has given herself to “that”, his grief will know no limit.
His daughter is no longer his daughter, no longer part of him, he who had so many dreams for her.
He who had given her a white girl’s education and she has made love with this Malay.
And yet he wants her back, he wants her for himself.
But there is no way, she resists.
He is about to ditch them there just when the soldiers are coming, then finally, sombre and haggard, takes them to the mouth of the river where a boat is waiting to take them to Dain’s father.
He will watch them boarding the boat right up to the very last moment.
And cover over, to the last trace, his daughter’s footsteps in the sand.
Then go home.
And, staring at the river, go mad.
I read the book last summer and I did not then know why, I was so moved by it.
Then as time went by and the detail – the book is filled with it – faded, I realised just how universal it was.
Every father has dreams for his daughter or son, and a child’s leaving is often felt as a blow.
Here, the blow actually drives the father into madness, because, beyond all else, it destroys his dream.
Why bother getting up in the morning, if there is no one to do it for.
I would like to treat this story with simplicity, a father, a mother, a girl, a young man in love with her; and with sensuality, thanks to the setting.
The vegetation is lush, the overwhelming heat of the sun, the humidity heavy in the air, the richness of colours in the sky and on the earth, the wildness of the water endangering those who venture into it. Sudden calm. Mist that lifts, dugouts sliding across the water. Birds flying over the river. Nearby jungle.
There is something in this story that reminds one of Murnau’s Tabu. And I like pondering how Murnau would make this film if he were in the 1950s like me.
The girl being of mixed-race, the father’s prejudice, the struggle for his people that Dain leads and that Nina joins spontaneously, the whole collective dimension to Conrad’s story makes it even more powerfully relevant for us today.
from Issue 2: Devils
Original French text © Chantal Akerman 13 December 2008.
Translation from the French © Philip Anderson and Katharina Benzler May 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.