The following is an extract from a book review in Joseph Conrad Today a publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America.
Ian Burnet’s book, published this year, is a very welcome addition to a complex area of Conrad’s life and writing. It is a curious feature of Conrad studies that few Conrad scholars have been to many of the places in the region that feature in his Malay fiction, and it is refreshing to read a book that contains Burnet’s knowledge of Indonesia and of Singapore. This, and his sensitive response to Conrad himself, make themselves felt throughout the short book, a book that would be justifiably classed as suggested reading for any reader or student of Conrad’s works set in this part of the world …
… Burnet’s book is not literary-critical, and it makes no pretence to being so. His confident and wide-ranging contextual account, combined effectively with his relating of the plots and features of the Borneo novels themselves, provides a powerful sense of the lived reality through which Conrad passed and on which he drew. This enables the reader to gain a reliable grasp of the enormous achievement of Conrad’s Malay fiction in its systematic engagement with a culture not his own but of significance to at least “all of Europe”—like Kurtz—for its interpretation of historical roots in a world that colonialism relentlessly and cruelly changed, and for its portrayal of the human condition through the characters that Conrad portrays inhabiting such a world. Burnet quotes the well-known comment by Henry James to Conrad in 1906 that: “No one has known—for intellectual use—the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached” . “The whole matter” is a phrase potent in its conciseness and significance, and Burnet’s book skillfully provides an insight into part of the whole matter regarding the Archipelago that often remains obscure.
Andrew Francis received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2010. He has published in The Conradian and contributed to The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. His book entitled Culture and Commerce in Conrad’s Asian Fiction was published in 2015.
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