Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Outcast



One of the things I have discovered since I came to live in the tropics is how people of European descent, like me, are not cut out for it. What an odd, ugly figure we cut!. The first thing you notice about us is that we don't know how to dress.

I remember awhile back, when Rome was hosting the World Cup, how the Italians complained about the ugliness of the English fans' manner of dress. They had no understanding of the Italian bella figura - the innate talent for looking good at any time, in any weather. When they weren't overdressed, being unprepared for the hotter temperatures of the Mediterranean, the English wore ugly togs and t-shirts, exposing acres of their pasty white flesh.

I have seen far too many expats, who have lived here much longer than I, apparently not caring that they looked like hell, walking along the streets in flip-flops, ragged shirts and shorts. I have noted the few expats who know how to dress, despite the heat and humidity. I spoke about it with a friend and he mentioned some nonsense about the wisdom of "blending in" with one's surroundings. I thought it absurd since my friend was at least six feet tall.

Joseph Conrad met many more expats than I ever will, and immortalized some of them in his novels. At the beginning of his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad wrote about the man who was the inspiration behind the character of Willems:


The man who suggested Willems to me was not particularly interesting in
himself. My interest was aroused by his dependent position, his strange,
dubious status of a mistrusted, disliked, worn-out European living on
the reluctant toleration of that Settlement hidden in the heart of the
forest-land, up that sombre stream which our ship was the only white
men's ship to visit. With his hollow, clean-shaved cheeks, a heavy grey
moustache and eyes without any expression whatever, clad always in a
spotless sleeping suit much be-frogged in front, which left his lean
neck wholly uncovered, and with his bare feet in a pair of straw
slippers, he wandered silently amongst the houses in daylight, almost as
dumb as an animal and apparently much more homeless. I don't know
what he did with himself at night. He must have had a place, a hut,
a palm-leaf shed, some sort of hovel where he kept his razor and his
change of sleeping suits. An air of futile mystery hung over him,
something not exactly dark but obviously ugly. The only definite
statement I could extract from anybody was that it was he who had
"brought the Arabs into the river." That must have happened many years
before. But how did he bring them into the river? He could hardly have
done it in his arms like a lot of kittens. I knew that Almayer founded
the chronology of all his misfortunes on the date of that fateful
advent; and yet the very first time we dined with Almayer there was
Willems sitting at table with us in the manner of the skeleton at the
feast, obviously shunned by everybody, never addressed by any one, and
for all recognition of his existence getting now and then from Almayer
a venomous glance which I observed with great surprise. In the course
of the whole evening he ventured one single remark which I didn't catch
because his articulation was imperfect, as of a man who had forgotten
how to speak. I was the only person who seemed aware of the sound.
Willems subsided. Presently he retired, pointedly unnoticed--into the
forest maybe? Its immensity was there, within three hundred yards of
the verandah, ready to swallow up anything. Almayer conversing with my
captain did not stop talking while he glared angrily at the retreating
back. Didn't that fellow bring the Arabs into the river! Nevertheless
Willems turned up next morning on Almayer's verandah. From the bridge of
the steamer I could see plainly these two, breakfasting together, tete
a tete and, I suppose, in dead silence, one with his air of being no
longer interested in this world and the other raising his eyes now and
then with intense dislike.

It was clear that in those days Willems lived on Almayer's charity. Yet
on returning two months later to Sambir I heard that he had gone on an
expedition up the river in charge of a steam-launch belonging to the
Arabs, to make some discovery or other. On account of the strange
reluctance that everyone manifested to talk about Willems it was
impossible for me to get at the rights of that transaction. Moreover, I
was a newcomer, the youngest of the company, and, I suspect, not judged
quite fit as yet for a full confidence. I was not much concerned about
that exclusion. The faint suggestion of plots and mysteries pertaining
to all matters touching Almayer's affairs amused me vastly. Almayer was
obviously very much affected. I believe he missed Willems immensely. He
wore an air of sinister preoccupation and talked confidentially with
my captain. I could catch only snatches of mumbled sentences. Then one
morning as I came along the deck to take my place at the breakfast table
Almayer checked himself in his low-toned discourse. My captain's face
was perfectly impenetrable. There was a moment of profound silence and
then as if unable to contain himself Almayer burst out in a loud vicious
tone:

"One thing's certain; if he finds anything worth having up there they
will poison him like a dog."

Disconnected though it was, that phrase, as food for thought, was
distinctly worth hearing. We left the river three days afterwards and I
never returned to Sambir; but whatever happened to the protagonist of
my Willems nobody can deny that I have recorded for him a less squalid
fate.

J. C. 1919.

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