Literary daybook, Oct. 22

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published October 22, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 22, 1954, Katsumi Hosokawa hears his first opera, Verdi's "Rigoletto," in Tokyo at the age of 11.
-- "Bel Canto" (2001)
by Ann Patchett

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1885, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote to his mother that he had decided to become a gun runner in Ethiopia, so beginning the last phase of his wild, infamous and short life. By the age of 21, Rimbaud had renounced Paul Verlaine and poetry for a vagabond tour of Europe -- tutor, beggar, docker, factory worker, soldier, thief and more. By the age of 25, he had renounced Europe for Africa, becoming at first a coffee trader and then turning to gun running (and possibly slave trading) as a get-rich scheme, he tells his mother:

"I have left my job in Aden after a violent altercation with those pathetic peasants who want to stupefy me for good ... They did all they could to hold on to me, but I sent them to hell, with all their offers and their deals, and their horrible office, and their filthy town ... Several thousand rifles are on their way to me from Europe. I am going to set up a caravan, and carry this merchandise to Menelik, the king of Shoa [Abyssinia] ..."

His partners died and there was a year of delay and baksheesh, but Rimbaud and his 100 rifle-laden camels finally set off on the four-month trek through the Afar Triangle in the Great Rift Valley. This is the area where the 3.2-million-year-old "Lucy" was found in 1974; as described by Charles Nicholl in his biography/travelogue/detective story "Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa," it was poetic ground zero:

"These ridged, scorched, volcanic badlands across which Rimbaud struggled in 1886-7 are, in the old cliche, the 'cradle of mankind.' And if Rimbaud's years in Africa seem like a flight from what he was -- from Europe, from poetry, from himself -- then it is surely here, on this desolate desert trek, that he reaches the furthest point of that arrow-flight, arriving at this utter privation, at this landscape of nothingness, which is also -- in a quite scientific sense of which he would surely approve -- the very beginning of humanity.

Nicholl retraced Rimbaud's path in Africa, and his book -- Hawthornden Prize winner in 1997 -- brings the facts and the mysterious legend alive in fascinating detail. Interspersed are lines from Rimbaud, such as these prescient ones from "A Season in Hell":

"I loved the desert, burnt orchards, tired old shops, warm drinks. I dragged myself through stinking alleys, and with my eyes closed I offered myself to the sun, the god of fire.
'General, if on your ruined ramparts one cannon still remains, shell us with clods of dried-up earth. Shatter the mirrors of expensive shops! And the drawing rooms! Make the city swallow its dust. Turn gargoyles to rust. Stuff boudoirs with rubies' fiery powder ...'"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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