Conrad in Bangkok

June 8 2015

“One morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.

There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think that in those miles of human habitations there was not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some of those houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palace, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.”

___

Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line, a late novel, written 1915, published 1917. Crossing the bar meant crossing the sandbank which often lies at the mouth of a river. Going in the other direction, it could be a metaphor for setting off into the unknown. Conrad’s young narrator is sailing up the Chao Phraya River.

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