Dear Zia Haider Rahman and friends,
Dear Frederik Schodt and Fiametta Hsu,
Dear friends of Friends of MacDonald • The Dutch Connection,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is what I got to know. A young man, of mixed race, born in uncharted territory, destined to have a splendid future in business, went whaling instead. He had himself stranded onto the shores of an unknown island in closed territory on the other side of the biggest ocean of the world. He was captured and made himself useful to his captors. His name was Ranald MacDonald and we are talking about events in the months around October 11, 1848.
As I myself was conceived in Amsterdam and born in the Republic of Indonesia, studied chemistry and epistemology and finally became skipper, Ranald MacDonald intrigued me. I traced his footsteps a couple of years ago and last year decided to create an award bearing his name for outstanding work by a debut writer or artist on international relations, in particular those between Asia, Europe and North America.
Two long time friends were prepared to help me out with the creation of the Cultural Public Benefit Organization Friends of MacDonald • The Dutch Connection, Ernst Homburg, chemist by education, now historian of science and technology, and Frits van der Kooij, forester by education, now land and real estate agent.
Consequently, today, October 11, 2016, I am honoured to announce, on behalf of the board of Friends of MacDonald • The Dutch Connection, the first ever winner of the Ranald MacDonald Award as well as, exceptionally, the honorary winner of a Ranald MacDonald Prize.
Dear Zia Haider Rahman,
The first chapter of your first book, published by Hollands Diep as In het licht van wat wij weten, starts with a quotation of Edward Said about exile, which is applicable to Ranald MacDonald when he went whaling instead of trading. It is followed by a second quotation of Joseph Conrad about blank spaces on the earth, applicable to the region of North America where MacDonald was born. And a third quotation about true places never being on the map, taken from Melville’s Moby Dick, which might be read as a description of the hardly known spot where MacDonald had himself stranded.
The opening sentence of your book reads ‘In the early hours of one September morning in 2008, there appeared on the doorstep of our home in South Kensington a brown-skinned man, haggard and gaunt, the ridges of his cheekbones set above an unkempt beard.’ I like to think it was Saturday, September 20, 9.30 local time. This is a cliffhanger.
In paragraph three of your book the narrator explicitly lays out its framework. The reader is going to get a visitor, with notebooks in his bag and very much to tell at the kitchen table. He also gets his listening and recording friend, the narrator, who is forced to get back to the shared past with his visitor and to his own past during his visitor’s absence. In order to finally sort things out and write the book, your book, he needs to do a lot of research into details because as a man of finance he is only interested in details as far as they nourish the broad picture. The narrator even summarizes the book, your book, before he starts writing it. It will be ‘the story of the breaking of nations, war in the twenty-first century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love’.
Then, bit by bit, the framework is filled in, not starting in one corner to end up in the opposite. No. Pieces are taken up, tried and put back. Parts are laid regardless of what is already there, waiting to get fitted into the right place, once there is a connection. In the meantime, every well laid piece or couple of pieces offer an image, worth contemplating. And contemplation takes time.
The reader gets to see image after image, panoramas, spreads, snapshots and everything in between. Of class differences here and over there. Of longing for love to the very opposite and not getting it. Of psychoanalysis and music. Of warfare and the fruitless attempts to master its consequences. Of betrayal and foul play. Of then, now and the relation between the two. Of science, law, finance and the value of the knowledge accumulated in them. Of cartography, semantics and linguistics. Of the Union Jack. Of religion. Of Europe, Asia and North America. There is even a couple of images of Africa. And, the Nehru-collar is mentioned twice, once off, once on. There is nearly an end, the pictures are in high resolution. The reader can zoom in to the pixel, which now and then appears to be not a pixel, but a picture in itself.
At the very end of your book a piece is missing, or held back by the visitor or the narrator. What the reader does know about this piece, is the place, the time and the people involved. Above all, the reader gets to know that it is an image of rage of the visitor’s, ‘so all-encompassing that it ultimately did not care for confirmation’ and he ‘became the instrument of his fury’. Which refers, I guess, to Gödel’s ‘incompleteness theorem’ and to Freud’s ‘agieren’, acting out. But that is all the reader gets. The context is the book, your book, the missing piece the main event. ‘Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness, below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know’, as the visitor already told the narrator.
Your book shows that at every level the light in which we see the relations between Asia, Europe and North America is fading or has already faded. I understand this as new light being shed onto the old. Your book is true as true can be in fiction, it is as morally good as good can be in the times and places described, and certainly beautiful in its tone, fully supporting the first two criteria.
Therefor, Zia Haider Rahman, may I convey to you my warm congratulations on behalf of the board of Friends of MacDonald • The Dutch Connection and invite you to come forward to receive the Ranald MacDonald Award of 2016 for your debut novel In het licht van wat wij weten.
This, sir, is the medal, made of Calamandar or Coromandel, also known as Macassar Ebony.
And this is the diploma, lasered in corn paper.
And this is what it is all about, the world and a couple of places of importance to the life of Ranald MacDonald, so especially the upper part. It is made of European walnut, also known as English, Common or Old World walnut.
And this is the lid, made of North American Maple, to enclose it all, with of course a stylized portrait of Ranald MacDonald taken from a daguerreotype of the early 1850’s. Zafar could have had the trophy in his backpack, just as the narrator could have had it somewhere in a drawer but ‘Where, again?’.