At the age of 25, French poet Arthur Rimbaud—the infamous author of A Season in Hell, the pioneer of modernism, the "hoodlum poet" celebrated a century later by Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison—turned his back on poetry, France, and fame, for a life of wandering in East Africa.
British Scholar Charles Nicholl in his biography "Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91" pieces together the shadowy story of Rimbaud's life as a trader, explorer, and gunrunner in Africa. Following his fascinating journey, Nicholl shows how Rimbaud lived out that mysterious pronouncement of his teenage years: "Je est un autre"—I is somebody else.
After changing poetry forever in his late teens and early 20s with a radically innovative style, Rimbaud renounced writing. He embarked on a life of wandering, first in Europe, then Asia and finally Africa and the Middle East, where he remained for 11 years as a trader.
What drove Rimbaud to the road? His life in his French homeland and Africa is a kind of legend. One doesn't get the sense that Rimbaud sought adventure. The exotic destinations were not really the point of his travels. Nor was he a "lost soul," who is estranged from life and friendship. A couple recollections of Rimbaud in Africa depict him as a great raconteur, a genial story-teller, a man most people liked and held in high regard. It appears the poet found peace in constant movement, even if he spent a couple years in Harar, Ethiopia, in the 1880s-90s. The life of the brilliant poet and enfant terrible became its own poem even if it meant running guns and trading clothing material and other stuff.
Rimbaud chronicled his life through copious letter-writing mostly to his mother, a difficult woman. Nicholl has researched generously, uncovering letters, old photos and journal diaries. The reader has picture of who Rimbaud was, but his life still raises questions.
Rimbaud traveled everywhere even prior to his African trip. On foot, he traversed the Alps twice. He walked between his northern France home and Paris a couple times. Rimbaud signed on as a Dutch mercenary, traversing the oceans to go to Java, a Dutch colony in Asia. After a couple months, he deserted his role as a mercenary, escaping into the jungle and somehow making it back to Europe on his own.
The question is why did Rimbaud give up poetry and debauchery for a life of wandering? Nicholl's book tantalizingly asks the question and correctly leaves it for the reader to answer. Rimbaud wanted to be somebody else, and he achieved his life goal.