Synopsis of The Forbidden Empire (1932)

A novel by the Dutch ship’s surgeon and author J. Slauerhoff (1898–1936)

The Forbidden Empire is a historical novel about Luiz Vaz de Camões and Macau, but it has autobiographical elements as well. It is laid in many of the interesting historical places in Macau such as its Fortresses, the Cathedral, the Leal Senado, the Rua Central and
the A-Ma temple. The autobiographical elements occur towards the end of the novel and
culminate when the author dreams that he is Camões.

The novel starts with a romantic view on Camões’ excile from Portugal. While the king of Portugal had decided that the crown-prince would soon marry a lady, called Diana in the novel, Luiz falls in love with her. He had already met Diana many times at her castle Santa-Clara, where she invited poets to recite poems about her, on the occasion that he first recites poems there himself. They are full of open admiration and she immediately falls in love with him. The subsequent love-affair is very open as well and leads to his excile to the furthest ends of the Portuguese empire. Although he likes to rove the seas, he regrets the sudden break with Diana so much that he will never make another love-poem.

The novel then continues with a view on life in Macau at the time that Procurador Campos had to inaugurate his opponent, the merchant Pedro Velho, as a member of the Senado (second half of the sixteenth century). Campos wants to defend Macau against the Chinese with weapons, while Velho prefers to defend it with guile and bribery. Campos’ companion is Capitão Ronquilho, who wants to marry his daughter Dona Pilar. She is seventeen years old and seems to be very religious. Campos take offence at the Dominicans, while Pilar sympathizes with them and even take part in their processions. One evening, Ronquilho tries, with Campos’ permission, to kidnap Dona Pilar. He does not succeed because she is gone  before he arrives. Both Campos and Ronquilho are convinced that she hides herself with the Dominicans. They make plans to expel the Dominicans using the disappearance of the children of a Chinese merchant, who are known to be influenced by
the Dominicans, as an excuse.

The novel then returns to Luiz Camões leaving Lisboa on the São Bento. He has to travel as a prisoner and to become a soldier on his arrival in Macau. When the São Bento is near Macau, it is wrecked in a storm and Luiz washes ashore at Ilha Verde. He is found by Dona Pilar, who hides there in the little wooden house where she once lived together with her Chinese mother; sometimes visited by her father. When Luiz awakes raving, he first mixes her up with Diana. One night Luiz discovers a fire in the city. He warns Dona Pilar, who recognizes that the cloister of the Dominicans is on fire and understands that this is because of her. She asks Luiz to go to the city to look what is happening.

The novel goes shortly in a rather unexpected direction: it continues with the course of life of an Irish wireless operator on a coaster hugging the Chinese coast. This character is modelled after the author.

After this short interlude, it continues with Camões’ life. He goes to the city. By asking questions about the fire, he attracts attention and is arrested. After interrogation Campos has the impression that Luiz knows more about Dona Pilar, but he does not betray her, not even when he is tortured. However, a mythological garden that he describes in the poetry that he is writing in prison has unconsciously become very similar to the garden around the house on Ilha Verde where Pilar is hiding. When Campos steals  Camões’ work, he recognizes the garden on the island from it. Shortly after this Luiz is ordered to escort as a soldier a legation to Beijing. On its way, the legation erects signs to find the way back. The expedition fails and Luiz tries to find the way back to Macau by means of these signs.

The next interlude is again about the wireless operator. The coaster is hold up by a Chinese gang. The ship is plundered and the crew is taken blindfolded to a desolate area. The wireless operator discovers one of the signs erected by the legation to Beijing almost 400 years ago and found by Camões on his way back to Macau. Then the novel goes on in Hong Kong some time after the incident with the wireless operator. A mysterious man who is telling people that he is a member of a legation to Beijing wants to travel to Macau. Finally he pays with very old coins for the steamer service to Macau. On the evening of his day of arrival, he goes in his dreams to the cathedral. There he finds monks fighting against attackers and he gets involved in the fight on the side of the monks.

Then we are again almost 400 years back in time. The night before there had been an attack on Macau. It was finally beated off by a direct hit of the powder magazine on the flagship, but Macau would have been fallen earlier without a very courageous sally led by a stranger. Campos recognizes Camões in the stranger. The latter has lost his memory, escapes after a few days from the hospital, and becomes a hermit living between the rocks on a hill outside the city. Before he is completely forgotten, Dona Pilar visits him once and
returns on that occasion the works that he had written in Macau to him.

The day after the arrival of the mysterious man, the wireless operator wakes up in a hotel in Macau. The last things he remembers are that he felt down in the desolated area where he was brought after the plundering and that he just had dreams about a fight. The next day he goes back to Hong Kong. He feels relieved, better able to face the world, but a little
bit sad that someone else who had sought recourse to him had not found relief.

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