Just polished off Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in my ongoing 50 Classics project and I have to admit I’m losing steam. It’s awfully hard to read about the dark wild places of the world and not want to put down your reading list and actually go somewhere; not that I want to go anywhere vaguely like Conrad’s Darkness, mind you. Back to subject at hand though. Heart of Darkness was one of the first time read on my list. My only previous exposure to it was in the form of the movie Apocalypse Now. To say the movie was loosely based on the book is an understatement (although I’m certain that highly trained film students will disagree).
The novel is narrated by Charlie Marlow, a former salt water sailor who has signed on to captain a freshwater steamboat navigating the interior of the colonial Congo at the behest of an ivory trading company. The novel’s preface explains that Conrad himself, served the same role and many of the scenes and experiences are drawn firsthand from his disturbing time there.
To say Darkness is the prevalent theme of the novel is putting it lightly. Darkness of every form permeates the writing; natural darkness, cultural darkness, moral darkness, intellectual darkness and so on. It’s tangible to the reader and you can almost feel it choking your breath and clogging your pores. At several points, I just had to stop and go out in the sunshine for a few deep breaths.
While I don’t want to give too much away about Marlow’s experiences, the phenomena that is Kurtz and story in general, I will recommend that sensitive readers be careful to keep the novel in the context of its historical period. The language, ideology and atmosphere are at once racist of the African people and culture but also critical and exposing of European attitudes and practices. At one point I was tempted to draw an analogy between Conrad’s depiction of the European abuse of Africa and a police report’s clinical report of a rape. Conrad (through Marlow) does not remain clinical for long, though.
The language is a bit dated, but by no means inaccessible. I recommend it, particular as a historical pretext to the current dilemmas of Africa such as civil strife, drought & famine, economic distress and enviromental ravages.