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Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Member Name: michaelhudson
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Date: 07/08/03, updated on 07/08/03 (614 review reads)
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Heart of Darkness, a novella based on his diaries and published twelve years later, is Conrad's masterpiece, a challenging, engaging, at times insanely difficult read that peers slowly and deliberately back into the abyss. Writing in his third language, Conrad's prose and symbolism struggles for precision just as his imperfect narrator, Marlow, fights against the truth in the mournful gloom on the interminable river.
Marlow, framed by an unseen second narrator in one of Conrad's masterful plot devices, is a physical wreck of a man, an ironically observed liberal, "a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe." From a pitch black berth on the Thames, itself once no more than the very end of the world before the Romans came with legionnaires, wine and tax gatherers, he recounts a journey through the Congo in search of the enigmatic Kurtz, a man who sends in as much ivory as all the other agents put together, an exceptional functionary who came to Africa to improve and instruct, but a man now rumoured to be lacking in restraint.
That much is the plot, though 100 pages hardly gives room for much further development. So if you're picking up Heart of Darkness anticipatin
g action and adventure, or if your head is full of Wagner, Marlon Brando and the smell of napalm in the morning, then reading Conrad will likely as not be an immense disappointment to you. The pace, even when we finally reach Kurtz, is ponderous, the symbolism sometimes as impenetrable as the immense trees on each bank of the river, the characters exist merely to illustrate the incomprehensible, the ending is a compromise between the real and the imagined, and the rest has to be re-visited, re-interpreted and re-analysed for any semblance of meaning.
So this is a book that requires work on the part of the reader. Before you open page one you need at least some prior knowledge of what Conrad saw in the Congo, of what he is attacking. You need to feel late-nineteenth century Europe, its deep shadows, rainbow coloured maps and ominous, feverish atmosphere. And then you begin to understand that Kurtz, with his half-English mother, half-French father, German name and Belgian company, is not just a symbol of a continent consumed and corrupted by its own avarice, but also an amalgam of real men, full of ivory lust, altered horribly, self-feeding and defeated by the wilderness within. And only then can you begin to appreciate the evocative imagery of Marlow's return to a Europe unenlightened, petty and impersonal, of the wilderness whispering to Kurtz, a man of high culture and inspired rhetoric, "things about himself which he did not know", of cowardly men "squirting lead" into the tops of trees against which they are but miniscule dots on the landscape, and of soldiers thrown callously into the surf while a limp, greasy French man-of-war stands "incomprehensible. Firing into a continent."
Though accused of racism by some African critics, Conrad is merely as flawed as any white European attacking atrocities committed against cultures he sympathises with rather than understands. True, Africa is at times reduced to metaphor
, and sketches of the indigenous population are made in broad strokes, but his work remains a searing indictment of European colonialism as embodied by the Eldorado Exploration Committee - cruel, reckless and greedy, with the morality of burglars - the unspeakable rites performed by the bloodthirsty pilgrims, and the smashed Kurtz, who decorates his fence with impaled heads and 'trades' for his ivory with Winchester rifles and his own private army. Till in the end we see that the darkness was born of the colonizers themselves, who turned white blanks into so many colours between arbitrary lines on large maps, and brought incomprehension, calamity and supernatural terror to a continent that repays them with internal decay and devastation.
This is a beautiful book, full of uneasiness, metaphor, historical detail and autobiography, veering between extremes of brilliance and boredom, of over elaboration and piercing realisation. You'll fall in love or asleep within the first ten pages of this book and you'll still be no closer to its heart if you last to the very end. But Conrad matters.
"Why this is hell, nor am I out of it." Mestastophilis.
Heart of Darkness is available at amazon.co.uk from £1.50 (Penguin Popular Classics, ISBN 0140620486). The 112 page volume is dwarfed by the Norton Critical Edition (£6.95, ISBN 0393955524), which runs to 438 pages including five essays and background sources.
John Malkovich and Tim Roth starred in a terrible 1994 film version of the novella. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was, of course, loosely based on Conrad?s story.
Conrad was not the only writer to protest at Leopold's genocide, which still resonates in the tragic circumstances of the Congo today. The following websites have background information: