"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (Book Review)

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwell's Magazine in 1899, and was issued in book form in 1902. This novella is the absolute masterwork of Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as captain of a river boat in Africa. Besides transporting ivory, his major task is to bring back Kurtz, a trader of the company, who has set himself up as the dictator of his own small kingdom in the wilderness, letting the native tribes worship him.

The story is partly based on Conrad's own experience: about eight years before, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Congo Free State was the private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II, and as has been described so aptly in Adam Hochschildt's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, it was one of the cruelest colonies in Africa. From 1885 until 1909, the greedy king used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, apply sadistic punishments such as cutting off hands or feet, and commit mass murder. In Conrad's story, the country is kept vague, probably to make the story more generally applicable and not just write a political book. But the novel fits in the supra-national protest movement, the first one ever, in which King Leopold II's "rape of the Congo" was harshly criticized, also by many other writers such as  Mark Twain.

[People gathered in the forest, at the passage of the steamboat “Roi des Belges” (1888)
Photo Wikipedia]

The "darkness" in the title not so much points to "dark Africa" - despite the misgivings of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who has lashed out at Conrad for treating the Africans around Mr Kurtz as savages -, for the problem is not alleged African primitiveness. The true "darkness" is that of colonialism, a barbarity imported from Europe - Conrad saw the extortion, the maiming, the heavy iron chains, in short the enslavement of many Africans for the profit of the Europeans who lusted after ivory and rubber. And again at a deeper level, the darkness is also the darkness at the heart of European civilization - you can't do what the Europeans were doing in 19th c. Africa and come away unblemished yourself. This darkness in Europe built up tension and unleashed itself in the horrors of the Great European War (WWI) of 1914-18, and its sequel, WWII. As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th c., Europe became the true "dark continent" (see the book by Mark Mazower of that title).

An interesting detail is that Marlow tells his story when seated with friends in a boat on the Thames while darkness is falling. They look at the horizon and see the silhouette of the City of London, another dark mass, where British colonial adventures were planned - Britain was just then involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa where a scorched earth technique was used against the farmers and where also the world's first concentration camps were "invented," with a death toll of 150,000.

In short, there is an unfathomable darkness within every human being, the capacity of the human ape for committing heinous acts of evil knows no bounds. It must be that realization which made the dying Kurtz cry out: "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's work is out of copyright, Heart of Darkness is therefore freely available, for example at the ebook center of The University of Adelaide. I read the novella in the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an interesting introduction as well as a fragment from Conrad's African diary. Heart of Darkness formed the inspiration for the 1979 film by Coppola, Apocalypse Now.