Sunday, 20 May 2012

Heart of Darkness

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!"

The Roi des Belges, the steamboat
commanded by Conrad on the Congo in 1889
Twenty six years ago I began my A Level English Literature studies with Heart of Darkness.  As soon as I'd finished the book I turned back to the start and read it all over again.

Now it's the final text of my English Literature degree. I've reread it several times over the years since, as a novella, it's just the right length for a Sunday afternoon indulgence. Each time I read it, I find more to admire.

Marlow, the narrator for most of the book, recounts his journey as the captain of a steamboat down the Congo into the 'heart of darkness' in search of the infamous Mr Kurtz.  Conrad's vivid descriptions are based on his own experiences of the Congo and I'm never sure what is most terrifying, the oppressive jungle or the assortment of macabre colonists he meets on the way.  From the old women knitting ominously in the company office, to the immaculate Accountant or the horror of Kurtz himself, we see that the darkness is spiritual just as much as physical.  These are the 'hollow men' that inspired T.S. Eliot's poem.

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe attacked the book as racist. Whilst Conrad is critical of European colonialism, Africans in the book are dehumanized and, at best, described as noble savages.

I can't disagree with Achebe's criticism, but as a work of immense power and a vivid account of the effects of colonialism, I can't think of a better read.

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