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One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.
I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.
Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.
Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.
….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”
However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)
Book 62 of 90
The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.
A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.
The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.
I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.