Cheat's read - Historical novella: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Written 1898–1899, England
The rundown: On an anchored boat on the Thames one foggy night, Charles Marlow tells his fellow crewmen about his time captaining a riverboat up the Congo for a Belgian ivory company in search of the mysterious Mr Kurtz. Kurtz, Marlow learned, is an enigmatic polymath in charge of an ivory-trading post deep in the jungle who has established himself as a god-like figure among the native African inhabitants.
Through various setbacks and delays — including the sabotage of his boat — Marlow’s journey upriver to Kurtz’s camp is delayed, leading him to ponder the much-mythologised man who has taken ill and must be retrieved from his jungle throne back to the Company. But the entire voyage on water and foot also show Marlow the true nature of European colonial greed as dying slaves lie under trees and the continent’s resources are ravaged.
NEED TO KNOW: Joseph Conrad’s obfuscating novella is more than just an excoriating look at European exploitation of and brutality towards African colonies. Much like the jungle that Marlow so vividly describes as opening itself to allow him in before closing in over the river behind him, Heart of Darkness is a journey into the self and an examination of the moral compass.
Famously adapted for celluloid by screenwriter John Milius and director Francis Ford Coppola in 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness has captivated readers for a century as its shape keeps changing with the turning world. Kurtz (played unforgettably by Marlon Brando in Coppola’s film) is “a voice” to Marlow for much of the slim novel, a seductive monster who symbolises the dark, corrupt side of Europe and Marlow himself.
THE END: As repairs to the boat drag on, the cult of Kurtz builds in Marlow’s imagination. Eventually, Marlow and the “pilgrims” reach Kurtz’s camp, dodging arrow fire and sweating to the sound of distant tribal drums. There, Marlow meets the prone and fevered Kurtz as well as a Russian wanderer who has given himself wholly to Kurtz’s ideological kingdom. Marlow sees the open idolatry Kurtz is held in but also his fragility. He brings Kurtz on board the steam ship and brings him back downriver. Before he dies, Kurtz gasps one of literature’s most infamous final lines: “The horror! The horror!”
THE VERDICT: Heart of Darkness marks an awakening of Europe to the barbarity that imperialism was inflicting on Africa. It has since been studied endlessly, both for Conrad’s transgressive themes of colonialism, man vs nature and corporate greed, while in terms of atmosphere, claustrophobia and mystique, it is hard to beat. Not everyone, however, is such a fan. Nigerian laureate Chinua Achebe accused the novella of being “xenophobic” and “dehumanising” while EM Forster was left cold by Conrad’s “foggy” narrative.
DID YOU KNOW? Conrad, a Russian-born Pole who wrote in English after mastering it in his 20s, captained a steamship for a Belgian trading company in the Congo in 1890. The atrocities he saw perpetrated there by King Leopold’s regime fed into the tale.
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