There is something magical about Joseph Conrad’s writing – enrapturing, eloquent, filled with spirit and yearning. Full of humanity; lost people in lost places doing terrible and wonderful things. And “Heart of Darkness”? His arguably most famous work – written at the beginning in three parts and published in a magazine and then brought together into a novella merely 30,000 words long.
But in those 30,000 words… What other authors cannot capture in their entire careers, Conrad gives us in a few short pages. The story is well known, the journey of Marlow up the Congo River to Kindu in search of Kurtz, to return him home – though he resists. Through the Congo Free State, King Leopold’s personal colony and one of the most brutal in the history of humanity. It is said that 50% of the Congo’s population died during those terrible years of Leopold. If you are interested in that story, you can read “King Leopold’s Ghost”. Not that “independence” has been much better…
I won’t go into the symbolism or the allegories of the novel, those are well known. The use of darkness; the juxtaposition of the Thames and the Congo; the discovery of the savage in all of us.
I will skip this analysis in favor of another, for I have been to the Congo. For several years I worked the wars, I saw the suffering, I lived “the horror”. I first arrived in 1999, interestingly exactly 100 years after the publication of Conrad’s magnum opus. Yet the descriptions on the pages of his tale, coming from his own experiences in the Congo, could have been my descriptions. The privations, the suffering, the slavery. Things have not changed in the Congo – even now ravaged by Ebola and total war.
Conrad was accused of being racist, and “Heart of Darkness” has been blasted by many as mis-representing Africa for the European audience. Who knows if today the novel would even have been published. Facile responses from the “safe” crowd who have never spent the time wading through the waters and walking through the broken down hospitals swollen with dying children. “Heart of Darkness” is a lament, a tragic lament – of what humanity is up to in the dark places where nobody is looking, and about how that darkness can seep into the hearts of even “good” men (as Kurtz was said to be).
Incidentally, I wrote my own “Heart of Darkness”, coming from my days in the Congo – in Uganda and in Mali and in Nigeria and in Chad; civil wars all, brutality and violence and sadness. “I, Charles, From the Camps” – the reaction of an African boy growing up in Conrad’s world. I surely will also get accused of racism and “cultural appropriation”, as if my ten years fighting for peace in a continent of war did not earn me the right. No matter – for, like Conrad, these stories must be told and the world – it must listen. For as Conrad eloquently said, “…you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place – and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! – breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated.”