As I may have mentioned before, I’m doing a part-time master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose Fiction; one of my modules in second year is The Novel and myself and my classmates picked the books, such as “Cloud Atlas” (which is why I finished it despite not enjoying it).
Our first book of Term Two? “Heart of Darkness”.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. I’ve never seen “Apocalypse Now” but I am familiar with its plot, so I knew some of the themes I’d encounter. And coming out… well. I’m still not sure.
The story is primarily that of Marlow, a sailor who – when younger – travelled up the Congo river as captain of an ivory trading company’s steamboat. On his way there, he hears tales of trading post commander who is collecting more ivory than all the others put together, a man known only as Mr. Kurtz, and when Marlow finally reaches Kurtz in the deepest heart of the jungle, he finds more darkness there than he ever could have expected.
As a writer, I can say it’s beautifully written. I especially like the way that the story is set up: the protagonist Marlow is a character within a framing device of a group of men on a Thames boat, giving an uninterrupted monologue of the events of the story itself. Even the occasional interruptions to talk to the other people on the boat work well.
On top of that, the language used is superb, eloquent and atmospheric, even though its use of racial epithets made me wince – it is, I find, one of the difficulties of being a contemporary reader of older texts that you will find uncomfortable terminology. And suffice it to say, “Heart” is racist by modern standards, no matter how comparatively progressive its attitude was towards Africans of colour when it was written in 1899.
So much for the writer’s response. What about my perspective as a reader? How did I respond emotionally?
With both fascination and disappointment.
Perhaps the problem was that I’d been given a false impression of how the book would be. As a modern reader, I’m used to violence, degradation and horror being splayed in front of me in all its terrible glory with little left uncovered, whereas much of Conrad’s writing employs implication and the subtle in its latter stages. There are no explicit descriptions of what Kurtz did to cement his sway over the native population – merely light brush strokes and implication, which is in turn interesting and frustrating.
I’d say that the most graphic part of the story comes early in the description of the grove where African slaves on the Congo railway are left to die and nothing really comes close to matching that in the rest of the story.
Adjust your expectations accordingly and research a little of the history of the Congo before you go in and “Heart of Darkness” may well strike a chord. Me? I found it off pitch.
Related Post: The Thursday Review: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell
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