Read for the readalong organized by Allie over at A Literary Odyssey.
Sometimes you just create an image in your mind of what a certain book will be like, and in this case, I was genuinely surprised on how different it turned out.
I knew Heart of Darkness was about the Belgian Congo, that it inspired Apocalypse Now and that it was an established part of the Western canon. So in my mind it was a heavy, dense story, with a vague plot full of metaphoric innuendos about human nature and how quickly we can revert to our animal origins.
What I found was a clear story that easily dragged me along. It was also the perfect book for audiobook because most of the book is story-telling my the main character. In a boat anchored in the Thames, a group of men await for the tide to turn. As night falls, Charlie Marlow starts telling the story of his experiences in an unnamed country in Africa, where he went in search of adventure.
His first task is to bring a man named Kurtz back to civilization. He’s their best ivory trader and feared to be very sick. When they find him – Marlow and his crew of native cannibals – Kurnst is not ill, he just turned native and convinced local tribes to treat him like a god. He also begun to take part in local brutal costumes, like putting a row of African heads around his house.
How sane and how mad Kurtz really became is left up to us to decide. Among the other Europeans Marlow meets in Africa, Kurtz had a reputation for competence and charisma – he was the epitome of an Alpha Dog. And yet, he dies feverishly screaming “The horror! The horror!” on the way back.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: it’s not a politically correct book. Africa and the Africans in Heart of Darkness stand for “the other world”, the opposite of civilization. Yet I thought the real stab was at the hypocritical westerners that think themselves so superior and yet…
For all his cringe-worthy remarks, I think it would be too simple to accuse Conrad of straight-out racism. There is the possibility that Conrad was actually trying to go into its origins. The Reading Life had a great post about this called “Two Vision of Heart of Darkness-Is it deeply racist or a powerful exploration of the roots of racism”.
The writing and the story really worked for me. I was especially taken with the descriptions of Marlow’s boat slowing going deeper and deeper into the darkness/wilderness, and that mix of fear and excitement Conrad created. My “favorite” character was the lonely Russian Marlow meets in the forest before finding Kurst. This young man had roamed Africa for years, restlessly “ruled by the spirit of adventure“:
‘I went a little farther,’ he said, ‘then still a little farther–till I had gone so far that I don’t know how I’ll ever get back.
Oh the tin line that keeps us in check and away from our basic (true?) urges! I never read Lord of Flies, but expect that it deals with the same themes.
Thanks Allie for organizing the join reading, this book deserves a bit of debate!
Other thoughts: A Literary Odyssey, My Porch, The Reading Life, Melody & Words, Jules’ Book Reviews, Trish’s Reading Nook, The OF Blog, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Fifty Books Project, Open Mind, Insert Book (yours?)