When reputations precede reading, it can be a challenge in itself to pick up a book. I’d been put off having heard that Conrad’s classic novella was as exhausting as hacking through as the African jungle itself and that Chinua Achebe considers it racist. However, The Secret Agent is one of my all-time favourites, so I decided it was time to mount my own expedition. Besides it would be a crime to use my lovely Folio Society edition simply as wall-art.
I was surprised and found Heart of Darkness much more accessible than expected.
Kurtz is an ivory trader with a reputation for brilliant results. Marlow is an introspective sailor who sets out to meet Kurtz, at first to learn more about his methods. His journey is delayed when his steamship is sunk. Kurtz falls ill and the trip turns into a rescue mission. As Marlow makes his way further into the jungle, he is confronted with the realities of imperialism, the inherent threats of the environment and the absolute darkness of the human heart.
The prose is concentrated. Conrad’s tale is only 93 pages long with sufficient content to fill a novel. It cannot be skimmed. It needs close attention to detail, as it is filled with images and metaphors compounding the darkness in the novel. The colonists are invariably despicable although there are shades of despicability. Marlow’s moral choice is no choice at all. Should he side with the official line of hypocrisy – imperialism is simply “trade” and its cruelties are necessary to “civilise” the native Africans – or with Kurtz, who has dispensed with the niceties of the official position and has openly descended into “suppression” and “extermination”.
Is there a lesser of the two evils here? Should Marlow rise above it all and walk away? It’s perhaps disappointing that he subscribes to the colonial view of the natives. He is indifferent when he sees scenes of cruelty, acts of torture. The Africans are dehumanised. Thus, Marlow’s view of the African never moves beyond the stereotypical, using vocabulary that is deeply offensive nowadays. But does that not make him a man of his era? It certainly makes Marlow racist. As it must be to ensure that the existential darkness at the core of this story remains intact.
However, is Marlow to be considered a surrogate of the author? That’s not a judgement I’m inclined to make on the basis of a text written in 1902 to expose the evils of imperialism in an unflinching way. Conrad may have chosen Belgian imperialism to render his novella more palatable to his British imperialist audience but he certainly didn’t stint on the metaphors to hammer home his message. Using one of the most powerful images from the gospel of Matthew, he likens the hypocrisy of Brussels, the headquarters of the company as “a whited sepulchre”, a beautiful exterior full of nothing but the bones of dead men. Given the “civilising” nature of their mission, no image could be more appropriate.
It appears that Achebe moved beyond the text when making his charge of racism against Conrad. I haven’t read his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” and based on these excerpts, I’m unlikely to. There’s already enough for me to disagree with there. Such as:
The question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
I take issue with the word “celebrate” as you would expect from my review. I find an exposé of the imperial mindset, but certainly no celebration of it. Is that enough for me to conclude that Achebe’s charge is unwarranted?