What price progress?

This is my review of Heart Of Darkness by Mr Joseph Conrad.

First published in 1899, Conrad’s celebrated novella “Heart of Darkness” uses the device of one tale book-ended within another. In this case, as sunset precedes the descent of darkness over the London Thames, Marlow begins to narrate to his colleagues on deck reminiscences of a visit to the snake-like river of central Africa, which has fascinated him since childhood. His task is to captain a steamboat on what is clearly the Congo. After repairing his damaged boat, he is sent to collect the mysterious ivory-trader Kurtz who is rumoured to be sick. The model for Coppola’s famous film “Apocalypse Now”, Kurtz proves an ambiguous figure. Is he criticised for having “lost his values” out of widespread envy for his commercial success? The natives seem to revere him as a kind of god, but there is evidence that he hates them.

At first, I took the book to be an indictment of the colonialism which exploited and degraded the Africans for imperial influence and commercial gain. Then I became uneasy at the evidence of stereotyping and a certain contempt for the natives. The story has a surreal, dreamlike quality, at one point the steamer is actually stranded in a heavy fog. Some descriptions are very striking, say of the bends in the river cut off from the rest of the world as the forests close in ahead and behind. Others passages seem disjointed and oddly phrased, reflecting the fact that English was Conrad’s third language so that, although remarkably expressive, words are not always used accurately.

I wondered at the time if the book is troubling for African readers, so was interested to find that it has been criticized in postcolonial studies, particularly by the highly regarded Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who in his 1975 public lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, described Conrad’s novella as “an offensive and deplorable book” that dehumanised Africans. Achebe argued that Conrad, “blinkered…with xenophobia”, wrongly portrayed Africa as the opposite of Western civilisation, ignoring the artistic accomplishments of the Fang tribe who lived in the Congo River basin at the time of the book’s publication. Was Achebe being oversensitive, failing to appreciate Conrad’s own sense of horror at the brutality of westerners in Africa when he was employed on a Congo steamer, himself providing the model for Marlowe? I prefer to think there is irony in what may be misconstrued as racism on Conrad’s part.

Apart from the fact that I felt myself to have failed fully to understand the book on a first reading, the ending seems rather limp and disappointing. In short, the novella is remarkable for the quality of some of the writing, and for the debate it triggers, but may have been overrated.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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