Monday, 9 February 2009

11 - 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad

Few books seem to have caused so much angst in the blogosphere/facebookdom recently as Mr. Conrad's cheery tale of a boat cruise up the Congo and back, and, for the life of me, I find it hard to understand why. The bile that has been vented (if, indeed, it is possible to vent bile) has come in a variety of shapes and colours but can be summarised thus:

1) It's overly wordy, and some of those words are old-fashioned and have fallen into disuse.
2) Nothing happens.
3) Many people are forced to read it at school.
4) It glorifies imperialism and is racist/anti-feminist/fascist.

I decided to read this terrible offence against literature (all 94 pages of it) and found... that I couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. I quite enjoyed it, even if I don't claim to have understood it on all the levels old Joseph evidently intended it to be read on. In response to the above complaints:

1) It's a book. It has words. This is not 'Peter and Jane' time. True, there may be some vocabulary which give one a moment's confusion (or panic, if you prefer), but I can't really see that this is more evident here than in any work of classical literature; isn't part of the attraction of reading the expansion of the reader's knowledge, whether that be literary, culturally or syntactically?

2) It's not Harry Potter. If you want a dragon fight in every book, go back to Hogwarts.

3) I'm sorry, I really am. I was force fed 'Far from the Madding Crowd' at an early age, and it all ended in tears (when my teacher read my book report and saw that Bathsheba Everdene was a farmer with a big beard, it wasn't hard for him to work out that I hadn't got beyond page 10). Having said that, I'm over it; you all should be too.

4) This one is possibly more justifiable on some levels. I don't think you can go too far on a feminist level, if only because there aren't many female characters portrayed (which is unsurprising for the era and location depicted). The imperialism definitely doesn't wash; the sarcophagus which is Brussels pales (literally) in comparison with the description of the African jungles while the majority of the white characters are about as corrupt, weak and pathetic as any anti-imperialist would wish to see.

So is it racist?

Possibly. Without wanting to judge something written at a time far removed from ours, there are obviously caricatures of the savage African; there is no conversation, no exchange of ideas between Marlow and his crew (unless you count the cannibals' request for a snack...). The screech of the boat scaring off the natives, their subservience to the intruding white man, the posturing of Kurtz's lover (?): none of these scream of a sympathetic treatment of the issue of race. However, the story is not really about white man/black man, Europe/Africa, master/slave; rather, it is about the descent of a civilised man into chaos; how quickly (reminiscent of 'Lord of the Flies') the thin veneer of civilisation wears off when exposed to the elements; above all, it is about what happens when a corrupt soul is forced to examine itself and cannot bear the weight of its discovery.

I cannot possibly hope to sway the opinions of those who find this novella tedious, annoying or offensive (just as you will never persuade me that 'Catcher in the Rye' should not best be used for toilet paper); let's just say that it's nice to have books which make you think outside your comfort zone, and which provoke the sorts of discussions seen on our favourite web-sites.

Now get back to your teenage wizards and pretty-boy vampires.