on 6 November 2012
What a book this is! And a free Kindly download into the bargain. I am 58 and have never read it, now realising that most people read it for O Level! Anyway after confusing me to begin with, I started to look into it a bit more only to find that Conrad was there and witnessed some of this awful stuff. I then moved on to King Leopold's Ghost (another Kindle book by the way) and was amazed and horrified at what evil greed produced in the two decades between 1890 and 1910 or thereabouts. Really a novel for all seasons seeing it touches on the darkness of the human heart - and, I presume, an implied message of the need for redemption? Well done for putting it on Kindle - which, by the way, I love, despite being an old technophobe.
on 1 November 2013
The story opens on board a yacht moored in the Thames but due to set sail for parts unknown; the men aboard are drinking and swapping yarns as they wait listlessly for the tide to turn. The setting sun provides a brooding backdrop and leads one of the men, Marlow, to declare “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth” and launch into a tale.
He’s speculating how the first Roman invaders must have felt sailing up the river into the unfamiliar British terrain in an inhospitable climate populated by savage natives; an interesting parallel to his own experience captaining a river steamboat up the Congo to ‘relieve’ the resident of a remote ivory trading post.
The man at the centre of the mission is the charismatic Mr Kurtz whose trading prowess is second to none due in part to a skill in oratory that gives him a Messianic quality that spellbinds colleagues and natives alike. In fact the natives are so devoted they don’t want him to leave.
Marlow’s engagement, induction and voyage up river is recounted; with hard-nosed detachment as far the physical dangers are concerned, but with more circumspection as regards the psychological pressures that emanate from the jungle beyond the riverbank – the continent’s heart of darkness. He can begin to understand how a white man may succumb to “the fascination of the abomination” that can be found there and be prey to “the growing regret, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate”.
The immensely powerful language (quoted to do it justice) gives the novella the feel of a horror story; as it is – but there’s nothing supernatural here, it is all horribly, if unfamiliarly natural in the time and place that was Equatorial Africa in the time of colonisation. And Conrad should know, he did the steamboat job himself and, as a result, this anguished take on colonisation provides an interesting contrast to Rider Haggard’s bravado. (See previous review of King Soloman’s Mines).
[See my weekly reviews each Friday on abibliodyssey.blogspot.com]
on 14 July 2013
I'm not sure how to rate this book. I gave it 4* because I think the author's intention was to manifest the horrifying reality of colonization and he managed to do that in a Gothic non-sensationalist method.
The book deals with colonisation and its cruelty. And that's how it ought to be read. One ought not to expect a happy ending or a story of redemption and freedom. Or any romantic feelings of adventure and escape. Or characters one would be able to identify with. This isn't a book you will "like" or "love" - it's a book that will haunt you. It's a book that will shock you - a book that demonstrates how "respectable" persons can rationalise human brutality.
In the West many people were convinced that that colonization was almost a philanthropic endeavour that brought redemption and civilization to the savage natives. One could say that we are still hold this belief as we invade countries around the world such as Iraq (only this time we use "Democracy" and mythic WMD as our motto as we torture people, bomb cities and steal oil).
The book is narrated by Charles Marlow, a sailor/ skipper who Captains a boat for an ivory trading company along the Congo River. The scenery, the uncertainty and darkness of the Congo jungles creates an eerie atmosphere which becomes embedded to the story. Usually the thought of jungles in tropical locations would induce me to thoughts of beautiful nature and exotic holidays. However, in this instance it came across as sinister.
The author uses prose, which although I wouldn't describe as subtle, it's far from descriptive, in order to convey the cruelty and inhumane methods used by the Colonist against the natives. There's a distinct lack of sentiment expressed which gave substance rather than retracted from what the author attempted to convey. No emotional breakdowns as such (although there were shared moments of repulsion felt by the Narrator) but no extreme language. Certain references relating to inhumane behavior were described in an almost scientific, observational (even philosophical) way - not quite casual references - but not the detailed descriptions and expressive emotional thoughts one would expect. An example is below:
"You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing-food for thought and for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky, but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on stakes, if their faces had not been turned to face the house. Only one, the face I had made out was facing my way"
The above relates to the Narrator finding a row of posts with decapitated heads of natives.
The author's descriptions of the Africans and how the people of Congo were during the 19th century are quite fascinating. Not detailed or in any way a historical account, but highly interesting. Some were described as cannibals, some were chained and worked hard, some were dying and in pain but all were primitive. However, despite that the Narrator could feel a certain kinship to this "early man":
"They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity- like yours- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar."
The character of Klutz was rather a mystery. Evil but a genius, poetic, artistic, accomplished but apparently without much human feeling. A man who could command but despised those all around him. But what was most horrifying is the depth of depravity and evilness he stooped to in order to become "something" to be accepted in Europe by his Intended's family.
"The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was a reflection that made you creepy all over."
Overall, not a book to gain much pleasure. Not a plot to win hearts or experience a great adventure. But certainly a terrible tale which illustrated the lurking darkness that could be found within man.
As a yacht anchors in the Thames and the crew settle down one of them, Charles Marlow, recites an experience he had when he took to sailing on freshwater. And so we have here one of Conrad’s most read and studied works, although this is only a novella. First published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine this tale still has the power to provoke and stimulate discussion.
Obviously inspired by and based in part on the author’s own experiences this is a story that really grips you. As Marlow takes a job to captain a steamboat up and down the river between trading posts in Africa, he is employed by an ivory business. As Marlow keeps hearing of the genius Mr Kurtz, he is intrigued. But when he actually meets Kurtz things are not what they seem.
Taking in Imperialism and the rapacious way of companies to drain areas of natural resources for their own profits this is something that we are still dealing with today. With the native Africans treated like dirt and looked down upon we also see how the Europeans employed by the company come in different guises, from lazy incompetents to those greedy for profit and gain, all backstabbing each other for their own personal advancement.
We see that Kurtz is from a new way of thought, with the idea of suppressing the native religions and superstitions and trying to make them more like ‘civilised’ Europeans. This novella has come under attack at different times due to such things as supposed racism and so on, but personally I along with many others have found this to be slightly erroneous. Conrad firstly was writing in the language and prejudices of his time, and he does portray the inhumanity shown towards the native population quite graphically. His story also makes us think and question what right we have to change a whole people’s ideas and beliefs just to make them the same as ours. In all Conrad shows us here the cruelty and greed that we can show to one another, and how the real world is, which makes this so powerful and intense a read.
on 28 August 2014
One of the book's theme is eloquence, the beauty of expression, and the power it evokes. When Marlow thinks that Kurtz is dead, he becomes despondent because he will never hear Kurtz talk. I also find it interesting how it seems that Kurtz's deficiences of being physically weak are not discussed in detail and is outweighed by his ability to speak, which empowers him to be a dominating figure over others.
The book at times was difficult to read because it made me become aware of the darkness inside people, and made me reflect on my personal dark periods. The ending is extremely painful, when Marlow and Kurtz's wife continuously complement Kurtz, and how as each praise is said, both their hearts feel darker, because they both know what this remarkable man did. Marlow does not reveal the explicit details to Kurtz's wife because he wanted to "keep back alone for the salvation of another soul."
For parts of the book, I could not understand why Marlow should continue to stay with Kurtz until the end. But I found parts towards the end brilliant when Kurtz's final words was 'horrible'. What I think this means, is that Kurtz (which includes his subconscious) knew all along that what he was doing was evil, and for Marlow to hear this revived his hope in human nature. And thus that Kurtz had essentially a pure heart. 'I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth.'
I remember a description of a rich, starch-collared chief accountant and thought this was wonderful to read. It made me think of Churchill's outfit when he met Tito at Naples 12 August 1944. The account is on page 22: "Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character...this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order."
I particularly enjoyed reading the following passages:
"I wasn't very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there."
"Perhaps he was just simply a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake."
"I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture...a treacherous appeal..to the profound darkness of its heart."
"I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz."
"Everything belonged to him- but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
"It gave me the notion of an exotic immensity ruled by an august benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence-of words- of being noble words."
"...and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the particular blackness of that experience."
"I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn't say to myself, Now I will never see him, or Now I will never shake him by the hand, but, Now I will never hear him. The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected...his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words- the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness."
"...I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up- he had judged. "The horror!" He was a remarkable man."
"...and to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtz's profession, whether he ever had any- which was the greatest of his talents. I had taken...He was a universal genius...but heavens! how that man could talk! He electrified large meetings."
"...Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once? She was saying. He drew men towards him by what was best in them. She looked at me with intensity. It is the gift of the great, she went on."
"How can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by way of solitude- utter solitude without a policeman- by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion. These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness..the earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!- breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don't you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in- your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking buisness."
"This was the unbounded power of eloquence-of words- of burning noble words."
"He (Kurtz) won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated with-dance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings, he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary or self-seeking."
"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration."
"Soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power."
on 26 September 2012
When reviewing a book as well known as Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, there is little point in wasting time describing plot and characters. So much has already been written about this masterpiece that only a broad outline is needed. Heart Of Darkness is a tale told by a seaman to his fellow crew members while their ship is anchored in the Thames Estuary. Marlow, a veteran of the sea, relates the story of a job he once had when he was required to navigate a great river in Africa in a steamboat to find a man called Kurtz. He - and Kurtz were dealing with a company that traded in and out of Africa, darkest Africa, as it was then often called.
As ever with great literature, it is not what happens that matters. How things develop and how they are related is always the key, and Marlow, whose voice delivers almost all of the book's narrative, is not afraid of expressing opinion or offering interpretation alongside events. So subtle is Joseph Conrad's character, however, that the reader never feels that ideas are being hurled from the text. Throughout we are invited to share Marlow's world and world view in the same way that those imagined listening seamen share his story. We are never cajoled or commanded. The writer never uses the character merely to pontificate.
The darkness at the heart of the book is multi-faceted. Yes, obviously, it is the dark continent that Africa represents in the received values of the time that lies at the centre of the story. Yes, the darkness also represents the dark-skinned people who inhabited the place. One thing the modern reader must be prepared for is Conrad's use of language, especially terms that would not today be tolerated. But Conrad's language is already more than a century old, and sometimes things change.
On the other hand, another heart of darkness for Conrad was clearly the exploitative relationships that fostered and perpetuated colonialism. At the time, such a position would have run contrary to received assumptions. It is interesting to note that this aspect of darkness at the heart is mentioned at the outset, before the story has migrated to Africa, while we are still within sight of the heart of the Empire. There is another darkness, also, at the heart of human relationships. Sometimes people need protecting from the truth, it seems. Sometimes a little lie preserves a myth whose destruction would not help anyone who accepts its truth.
What makes Heart Of Darkness a masterpiece is that its messages manage to be both universal and timeless, despite its clear foundation at the nineteenth century. They go to the heart of how human beings interact, both as individuals and as groups. They examine motive, allegiance and self-interest. They epitomise our inter-dependence, the necessity to co-operate, but they also identify and describe an equally essential need to compete, to assert individualism, to survive, sometimes at another's expense.
At the heart of the novel, also, is the very experience of story telling. It is not just what Marlow relates to his companions that maintains our and apparently their interest: it is also how he tells the tale and how he offers interpretation of his feelings. Like Marlow himself, we are wiser for having relived the experience. And just like the unnamed listener who ostensibly wrote down Marlow's story, we remain spellbound by every word of this masterpiece.
on 23 August 2014
I decided to read this book because it is widely regarded as a great classic, but was disappointed and gave up having read about three quarters of it. It is certainly atmospheric but decidedly gloomy and I was often uncertain as to exactly what was going on. Although the writing is obviously of the highest standard, I found the story to be hard work and boring, so for this reason I have only given it two stars and would hesitate to recommend it.
on 16 March 2015
As someone who greatly enjoyed both Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and the video game Spec Ops: the Line (both adaptations of Heart of Darkness and both wonderful examples of storytelling in their respective mediums, in my opinion), it was with great anticipation that I started reading Conrad's apparent classic.
I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed. While on the surface the book is a study, if not a criticism, of colonialism, at its heart, if you'll excuse the pun, is an examination of the most savage aspects of the human condition. Conrad presents the story in an interesting story-within-a-story format and I'm not sure there would be a more effective possible way of telling it.
As wonderful as the book is, it is not perfect. My chief criticism would be that the charisma, for want of a better word, of Kurtz is conveyed more through the opinion of the narrator than his words or actions within the story. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison but the character just doesn't have the same presence he had in Apocalypse Now, either when present or absent from a scene.
Overall, this book absolutely deserves its status as a classic and is well worth a read.
on 14 January 2014
Fascinating book with layers of meaning. Powerful imagery but it's deliberately ambiguous allowing the reader to create their own vision of the nightmare journey. The heart of darkness is in the centre of a great continent but also within ourselves.
Just one idea though. Did Kurtz have cerebral malaria? It can cause behaviour changes and is often fatal. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have suggested this.
Conrad wrote many novels which read as "great yarns" - he wrote the first spy story, The Secret Agent a Simple Tale - but this, hardly more than a short story, is his most powerful and complex book. Any other writer would have made 800 pages of it. You need to read it several times to pick up and weave together the many half-understood themes which Conrad's poetic prose leads you through. It makes its impact not by laborious description or explicit nastiness, but by the half-suggested, the never-quite-revealed.
Conrad met Roger Casement, a British journalist, who had been investigating and trying to expose the way Belgian colonialists were exploiting and mistreating the native population of the Congo with a ruthless efficiency which the Nazis would have envied. Conrad cannot produce a detailed journalistic expose; instead he brings us to feel the horror and repulsion which Casement's evidence produced in him. It is a profoundly emotional book, and an important one in the history of literature. It is not an enjoyable read.