Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness (1902)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
In the heyday of British Imperialism, Blackwood's Magazine in Edinburgh published a great number of stories of life and adventures in various colonial outposts. Much of this dated very quickly and is of only minor historical interest today. A novel serialised in the magazine in the late 19th century is a very striking exception. This was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a work which is still the subject of lively debate today. Is it, as Chinua Achebe has suggested, a piece of Western condescension towards Africans? Or is it, as its supporters argue, a powerful indictment of Western imperialism?
I returned to this book last year after I had read King Leopold's Ghost, an extraordinary account by an American historian of the horrific exploitation of the Congo by the King of Belgium. Adam Hochschild, the author of this book, lays bare what amounted to a holocaust carried out by trading interests in the Congo, and produces hard facts and figures to make his point. Conrad's great novel, written with that marvellous, clear style, provides us with the feel of that time and place: the fear, the oppressive humidity, the bending river.
Reading it today, one feels that the book is entirely modern. There is none of the wordiness of so much late 19th century prose; just clear, uncluttered descriptions. And the sensibility, too, seems contemporary, almost that of an investigative journalist writing about what is happening in some tortured corner of Africa.
Heart of Darkness is a great novel for many different reasons. It is, first and foremost, an account of a great journey and a search for one man. As is true with any story of a quest – here for the legendary Mr Kurtz – the reader is anxious for the long-expected encounter. And then, when the person is found, we see only moral darkness and brutality. Behind all this is a lesson: we are surrounded by absurdity, madness and moral confusion. The social structures we create for ourselves may hold this at bay, but at times they do so only through hypocrisy and manipulation. If we comply with these structures, we may find ourselves serving cruel and rapacious goals; the Company's interest then; and what today: the interests of globalisation? Heart of Darkness is immensely unsettling, but perhaps we need to unsettle ourselves.
Further reading: Nostromo (1904) outlines the impact of foreign exploitation on a developing South American state; The Secret Agent (1907) is the ‘simple tale’ of Verloc, whose attempt to destroy an anarchist group goes disastrously awry.
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