Sunday, August 10, 2008

Short novel: Heart of Darkness

(1902) Joseph Conrad

Wow. What a tale. This story is the source attributed to the film Apocalypse Now but it is set not in Vietnam but Africa and concerns, at least on the surface, the violent and controversial colonial ivory trade.

The tense is rare - sort of second person I suppose. As in the film it is the witness who narrates the story of a man, an extremely highly regarded man, who undergoes a shocking trial of self-discovery while planted deep in a foreign jungle. From the middle of the first page to the middle of the last, the story is told as a single quotation with a very brief preamble and summation by an irrelevant listener.

This of course removes all jeopardy from the witness’s dangerous interactions as we know immediately that he ultimately survives, but that is okay. The action sequences of this tale should not compel; should not detract from the pervading internal explorations of the mind of mankind and his societies. The title and theme apply marvelously at three different levels.

I was not expecting the kind of show-not-tell subtlety I normally adore given I’ve never seen it in literature as early as this, so I was not disappointed. Initially irked by a heavy dose of romanticism, I recovered quickly and fell under the spell of Conrad’s rhythmic lyrical epic style. He writes with splendid precision. It’s hard to believe that English was not his first language!

When the narration of the climactic sequences became confusing I took confidence that this was deliberate as the witness would have been legitimately confused. In that sense, and also in the delicate sequence that information is revealed, there is subtlety of another kind.

So much of the account seemed laden with hints; with portent perhaps, that I was always wary, wondering if I was missing clues. But in the end the messages, at least those which I perceive, came together and struck heavily. There are insights here that closely tie in with my own journey of self discovery. The horror. The horror indeed!

Wonderful piece. Only my second of Joseph Conrad’s works but there shall certainly be more. After I read this one again, that is.

3 comments:

Crushed said...

It is quite an unnerving tale. difficult to know what to make of it on first reading.

I think these were the days when the true horrors of what was going on in Leopold of Belgium's Congo Free State were starting to come out, thoigh Kurz is based on a real Belgian employee named Klein.

Is it an anti-colnial piece? Or is it more like Alien, builds on fear of the unknown?

I'm still not sure.

Suki said...

Oooh... you've found Conrad.
And(@ Crushed) since I've studied this text in uni, I'll declare that yes, it can be read as anti-colonial. But that's really not all there is to it.
I find the play on white and dark and white in dark and dark in white absolutely fascinating!

Kathleen said...

I read that a long time ago, after I saw the movie Heart of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now. I don't remember much anymore. My brain is going with every passing year.