A shameful darkness

I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad by listening to the audiobook read brilliantly by Kenneth Brannagh. It’s a short book but regarded as a classic and I understand that there is a film based on the story (“Apocolypse Now”), although I haven’t seen it.

The book is told as a story to the unnamed narrator and other sailors at a boatyard on the Thames. The teller of the story is a man called Marlow who has been a sailor all his life. He is talking about an episode some years previously when he accepted the offer of becoming a ferry boat captain for a Belgian owned company on what we assume is the river Congo. The book was published in 1902 so the action will have taken place at the end of the nineteenth century. He was employed to take stores and passengers up the river and bring ivory back down it on the return journey.

When Marlow arrives in Africa he has to get used to the ways of the country and the local inhabitants. He then takes his boat up the river with some passengers but specifically to find a Mr Kurtz, a man who is greatly admired for the amount of ivory he can get the local people to collect for him. When he finds Kurtz the man is close to death and the local people are launching attacks on anyone white coming into the area.

This book has been widely studied and I am sure that I haven’t understood all the hidden meanings and nuances but I found it absolutely compelling. Kurtz is successful because he has terrorised the local people. The author is clear about his inhumanity and gives examples of it. The local people have suffered but so too has Kurtz who has lost his mind as well as his physical health. The environment in which they live, the jungle, the river and the heat have affected the white men to such an extent that they are barely human and certainly have little humanity. There is a power in the country which destroys and taints those who come into it and eventually will expel them – Marlow soon leaves his post and Africa. Of course, it is the white man and his love for ivory that is really the problem but the author shows how little those back in England, or even those on the coast in Africa, really understand what is being done and the cruelties inflicted on the local people.

This is a powerful piece of writing. The author conjures up the atmosphere and the isolation of the river and the people who live there. He is clear about the abuses perpetrated upon them by the white traders which makes him more perceptive than other writers at this time or later. His view of the darkness of the jungle and how it is somehow affecting people is a more troubling idea for the modern reader, however, as it feeds into the narrative that people from Africa are somehow more primitive naturally.

I found this story completely gripping. The power of the writing and the ability to convey atmosphere were exceptional. It left me with lots of think about and begs a rereading sooner rather than later to pick up what I have missed the first time.

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