Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
I had never heard of Joseph Conrad, but I picked this book from the Classics section of Dublin’s ‘finest independent bookseller’, if I’m honest, in part because of it’s short Novella length which I found most appealing. I read it in one day, and wow - it really smacked me round the face; whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this. A hundred pages is so short, so it seems odd, but accurate, to describe it as flawed masterpiece. But it is!
Heart tells the tale of a shipsman who ventured into deepest Africa, skippering a steamboat up a mysterious river full of natives to meet a famous ivory merchant, who has positioned himself as a man-god of the savages. They bow and worship him, and he, in turn, has regressed back to a primitive, tribal life-style. The book is full of highly exaggerated rhetorical flourish, but the language is fantastic. I have never read something quite like it, and although the style is extraordinarily over-the-top, for this book, largely, it works; you suspend your disbelief and get utterly swept up along Conrad’s river.
And of course, Conrad is writing about a descent into the darkness in our own minds as well. Humanities capacity for evil is both vividly described in the book through the white colonial brutishness, but also the hellish blackness of the undiscovered African continent is symbolic of the darkness inside the hearts of men. The congruence and meaning behind everything is astonishing, and the language is stunning, hallucinogenic and, like the character in the book, you feel like you are being pulled into Conrad’s primeval dream-world of darkness.
But this book is clearly flawed; perhaps this is because of the ambition in of trying to describe ‘human darkness’ in a hundred pages. Of course, Conrad doesn’t. What he does do is slip, at times, into near meaninglessness. Towards the end, there are pages and pages of attempts to describe ‘the darkness’, using vague words like ‘indescribable’, and ‘unknowable’. And the narrative suffers too. The emotional scene with Kurtz’s fiance at the end makes no sense - the narrator barely knew Kurtz, and what the hell are they are talking about? It’s as if Conrad believes his words are imbued with a meaning above and beyond that on the page. Sadly, they aren’t, and those passages are not merely undecipherable but almost completely contentless.
Still, I loved reading this book. It's breadth of scope is quite astonishing for just a hundred short pages.
Heart of Darkness is available on Amazon