Heart of Darkness is a novel by Joseph Conrad ostensibly set in Africa. In the novel Marlow, who for me is a fictional extension of Conrad himeslf, travels to Africa aboard a ship. The novel is a story within a story and is (as most of Conrad’s writing) by no means an easy read. There is a number of Reasons for this:
First, you consider the fact that Marlow is telling a group of sailor friends, gathered on a boat on the River Thames in England, about a voyage he once took to the ‘heart of darkness’ — in other words, Africa. Marlow is a regular conciet/technique in most of Conrad’s work; Conrad employs this character over and over again in his trademark story-within-story technique.
Second, Conrad is a sentence level writer. He pays painstaking attention to the poetic impact of his sentences, hence his sentences are long, ponderous, and descriptive (the distinguished critic FR Leavis pointed out Conrad’s ‘adjectival insistence’. In fact Conrad used lots of adjectives in Heart of Darkness.). This can obviously frustrate an impatient reader.
Third, I am Nigerian and African. And the book is not fair to Africans. So why should I like it? But I will tell you. I liked the book a bit. If not for anything for Conrad’s diamond-hard prose and skill as a story teller.
The novella follows Marlow as he journeyed down the River Congo into the heart of the impenetrable Congo River basin and vast rain forest. I wonder what Marlow expected to see in such a place. He obviously expected to validate the stereotypical European view of Africa. As Marlow journeyed into the heart of the then Belgian Congo he encountered the brutalisation of Africans by the Belgian colonists who treated them as slaves, no, as animals — as donkeys, for instance. (of course Congo was then being ‘pacified’ by Belgium and it is not news that King Leopold III of Belgium employed inhumane and inhuman means in his treatment of Africans.) Many Africans were flogged to death like camels and horses. Many were beasts of burden. Conrad himself did not help matters by affirming that we have ‘rudimentary souls’ — like unicellular organisms or something. Annoying!
This brings into perspective the fact that certain numbers of Africans where, at this period, sequestered to zoos in Europe where they were put in the same cage with dangerous monkeys. And you know what? White people visit and throw bananas into the cage. Ha! Animals. Not funny at all.
My problem is that Heart of Darkness is not much of a story. The plot is unclear; Conrad is notorious for ambiguity. He dwells a lot on poetic undercurrents and layers and layers of meaning. Marlow journeys to the river Congo to buy slaves and possibly buy palm oil, sees Europeans maltreating Africans and does nothing about it. Instead he keeps thinking that Africans existed for little else other than to be slave-animals. He doesn’t feel rage, he feels pity for us which is quite annoying. But Marlow’s pity is laced with fear. There is something mysterious and fearful about the narrative. This, in my view, is a manifestation of the European view that Africans are savages — wild animals so to speak. The aura of Marlow’s River Congo is that of hell; with his prose Conrad manages to make the reader believe this. The journey down the Congo river becomes a journey into the uncivilized part of the world, or of Hell: There is darkness everywhere, not a single ray of light; the vast intractable forest is silent and menacing; there is the distant, unwordly ‘noises’ of savages who might as well be messengers of Hell. Conrad’s novel is then a pean to the myth of European light civilising the African savage darkness.
Conrad’s only recourse to our ability to exist as humans is the character of a ‘savage’ queen towards the end of the novel.
The novel can also be seen as a journey into the heart of the human soul, as some critics have suggested. My view is that if that is the case, then the soul in question should be that of the European who does not think twice before animalising other human races — Africans especially. Alas! As one sees in the novel, that is not the case at all. Africans are the ones with the dark mind. Subsequently, the novel spends pages erroneously describing and re-describing our features and behaviour. Our landscape too, from Conrad’s description, comes across as not something in this world but rather of something that has particular kinship to the Greek Hades, only more disquietingly dismal. In the end, Mr Kurtz, a prominent character, emotionally and psychologically destabilised by the overwhelming darkness of African landscape, dies. Afterwards the novel mourns him as a pure civilised soul who, in his epic attempt to domesticate and civilise the wildness of Africa and Africans, becomes a martyr.
People will start telling me now that novel was written at time when Racism in the West was at its peak; yet, does it not say a lot that even up till today the West still prefer (I say ‘prefer’ because they could have chosen to see Africa from alternatives other than the media.) to see Africa in black-and-white reels? To them Africa is a large country with deserts, acacias, pride of Cecils, wild savannahs, lonely mountains, clear skies, scantily dressed Masai, children with distended bellies and stick-like torsos, shanty towns, war-ravaged cities, militants. On top of that you will always catch a phrase like, ‘. . . in places like Hungary, France, Africa, and other countries . . .’
Many an African writer, scholar, and public commentator have railed against this. The likes of Binyanvanga Wainaina, Ikhide Ikheloa, and Chimamamda Adichie have written articles to this effect. Yet the lopsided angle from which the West look at Africa seemed to have calcified. Even our authors have to censor themselves for economic reasons; because publishing infrastructure is located largely in the west, because if you want to eat you have to write what they would like to read — (This is why, sadly, some recent African novels read like dictionaries. Every term is meticulously explained for the benefit of the Western reader who is the market.) A recent release of an image by a popular literary site, shows that a majority of cover design of books about Africa are one and the same — a veritable single story of a lone acacia tree in a red or yellow sunset. I was infuriated by the picture.
Yet, coming back to our book, it would be an aberration to overlook the fact that some critics have gratuitously suggested that Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s criticism of the inhuman colonial practice in African countries. Well, while there are some evidences to this effect, we cannot, in strict terms, be certain as to Conrad’s motive. Note the man’s notorious reputation for hypnotic, murky prose. However, personally, while I have to admit that there seems to be a condemnation of colonialism a la Heart of Darkness, there is not enough of it to justify the above view or to erase an incontrovertible fact: the European chooses what he wants to see and not what is there. This is why I don’t like Karen Blixen and her stupid Out of Africa and many other collective rubbish. Nonsense.
Chimezie Chika studies English in university.
BlackBoyReview… In the land of telling and showing…