Friday, April 22, 2005

Back to the heart of darkness

In my first post here I stated that I was going to write about books. I realize this has not happened yet: let's get to it.

It has become topical in the "learned" press to start any paper on a classical author or book by "Il faut relire So-and-So" ("one should read So-and-so again"). And of course, more often than not, you've never read the author in question, which makes the sentence a tad bit humiliating.

Still: One should re-read Conrad. And especially Heart of Darkness. Actually, I think I'm going to make it a policy to read it at least once a year - encouraged thus by the modest size of the novel. The fact is, each time I read it, I find new levels of interpretations I had previously overlooked.

The first level is of course its vivid description of one specific instance of colonialism in Africa: the so-called "Congo Free State", which became the Belgian Congo in 1910. The "Free State" was set up in the late 19th century to "protect" the Congo basin from the scramble of European nations for Africa, under the authority of what we'd call now an NGO. It actually was, from the start (Henry Morton Stanley, the foremost promoter of the scheme, was known to have a strong appetite for easy proffit), a major scale looting scheme, under the personnal authority of King Leopold of Belgium. The scheme turned out to be less profitable that it was supposed to be: it was mostly based on the export of ivory, purchased or plundered from the Interior tribes' stockpiles. Those stockpiles dried out at the time when the financial pressure from the railway works (a necessity to take the products out of the country efficiently) peaked, leading to the bankruptcy of the "Free State" and of the King, who then passed out its possession to a reluctant Belgian government.

Those two themes (the railway works and the plunder of ivory) are prominent in Heart of Darkness. This by itself makes the book a valuable tool for the historian of Africa. It is even a bit unsettling to read the description of two major problems of the "Free State" (the depopulation along the portage routes and the massive death from malnutrition and disease amongst displaced workers building the railway), knowing that the exact same events occured on the other side of the river, in the French Congo, years after the publication of Conrad's book...

Another historical reading would be made by historians of ideas: they'd note the cedrtainties of Marlow about English colonization ("where real work is done"), as opposed to French. They'd also note the cohabitation, in the character of Kurtz, of a high-spirited "white man's burden" type of discourse with violence and plundering.

But Heart of Darkness is of course not an documentary novel - even though it is a well documented novel. The closing sentence, echoing Marlow's opening, makes it clear that the heart of darkness is no more on the banks of the Congo River than on those of the Thames. And, as always with Conrad, the boundary between characters often blurs: "he was a voice", says Marlow of Kurtz, as he himself is speaking in the dark to a silent audience.

I could go on for days, eventually exceding the book's length. Which would be pretty pointless, I guess. So I'll just renew my advice: read it if you haven't already read it; read it again if you have.


Chris said...

glad to see that you are back....hope that you are better.

Le Plume said...

Yeah, thanks, I'm fine now. A bit slower than usual on my bike, but I'm working on it!