The latest installment of our review series from Generic Dave. Just what your Monday needs. We live as we dream. 

King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilled in anger. He never set foot in the Congo…never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh.

Heart of Darkness

(Conrad, Joseph)
(Penguin, 2007)

“Every man is a moon and has a side which he turns toward nobody: you have to slip around behind if you want to see it.”

~ Mark Twain – The Refuge of the Derelicts

The seminal 19th Century classic, Heart of Darkness, explores a sinister chapter in a deeply troubling period of human history. The work presents a fictionalised account of Joseph Conrad’s journey through the depredations of colonisation in the verdant jungle of Belgian Congo.

Set during the tail-end of Europe’s Scramble for Africa, Heart of Darkness follows Marlow as he seeks the ivory trader Kurtz. Part pseudonym, part literary tribute, Marlow is a functionary of empire assigned to a river steamer ferrying men and goods to and from the coast.  

Wrapped in the usual excuses of empire, Marlow seeks adventure and the unknown, while acknowledging that many enforcers of empire are sent abroad as they are of little use or too much disruption at home.

Marlow’s journey brings him face to face with the malign influence of the rapaciousness caused by the “White Man’s Burden”. Travelling the Congo River, in search of Kurtz, he sees the conflation of the imposition of European thought with the civilised advancement of native peoples. While an industrialising, yet distant Europe, is shown to have no cause to question the methods used to keep its shelves heaving with ivory and rubber products.

Marlow’s initial stop fills him with grim foreboding as he is greeted at the company Outer Station by scenes of devastation and local deprivation. His journey in-land descends further into darkness, coming upon a region where the local populace has either been enslaved or fled, a ghoulish trail leads to Kurtz.

Years before the novella opens Kurtz arrived as a liberal Renaissance man, but by the time Marlow reaches him, he has become a grim caricature, using technology and ruthlessness, he ensconced himself as a mythic ruler. The man Marlow stumbles upon has left all sign of his mission far behind.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad gives us a searing indictment, not only of the colonial ventures of the day, but of any mission where the ends of civilisation obscure the trauma of the people supposedly aided. Though at the end one is left to wonder, does Conrad see Kurtz as an evil man who broke the Congo, or a good man broken by the colony?

Mr. E. Ruth