‘Long afterwards, the news came that all the donkeys were dead’
That quote sums up the misery of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness for me. And just as reading ‘Mary Barton’ does not make me wish I lived in a Mancunian, Victorian slum, ‘Heart of Darkness’ does not make me want to take a steamship up the colonial Congo, any time soon.
Marlow, a sailor, is sitting cross-leggged on the deck of an English ship, telling his colleagues about his African adventure, which involved a lot of awful treatment of natives, fevers, cannibals, ivory, rotting hippo meat, and going to meet a man called Kurtz who had become a revered legend, but was in fact, a weird megalomaniac. He had heads on spikes and between coming down with fevers, ruled the camp and the surrounding natives. Marlow takes him home, but he dies on the ship, his last words being ‘The horror! The horror!’ although when Kurtz’s fiancée turns up to see him a year later, he tells her Kurtz’s last words were her name, which was quite nice of him, really.
After reading this, ‘Apocalypse Now’ makes more sense, although slavery and killing elephants are right up there at the top of my list of ‘Things I don’t want to read about’ so I’m glad this book was short, or I don’t know if I would have stuck with it.
Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowsk, in Kiev, and was of Polish extraction. He became a British citizen and wrote in English, although he always considered himself to be a Pole first and foremost. Conrad’s mother died when he was a child, and his father was sent to Siberia for allegedly plotting against the Russian government, so Conrad knew what it was to have no say over how a person spends their life. He does describe the terrible conditions the slaves live under, which would not have been of interest or offensive to the sensibilities of many at the time, but in the book, the awful colonials he works for are Belgian, which might have been Conrad trying not to annoy his adopted country’s book purchasers, as it could have easily been British businesses more concerned about the death of donkeys than people.
I bought my copy second-hand in ‘Books and Beans‘ (book variety a little lacking, but the beans aren’t bad) in Aberdeen, and while it may look like I spend a lot of time in graveyards, it really is the only place to read in the city centre. And also, to attempt to get a selfie with a seagull who sat pretty much next to my head the entire time I was there, daring me to try and eat something. I also bought the third volume of Proust, which I shall start as soon as ‘Clarissa’ is finished, which won’t be a long as only a hundred or so pages to go! Yay!