miércoles, 26 de septiembre de 2012

Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

When reviewing a book as well known as Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, there is little point in wasting time describing plot and characters. So much has already been written about this masterpiece that only a broad outline is needed. Heart Of Darkness is a tale told by a seaman to his fellow crew members while their ship is anchored in the Thames Estuary.  Marlow, a veteran of the sea, relates the story of a job he once had when he was required to navigate a great river in Africa in a steamboat to find a man called Kurtz. He – and Kurtz were dealing with a company that traded in and out of Africa, darkest Africa, as it was then often called.

As ever with great literature, it is not what happens that matters. How things develop and how they are related is always the key, and Marlow, whose voice delivers almost all of the book’s narrative, is not afraid of expressing opinion or offering interpretation alongside events. So subtle is Joseph Conrad’s character, however, that the reader never feels that ideas are being hurled from the text. Throughout we are invited to share Marlow’s world and world view in the same way that those imagined listening seamen share his story. We are never cajoled or commanded. The writer never uses the character merely to pontificate.

The darkness at the heart of the book is multi-faceted. Yes, obviously, it is the dark continent that Africa represents in the received values of the time that lies at the centre of the story. Yes, the darkness also represents the dark-skinned people who inhabited the place. One thing the modern reader must be prepared for is Conrad’s use of language, especially terms that would not today be tolerated. But Conrad’s language is already more than a century old, and sometimes things change.

On the other hand, another heart of darkness for Conrad was clearly the exploitative relationships that fostered and perpetuated colonialism. At the time, such a position would have run contrary to received assumptions. It is interesting to note that this aspect of darkness at the heart is mentioned at the outset, before the story has migrated to Africa, while we are still within sight of the heart of the Empire. There is another darkness, also, at the heart of human relationships. Sometimes people need protecting from the truth, it seems. Sometimes a little lie preserves a myth whose destruction would not help anyone who accepts its truth.

What makes Heart Of Darkness a masterpiece is that its messages manage to be both universal and timeless, despite its clear foundation at the nineteenth century. They go to the heart of how human beings interact, both as individuals and as groups. They examine motive, allegiance and self-interest. They epitomise our inter-dependence, the necessity to co-operate, but they also identify and describe an equally essential need to compete, to assert individualism, to survive, sometimes at another’s expense.

At the heart of the novel, also, is the very experience of story telling. It is not just what Marlow relates to his companions that maintains our and apparently their interest: it is also how he tells the tale and how he offers interpretation of his feelings. Like Marlow himself, we are wiser for having relived the experience. And just like the unnamed listener who ostensibly wrote down Marlow’s story, we remain spellbound by every word of this masterpiece.

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