Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The shortest review I’ve ever written, for any medium, was on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’. I did not try to hide my feelings and finished the review with this:
“I haven’t read ‘Heart of Darkness’ but, despite loving Apocalypse Now which I believe is a re-telling, I don’t think I’ll bother.”
I did my best to stay true to my resolution but this blasted novel, his most famous of all his works, just doesn’t go away. References to it abound – or seem to – wherever I go. Recently I gave in with something of a sigh and decided I’d read it to get it out of the way.
On the plus, like ‘Lord Jim’, the writing itself is sound and well executed. I can certainly understand why it is considered Conrad’s greatest book and I can, I think, understand why it has been considered a classic for so long. I also think that I don’t regret the few hours needed to read the novel – there is something attractive about the story though exactly what I don’t think I can say.
On the negative side? Well, the book has been criticised many times before for its racism despite being critical of colonialism. While Conrad is rightly disparaging of European powers and their attitudes to empire (specifically Africa), he nonetheless presents all the stereotypes of the ‘savage’ African. This is the land of darkness where evil abounds and its skin is black.
Moreover is the problem of the character of Kurtz – a ‘great’ man who has seemingly become insane and treated as a god by an African tribe. It is never made entirely clear just why he is insane, why his endeavours have to stop or what is so wrong about wanting to live ‘in the heart of darkness’. Indeed, today, there are many people who have ‘gone native’ perhaps not in such melodramatic and messianic ways but certainly legitimately as alternative lifestyles – but for Kurtz to wish a life which is not ‘civilised’ (i.e. European)…well, he must be mad, obviously.
Nor do we ever find out why Kurtz is so great. We’re told of it, his effect on others and so on, but Conrad doesn’t attempt to give us any real conversations or monologues. I was left thoroughly unconvinced. I wished Conrad had Ayn Rand’s ability to write superb passages. It needs her touch here for us to be convinced of Kurtz’s supposed genius.
There’s simply too much melodrama in this story, which was much the same criticism with ‘Lord Jim’. Even Kurtz’s classic final words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – border on being laughable; and they would be if it were not for the offensiveness of what they stand for – the horror of the savage. Even the style of storytelling – the same as for ‘Lord Jim’ where the tale is retold by a character reminiscing – is overblown and just a tad ridiculous.
Some classics remain worthy of remaining in the canon despite being written in times of views which are not our shared values today. I think of ‘A Passage to India’ and even ‘King Solomon’s Mines‘. But some need to be consigned to the wastebin of the cringeworthy. I am genuinely not sure where ‘Heart of Darkness’ should go. For me, it teeters on the edge of that bin yet there’s something about it which makes me reluctant to give it that final push over the edge. I wasn’t bored reading this book the way I was with ‘Lord Jim’. I don’t know whether this is the quality of Conrad’s writing or the fact that I couldn’t help but see Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ while reading it. That film, watched in my youth, had a lasting impact in my life. I wonder if I would still see it in quite the same way if I watched it today? I’m not sure I want to find out. Whatever, I’m glad to finally see the last words of Conrad I’ll ever feel inclined to read. I’ve had my bellyful of the man.
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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
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Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine.