Heart of darkness (book review)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a difficult book to review without revealing too much of the plot to those who have not read it. Like several of Conrad’s books, it is a story within a story, a narration within a narration. Five sailors in a boat on the Thames settle down for the evening and the narrator describes how one of the others, Charles Marlow, tells a story about his experience on another river at another time.
Neither the unnamed first narrator, nor Marlow, the second narrator, is the protagonist. That role belongs to a man called Kurtz, who only gradually makes his appearance. Through his aunt who knows someone who knows someone, Marlow got a job as captain of a river steamer on a big river. He travels to an unnamed country for his job interview, and the office is guarded by two women in black, symbolising the growing darkness. And to take up his employment he travels on a French ship to an unnamed country with an unnamed big river. But it is clearly the Congo Free State, then being conquered by a Belgian company, whose white employees Marlowe describes as faithless pilgims, worshipping the ivory they extract from the country.
The greatest white employee of the company is Kurtz, who gets more ivory than anyone else. But Kurtz, it is said, is ill, and must be relieved. His station, however, is at the furthest point up the river, and before they can set out the boat must be repaired. Eventually they set out upriver, Marlow accompanied by black cannibal woodcutters, who cut the wood to fuel the boat, and the white pilgrims. As the river narrows and the forested banks get closer, Marlow feels he is sailing in to the heart of darkness.
I’ll say no more of the story, for fear of revealing too much of the plot, but will add that when I reached the end of the book, I went straight back to the beginning again, and started reading it again, because there are some things about the beginning that one does not really appreciate until the end. It begins at sunset, with the Thames being a river that ships sail down to all parts of the world, and as the dark settles over the river, it too becomes he heart of darkness, and the Roman legionaries that sailed up it thousands of years before must have experienced it rather similarly to Marlow’s experience on the big river.
When Marlow was a boy he looked at the big river on the map, and it looked like a snake. And the area on the map was white, because it was terra incognita to the mapmakers, but as the employees of the company travelled along it to exploit its resources, it darkened. And as Marlow travels up the river, he is alienated from both the white “pilgrims” and the black cannibals. He knows enough of them to predict their behaviour in certain circustances, and tries to avoid what he sees as the worst of it, but he feels unable to even try to penetrate their behaviour and attitudes, and discover the human beings behind it.
At some points one feels that Marlow is very much the detached observer, describing others with little empathy, but on looking as bit more deeply, one sees this is not the case, but Marlow is in a sense cut off by not being able to understand what makes others tick, and what he does see doesn’t seem attractive enough to him to make him want to learn more.
I think I’d probably have to read it ten times to review it adequately. I suspect it is the kind of book where one would find something new every time one reads it.