Okay, I’m probably operating on far too little sleep to write a coherent review, but here goes.
The prose here is a luminous dream, casting it’s shadows upon the mind and lulling the reader into a warm and tranquil languidity. Coming so fast on the heels of the tenaciously awkward writing of Stephanie Meyer, the fluidity exhibited by Conrad is both refreshing in its rarity and a disheartening reminder that I can never be the writer I often dream that I am.
This story has always held a deep fascination for me. Perhaps because Apocalypse Now has always represented a degree of cinematic excellence that I could never fully wrap my mind around. I always recognized it for being a great movie, but it wasn’t until college that I was able to actually sit down and enjoy the film for what it is rather than what it represented to me. But I’ve shied away from reading this book for fear that the haunting lyrical virtuosity of the story would elude me.
To a degree, I think it may have. But I’m unsure as to whether that was because I kept missing the thread of the book, or because I couldn’t completely let go of the movie. The two are irrevocably tied together in my mind in a way that most stories aren’t, and I think this kind of writing requires a degree of focus I couldn’t quite manage. This failing is probably mine, however, and not the book’s.
But the writing is unquestionably superb.
While reading the Wikipedia article on this, I was struck that the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe utterly eviscerated both this novel and Joseph Conrad for missing a great opportunity to bridge the divide between Europe and Africa, and that he labelled this book racist for dehumanizing blacks. Far be it from me to really argue against his points…..but I think this is part of why I think I didn’t focus enough on this book. To me, after having read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the narrative of Heart of Darkness stands in marked contrast to others of his era. I found this book not only to be sympathetic to Africa, but as a kind of antithesis of latent colonial racism present in much of Victorian-era writing.
Maybe I’m seeing symbols where none exist, but this is fundamentally about the European obsession with ivory driving the exploitation and abuse of native Africans, and an individual European traveling into darkness, wherein he realizes that the world he left behind is no better than the one he found. There’s an oppositional relationship between light (ivory) and dark (the heart of the Congo), but I didn’t find the book supportive of any kind of hierarchy. I, in fact, thought Conrad was arguing that there is no hierarchy. Marlow comes back to Europe with a worldview drastically altered from it’s initial perspective. The oppositional relationship is a direct result of the exploitative nature of the European interest in Africa, not because of some fundamental and irrevocable reality to nature.
Again, I’m not going to claim a better understanding than Chinua Achebe, but I feel like we read two different works.
Whatever the case, I enjoyed it, but think I should probably give it another, more careful read. Regardless of his literary credentials, Achebe was African, and his perspective is meaningful.