After meeting Colonel Kurtz in the powerful portrayal given by Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, when the movie first launched, I always wanted to get to know the original character he was based on: the mysterious Englishman lost in the jungles of Africa created by Joseph Conrad in his novella “Heart of Darkness”. If you, like me, are into dark themes and water (be it sea or river), this is the book for you.
For many years I hesitated to start the book. The language on the first page looked obscure, and I was not sure I had the energy to go through it. I even downloaded it in different versions (I believe they were free). The copies lay on my iPad for a couple of years now. Then I came across it in the beautiful voice of Kenneth Branagh, as an audiobook, but, for some reason, I kept losing my concentration whenever I reached Parque Villa Lobos – a nice recreational area in Sao Paulo – on my bike, and could not follow the story from then on. Well, the audiobook at least showed me that if I got past the first couple of pages, with their detailed description of ships coming and going on the Thames at dusk, things would get more interesting. So I resumed the book. And did not regret it.
Although the novella is written in prose, as you embark in the story within the story, which tells of seaman Marlow’s time as a captain of a French steamboat working in the business of ivory trade somewhere in Central Africa, going up the Congo river, “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”, it turns into a somber and gripping poem which becomes hard to put down. Although the book is short, the reader’s experience is very deep and lasting.
Marlow is in search of a tradesman named Kurtz, who seems to have lost contact with the ivory trading company they both work for. He was famous for having been an excellent employee, sending tons and tons of ivory down the river back to the headquarters. But for now, rumor has it something may have happened to him, as all communication seems to have ceased. Is he dead? Could he be ill? After all not many white men remained healthy, physically or mentally, after a couple of months in those desolate and warm latitudes.
Of course, as with all great works of art, the book lends itself to many interpretations and can be read on many levels. I believe that, at some point, Conrad was even accused of racism for the use of the word nigger many times, and also for treating the natives as an indiscriminate living mass, not considering them as human individuals in the story. For today’s ears, it is certainly uncomfortable to read the word nigger inserted without any qualification or explanation within a passage, but let’s not forget the story is told from the point of view of Marlow, the seaman we don’t know much about. We know, however, that Marlow is aware that even London, “the biggest and greatest town in the world”, started off as a dark and uncivilized place, and that the Romans must have gone through something similar to what he is going through right now, floating on that snake of a river, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by looming trees and sighing vegetation, under a scorching sun.
The book explores this fascinating encounter of a civilized man with the primitive world, which seems to exert a powerful pull over him, making him reconsider the values White Europe stands for. Therefore, it’s a harsh criticism of the barbaric colonialism in Africa, which, under the guise of a civilizatory mission, invaded and exploited those virgin regions of the world for pure material profit, causing a lot of destruction and pain along the way. The book questions what really is civilization and what terrible energies get unleashed when Paris and London clash with the Congo in the figure of Kurtz: “the horror, the horror”.
Others say that the book is about the battle between good and evil (stay in the boat and be safe or go on land like Kurtz and lose your soul to corruption due to lack of restraint). Whatever interpretation you lend to the story, the fact is that Heart of Darkness is one of the most poetic books I have ever read. Its account of a boat trip along that methaforically muddy river in the primitive jungle that pulsates like an alien heart will stay with me for years. It also made me appreciate the boldness and creativity of director Francis Ford Coppola, who transported the story to a totally different context (the Vietnam war in the late sixties and early seventies), managing to make the themes and topics of the book even more relevant in a new era of barbarism.
Have you read the book? What did you think of it? Share your opinion with us.