A ship floating down the Thames in the peaceful quiet of a summer evening. “We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring,” says the unnamed narrator. Then a sailor called Marlowe starts the story.
The anonymous narrator, an “I” who intrudes briefly into the tale to describe Marlowe from the outside, may be “Conrad” himself. As I have said in earlier blogs, it was a popular convention at the time.
The frame story didn’t add much – except the bit where Marlowe imagines a Roman raiding party viewing the shores of the savage Celtic tribes much as his former Belgian employers viewed East Africa: Swampy, disease-ridden, full of inferior and uncivilized beings, and way too far from home.
I am always interested in the storytelling choices writers must make and their reasons for them. Conrad chooses here to write in the third person, and even explains why. We are told, you see, that Marlowe believes the most important parts of the story lie outside it. That meaning wraps around a story like a halo around moonlight. He is right. The cheap and spare Dover Thrift Edition is no way to read this book.
You will want at least:
- a history of the indigenous peoples of East Africa
- some knowledge of King Leopold of Belgium
- a short biography of the multilingual Polish sailor Joseph Conrad
Without these references, the story raises more questions than it answers. I wondered: Why are “Zanzibari tribesmen” acting as porters so far north? Why are the hungry black sailors on the ship described as “800 miles” from their homes? What internal wars were going on between the indigenous groups in the Congo that the captured are working on chain gangs for the white devils…? Why does Marlowe, like Herman Melville’s narrator Tommo, hate the French so much…?
It was interesting to me that Marlowe refers to the city where his company is headquartered as a “whited sepulchure” or tomb, and refuses to even name it. (I assume this city is Paris.) In contrast, he calls London “the biggest, the greatest city on earth.”
I also wanted to know:
- Was Conrad a racist or was he a man of his time, trying to depict racism but still with subliminal prejudices of his own?
- Was he incapable of telling a straight, linear story due to English being his second language, or was he trying for literary purposes to deliberately write in an enigmatic fashion?
I know as a modern reader I expect more straight-forward storytelling. I also know I become a bit upset when I don’t get it. I mean, Marlowe spends months waiting for rivets and then suddenly he’s on his way upriver and I was like wait – did the rivets finally come in? When? Why wasn’t I informed…you know? It’s all a bit dream-like; all a bit vague, all a bit too dreamy for me.
I knew coming into the book that the Belgian occupation of the parts of East Africa now known as The Congo and Ruanda was brutal even by colonialist standards. Marlowe does seem to be shocked at the careless and wanton disregard for human life evidenced by the men he works for in the ivory trade. Starved, overworked black men flop down everywhere to die. White field agents, riddled with tropical fevers, have the nerve to expire too loudly (coughing) in the company accountant’s office.
Having just read a bunch of books on Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, I noticed that Marlowe judges everything. He see everything as either the way it should be, or the way it shouldn’t be. He compares all landscapes, events, and people to some “normal” thing in his head, instead of accepting his surroundings as they truly are.
However much you loathe most of the characters in the book, there is an uncomfortable amount of common ground between them and us. For example:
“My Intended, my career, my station, my ideas…” bemoans a feverish Kurtz, being hauled out of the Congo by tramp steamer.
I enjoyed some of Conrad’s writing style:
“A deadened burst of might snorts and splashes reached us from afar…as though an ichthyosaurus had been taking a glitter bath in that great river.”
But I don’t agree with all of his claims. Marlowe says that the last words of Kurtz represent “a moral victory.” How? It’s not like he’s going to make it up to the Africans. He doesn’t even say he’s sorry. And it wasn’t at all clear to me that Marlowe was deliberately hiding parts of Kurtz’s papers because they showed hidden locations of ivory. I didn’t even get that until I saw it on Wikipedia.
Like the fossilized ivory Kurtz piles in his hut, the story was worth taking a look at- a valuable addition to the literature of this period – but to balance it I definitely want to read something set in the same time period (1890s I believe) by a Ruandan or Congolese writer. Because there’s just nothing like the smell of Napalm in the morning.