I have just read Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad. Not quite what I expected. My main understanding of this book was the film, Apocalypse Now. I can see how this inspired that film, yet they are a long way apart. Kurtz in this book is more of a wraith than the imposing, bald figure of Marlon Brando. I had more understanding for what the film’s Kurtz was about too. Why he did what he did, what he had done, the depths he had sunk to and the effects it had had on others.
In this book, Kurtz reminded me of Captain Flint in Treasure Island or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings – a figure who dominates conversations yet doesn’t appear. Well, okay, Kurtz does show up physically, finally, yet he feels like he is fading fast and beyond his powers. But the build up to him was impressive. I wanted to meet this enigmatic figure of such deeds, just as Marlowe did. I wanted to know so much more about him! That was perhaps my main disappointment. I wanted to really get into Kurtz, listen to him talk, find out all that he done, how he had become like a god to the natives and what he had led them to do. We get the most fleeting of tastes. Perhaps that is what makes the book compelling. There is so much left for us to think about.
I understand why people have issues on the racist tone of this book, but honestly, it felt right. This was a racist time, where white Europeans mastered Africa with contempt for those living there. That is clearly shown. This isn’t some bullshit World War Two movie where white and black soldiers fight alongside each other against the mean old Nazis, pretending only the enemy were racists. This shows how the invaders sought plunder and the means to get it. They would use anything and anyone. Kurtz epitomises that. He is like a monstrous apparition of Europe’s greed. To try to sanitise the racist views would be to try and hide the truth.
Still, it can make for uncomfortable reading, not least as you suspect there are elements of truth here. There are several people that many suspect Conrad based Kurtz on. Imperialism was never kind to the colonies. It could have benefits to some, sure, but also serious problems. Here, we see a messy mass of greedy interlopers out for themselves. Kurtz may be worse than them all, yet he has something outstanding about him too. He never comes across as petty. He is avarice in human form. He is greatness in all its terrible splendour. He has intelligence, sophistication, strong will, a commanding presence – all the materials to be a leader in a new territory. In many ways he could be someone held up as a great example of a European hero, conquering and commanding. But he is one in the true sense – ruthless, savage, cruel. He could be an Ahab, leading others by sheer force of personality. The Russian Harlequin Marlowe meets proves this. It would have been great to know more of him this way, driving into the jungle, into the people, and finding just how far he could go. He is a man of great resourcefulness and self-determination. But that also makes him someone to be feared. By the other white agents too. His success has become anathema to them. Marlowe has to bring him back because Kurtz won’t be restrained. Yet Kurtz is already dying. Almost as if his own rapacious nature has worn him out.
Kurtz feels less of a human being, less of a fully rounded character, than an apparition, an example, a metaphor of sorts. He possesses lots of qualities others boast about, and he brags of them too, and yet lots of atrocities to carry as a sin. He represents so many things, but we can never define him. Again, this could be the lure. I read to the end expecting some revelation that could help me grasp him. I never got one. I never quite got why Marlowe found him so entrancing and why he felt so loyal to him. Of course, there was his voice, which doesn’t work on a reader. Still, I struggled to understand the power of this figure. So often I hear the lesson ‘show, don’t tell’. Well in Heart of Darkness most of what we get is characters telling Marlowe, and so us, of Kurtz and then he tells his listeners, and they all are in awe. I needed awe to be shown.
Even so, there was something compelling about Kurtz. Makes you want to create a character like him. Someone so complex, so marvellous and yet so horrifying, and to explore that nature. For all that I wanted more from him and this story, he does fit with the likes of Ahab, Dracula, Nemo, Coriolanus and others. Individuals who could impress their will on others, who could captivate through sheer personality and even lead others to their doom, willingly, if it suited their own drives. They could also lead themselves to the same fate.
I’m sure once this book would have been fascinating to read to learn about Africa, but by today it adds little and portrays so much through the eyes of those who care nothing for it that it comes across as crass. Natives are deemed stupid, savage, worthless. There is some good description of the jungle and river travel, but nothing that gives you a feel for Africa. Again, that fits to the intent of the narrative, but for me, having read books and watched documentaries, it is dull if not barbaric. It is a tale for the white man of the past. The invader, the conqueror, the glutton.
Marlowe is a decent enough character, but he is designed to be passive. He is regaling others with his past so he is not the focus. He isn’t meant to stand out. We do meet a series of individuals, though. Most without names. They have, however, notable characters. I was quite impressed with how Conrad could describe the details of a man Marlowe would meet, then imprint the personality, and all for someone we won’t even spend much time with. The sly manager who boasts of never falling ill so he can outlast anyone, who resents and fears Kurtz. The Russian Harlequin who reveres Kurtz and sees only the best in him, to pass on that concept to Marlowe and us. Even the pilot who Marlowe despises for his incompetence and yet deeply regrets his death. Stark characters. Stark while brief.
It was an interesting read. Quick too. I got into it easily enough, became intrigued by the journey, although I was surprised at how long it took to get going. Being stuck along the river with the boat needing repairs was almost as frustrating for me as it was for Marlowe. It could be a bit slow to some readers but I felt there was plenty going on to keep me reading.
I’m not sure I would have read this if it hadn’t been the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, which is one of my favourite films. But I do think that even without it, I would have been drawn in enough to keep reading. Kurtz is a striking and influential personality, although not as much as Brando’s performance was. It was worth reading. Yet now I have it in my head, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever read it again. The wraith that was Kurtz was all I took in truth, and all I wanted to take.