In 1975, when Chinua Achebe accused Joseph Conrad as a ‘bloody racist’ and harshly deprecated the image of Africa as portrayed in the latter’s magnum opus ‘Heart of Darkness’, the litany of the controversies around the book got a little longer. The novel had been already subject to various and often quite starkly conflicting interpretations; the tirade provided by Achebe only exposed a new one.
It is the most fascinating truth about the book that it is capable of giving two of its readers completely two discrete understandings. The language used by Conrad, instead of being English, linguistically speaking, emanates a strange feeling that it is not quite English, or more than it. The language, or should I say the words and sentences that make up the language, is creepy, cryptic, and suggestive to the extent that no definite conclusion can be driven regarding the author’s original intentions. Added to that, the complexity of the language sometimes hinders the reader to extricate even a singular meaning underneath the hard shell of words. Hence, though it is only a hundred page novella, it takes much more time than a hundred page novella should take. Being alert is a constant vocation for any reader of ‘Heart of Darkness’, for a momentary collapse in attention could result in a total bewilderment about what is happening in the book.
This minimum effort of constantly guarding your attention should invariably result in an unparalleled reading experience. There have been not many novels such interesting, breathtaking yet haunting in the history of fiction. At least I had not encountered any as confounding as it is in my reading life. There are more than one moment of epiphanies in the novel when your soul feels like finding a long sought truth shrouded in vague mystery. Truth the book is suggestive of so many meanings; however, none of them is delineated in a simple and direct phrase.
Take Achebe’s interpretation into consideration. The so called racist portrayal of the Africans as dark uncivilized un-human can be found in many parts of the book. But this portrayal can be viewed as the customary view of the then Europeans towards Africans. Also, it cannot be denied that one of the central motivations of the book is to expose the dehumanizing aspect of colonialism. To do so, an attitude akin to Marlow’s should have been necessary. However, it can also be argued in the line that Marlow almost represented Conrad as the novel is mainly a retelling of a personal experience Conrad had ten years earlier than writing the book. The conclusion follows, Conrad himself was quite patronizing towards Africans.
Another mystery that remains unsolved is about the darkness the books so often alludes to. What is this darkness after all? The darkness of the human heart? Or, the darkness of the silent ghastly nature that induces a human to expose their own concealed darkness? The gruesome fall of Kurtz cannot be wholly attributed to his egomaniac nature. Had not there been the dark Africa with its formidable rows of skyrocketing trees and phantasmagorical silence, Kurtz might have not been felt the urge to capitulate to the calling of evil. Interestingly, the darkness does not perish in Africa. On the very last passage of the book, the Thames, the river of the civilized world, is also referred to as “the heart of an immense darkness”. The darkness is everywhere then! Only here, on the brink of finishing the novel, we discover the culminating epiphany, the whole point of those four horrific words uttered by Kurtz on his deathbed, “The horror! The horror!” The entire novel then seems like a horror tale about darkness, about nature, about life, about the whole existence of being.
Awed we have to become after seeing such a little book containing so much power, so many facets of humanity! A reader has to feel reassured about the saying that appearances do not tell you everything. You have to go through an elaborate process to partially comprehend the book, as I am very doubtful whether the book can be fully comprehended. Even after the read, the horror will keep haunting you for a time.
This is a book not to be vaporized in the pool of oblivion; rather, this is a book from which the fragile memory of us humans cannot escape.
The darkness, the horror, keeps coming back.