Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness is only 40,000 words long; a novella so slim that I picked up my first copy as a free give-away that came with a newspaper. However according to Harold Bloom those 40,000 words have been dissected and analysed more than any other work of literature “that is studied in universities”. Unless he eavesdropped his way across literature departments the world over it’s unclear how he estimated that, but it feels justified. Heart Of Darkness is a work of smoke: seemingly solid and dense, until you reach out to pin it down and it dissolves wraith-like around your empty hands. As Conrad himself describes it (through his narrator Marlowe): “To him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
That’s not to say that it’s some experimental mess where the plot can only be unravelled on the fifteenth reading; on the surface Heart Of Darkness is disarmingly simple: A seaman named Marlowe gets a job as a riverboat captain for an ivory company in the Belgian Congo and is given the mission of sailing up river to pick up a mercurial agent of the company named Kurtz of whom some rather unnerving rumours have begun to spread downriver. Needless to say things do not exactly work out, which should come as no surprise to fans of Apocalypse Now. Conrad reportedly based much of the novel on his own experiences of working as an officer on the Roi des Belges in 1890, where he sailed up the River Congo into the hinterland of the Congo Free State, claiming the novella was “experience… pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case”. Regardless of the reality of the novel’s contents, it is one of the most powerful and almost psychedelically surreal condemnations of imperialism in the western canon. Images like a becalmed French battleship spastically shelling the jungle itself in what is seemingly an effort of war against the very land itself, will stay with a reader for far longer than the short length of the tale.
It is not a book without controversy however, whilst the book clearly condemns the mechanisms of colonialism, it does not portray its African characters as similar in mind or soul to its European characters (though Marlowe does argue that “they are not inhuman” and much of the narrative rails against European hypocrisy for arrogantly asserting their “remoteness from the night of first ages”) leading Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as “a bloody racist” in a famous 1975 critique of the novella. The issue is murky at best and lends yet another layer of queasy uneasiness to a story that is already steeped in them. It seems foolish to try and put a precise meaning on the events of the novel, but the both savagery and oppression it portrays will perennially feel uncomfortably familiar to its readers; whether you live closer to the Congo river or the Thames, with Heart Of Darkness Conrad opened the way “into the heart of an immense darkness”