I decided to reread this after reading Tim Butcher’s book. He reminded me just how powerful it is, the more so for its brevity. It is a novella, really, of only 120 pages.
The book is now quoted regularly. Apparently even Mobutu, with astonishing self regard and perhaps even ironic self awareness, used perhaps the most famous line from the book: “The horror! The horror!”, when visiting the scene of a horrendous massacre during his many years of crazed and despotic rule.
I remember the quote used by T S Eliot in The Hollow Men: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” I did not know the book then, so it seemed exotic and mysterious. But the shortness of the book gives the text something of the portentousness of writ. Each word means something in a long and inexorable journey to….what?
The introduction by Paul O’Prey to the edition I read, in Penguin, makes the point that the whole book is premised on dancing around the mystery at the heart of human motivations and perversions. It does not offer an answer; it just describes the question. But what a beautifully crafted question!
I also think it is a very strong rejection of colonialism. It was published in 1902, when the horrors of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo were only recently revealed and still subject to suppression by the Belgian Government. You can be in no doubt about Conrad’s utter disgust with the whole venture.
But he brings in other metaphysical mysteries, too. The motley-clad figure who meets him at the Upper Station, in awe of Kurtz but still a remarkable survivor, seems to represent the sprites and fleeting acquaintances we meet in life, who engender a sense of unease but also a frisson of excitement. He is a glimpse of an unknown world, unsettling and morally corrupt.
It is hard to read the book today without seeing connections to ‘Apocalypse Now’, the Francis Ford Coppola film set in the Vietnam war and loosely based on ‘Heart of Darkness’. The character just mentioned, for example, was played by Dennis Hopper. The impact of film on how books are understood and appreciated is immense.
But this is a true classic. I have enjoyed Conrad for many years. His maritime interests and his feel for the position of the stranger in foreign lands are attractive, of course. But he carries authority; you believe what he says. Which makes this book all the more creepy.