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Monday, March 26, 2018

Heart of Darkness

It feels presumptious of me to have less than great things to say about a classic, but here goes: Heart of Darkness, at less than 200 pages, seemed twice as long, and mostly I had no idea what was going on.

Joseph Conrad's novella from 1899 is perhaps better known to my generation as the basis for Francis Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, and though the book is far different from the film (the setting was changed from Africa to Southeast Asia) knowing the film helped me at certain points in the book.

A sailor, Marlow, is telling the story of how he was sent by "the company" to contact an ivory trader, Kurtz, up the Congo River. "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest." And then, "We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there."

Marlow sees the African jungle as a kind of evil Garden of Eden, but there are implications that the world of white men is also a heart of darkness. But time has not been kind to this book. Not only does Conrad use a word that offends most people (it begins with N) the treatment of native people is also offensive, as it supposes them sub-human, and easily manipulated by Kurtz.

I suppose what most bothered me about the book is Conrad's impenetrable prose. If he can make something unclear, he does it. This extends to simple things like antecedents for pronouns--in some sections, I had no idea who "he" was. For example, Marlow meets a Russian man who has fallen under Kurtz's spell (surely the inspiration for the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now). But Conrad doesn't give him a name, so we struggle to know who Conrad is talking about.

I didn't completely hate this book, as it has some nice turns of phrase, such as when Marlow first sees heads mounted on spikes near Kurtz's compound: "I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids,—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber."

You've got to give it to Coppola--he took a classic work of literature, realized it's flaws, and improved it in cinematic form.

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