I’ve recently finished reading Heart of Darkness, Joseph Konrad’s novella set in late 19th century Africa, which inspired Apocalypse Now. I’m one of the few people who’ve not seen the film, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons – though there was a disappointingly low number of helicopter attacks.
Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, where crews of various nationalities are working under the power of ‘the company’, who have established a more imperial than capitalist foothold.
The story begins with Charlie Marlowe on the banks of the Thames as night falls, telling the story that follows.
The blurb of my copy claims that Konrad inspired Orwell, Golding, Celine, Borges and Eliot. Being a bit of a philistine, Orwell is the only of those I’ve read, but the writers that came more to mind as I was reading were JG Ballard and Joseph Heller. Ballard’s novels use strange worlds and situations to look at what happens to seemingly civilised people when taken out of civilisation. Heart of Darkness reminded me in particular of The Drowned World, set in a London that’s became a post-apocalyptic swamp. As for the comparisons to Heller – the company appears to be a beauracratic mess. A specialist and highly skilled brickmaker is sent where there are no materials for him to work with, and when a ship runs aground and rivulets are needed to repair it, Marlowe is able to get his hands on everything but. The comedy (or it might be better to call it cynicism) is played deadpan, as opposed to the sometimes zany tone of Catch 22, but there were a few moments that were sharply funny in the same way.
The main idea running through the novel is the effect the environment (the heat, humidity, distance from home) has on people – are they driven slightly mad, or are their true selves coming out? There’s grand talk of civilising the natives, but most of the characters don’t seem to think much of them, and there’s regular use of the ‘n word’. (No, I don’t mean native.) There’s an interesting comparison with Roman soldiers travelling to primitive and remote Britannia, far from their loved ones and what they considered civilisation, so the author clearly knows what he’s doing, rather than having ‘outdated’ views himself.
There isn’t a definite, clear narrative – the novel is more a series of things that happen. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, the hero is assigned to retrieve Kurtz near the start, the plot in Heart of Darkness develops in stages. It’s personal ambition, rather than orders, that take Charlie Marlowe to Congo. He spends time adapting to the environment (where he hears a series of whispers about the missing genius Mr Kurtz) before he is assigned to bring him back to Europe.
But the absence of a strong narrative works well for the book. The substance is the taking apart of moral frameworks – imperial worldview of the company, Marlowe’s more subtle morality, and Kurtz’ grand ambitions.
All of this is told in prose that’s detailed and enveloping without being too rich, does a lot to build the feeling that Marlowe is feeling, of the Congo getting under the skin.
Verdict: A landmark and influential novella, with provocative ideas and a dash of cynical humour.