I began Conrad’s classic tale as a follow-up to last month’s State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Her heroine traveled to the most remote reaches of the Amazon; all stories that make the trip from the blandness of civilization (Minnesota in Patchett’s case) owe a debt to Conrad’s classic tale of a steamboat trip far up the Congo River.
The book certainly has its oddities, starting with the narrative voice: we are listening to a story told aboard a ship on the Thames that is waiting for a change of tide to send it on its way out to sea. The narrator-within-the-story, Marlowe, tells the entire tale in flashback, with Conrad only occasionally coming up for air to the deck of the Thames boat (Heart of Darkness was written as a three-part serial; I assume these narrative breaks are the stitching between installments).
I had heard much about this book over the years so I was curious to see the exact nature of the depravities upon which the infamous Kurtz had indulged himself. But two-thirds of the way through the book I realized we were never to really learn them. We know there’s a remote camp by a lake and an African tribe that regards him as some kind of demi-god, and we hear tell that he’s lawless toward other Europeans and single-minded in his quest for ivory. But these are all barely more than hinted glimpses.
The story turns out to be not so much about Kurtz as it is about Marlows’ imaginings as he gets deeper into the continent and gathers clues about the mystery man at the top of the river. I found this to be a relief, as Conrad seems almost as uninterested in fleshing out the Africans along the way. Kurtz is a brilliant civilized man; in the jungle his savagery is unleashed and he becomes a force unto himself.
I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the n******, to invoke him–himself his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.
Yes, this is a working definition of a psychopath. If this were a modern Showtime or AMC television show, this would be the start of the action: the producers, writers, and actors would leave little gore or depravity to the imagination. But for Conrad this is the morality tale at the heart of the book. Shortly after being found, Kurtz conveniently dies and our narrator sails back downstream, going (we are helpfully told) twice the speed as before, back out to the ocean and civilization.