Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Books: Heart of Darkness

Summer reading gives you a chance to catch up on works you may have missed. I had never read "Heart of Darkness," the famous novella by Joseph Conrad. Fortunately, Barnes and Noble sells a nice, inexpensive hardcover collection of some of Conrad's short fiction (including "Heart of Darkness"). Small hardcovers are the perfect beach books (durable but easy to tote), so it was just me, Marlow, and Kurtz on the sand that day.

The first impression I had while reading the story was that it was a spiritual cousin to "At the Mountains of Madness" ("Heart of Darkness" was of course written much earlier, so maybe I should say Lovecraft's writing takes cues from Conrad's). The plot is pretty spare - Marlow treks down the Congo in search of a mysterious man called Kurtz - but the setting is the Africa of the 19th century, still forbidding and alien to white men. Marlow's account of the swollen riverbanks and dark verdant jungles have much the same effect as Cyclopean tombs and strange geometries.

The first few parts of the story are pretty literal, but as Marlow edges closer and closer to his goal, things start to get pretty hazy. Fever dreams, life-threatening situations combined with confounding environments, and, above all, the strangely sympathetic voice of Kurtz have made this section of the novella the most puzzling for readers ever since its publication. What is Conrad saying about imperialism? Is Kurtz good, evil, or something else? What really happened out there in the heart of darkness? It's a fun thing to turn over in your head - I guess that's why it's literature.

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