Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Heart of Darkness

I just finished a book, for the first time in what seems ages.

When I got my iPad, one of the things I was looking forward to was trying it as an e-reader. I had tried this briefly on my laptop years ago (I read some Cory Doctorow, and Kipling's Kim), but it didn't really stick, and I went back to paper (aided by the added adventure of having my reading guided by whatever was available in Rennes' bouquineries). The iPad's screen, and Apple's iBooks app, represents an opportunity to re-explore the medium. For now, iBooks only has copyright-free books available (I am taking this up with Apple as we speak, actually), but given my sketchy experience with the english-language "canon", this leaves plenty of scope. I grabbed a bunch of books, by Dickens, Defoe, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Conrad (as well as some "big" french names, although I expect to struggle mightily with those, and might wait until Apple add a french dictionary to the iBooks app). My first attempt was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Conrad has been limited. I think it was last year (ed: 2 years; time flies) I bought and read Lord Jim. I enjoyed it (and find myself relating to it from time to time), perhaps more in hindsight than at the time; it took a long time to read. That story was about a young man's journey to Sulawesi (not explicitly, but I like to think of it as Sulawesi) in order to seek redemption, and for me was a lot about the difference between a person's intrinsic character or potential as perceived by others, and a person's actions, and how one influences the other.

Heart of Darkness, again from my perspective, was also a lot about intrinsic character and how it interacts with one's environment. The story is told by an old seaman, about his trip on a steamer up a river in the Congo (I believe; again, never made clear), to retrieve ivory from a colonial trader named Kurtz, who has been left alone deep in the wild for, apparently, too long. When the steamer reaches Kurtz' camp, they find him at death's door, and driven by overlong exposure to the wildnerness into a kind of madness. The book does a lovely job of building anticipation of Kurtz; he probably only features in person for a dozen pages. The other 100 pages (this is a novella, not a novel), though, all revolve around him, and his relationships with and effects on others, as a man of immense charisma and promise, but stripped raw from living too long away from civilisastion.

The book at times comes across perhaps not as racist per se, but with a note in its discussion of the native tribes that would not be palatable from a modern author. Even the central theme, that a white man in this "heart of darkness" cannot sustain without losing his sanity, has an overtone that today perhaps isn't a widely accepted view. (Having said that, I suspect one could write a very interesting book today about the Congo as a heart of a very different kind of darkness).

One of my reasons for choosing this, of all Conrad's short stories, was because it was returned to prominence through its adaptation by Coppola from a British ivory trader in colonial central Africa to an American commando in war-torn Indochina, in Apocalypse Now. It's been a long time since I watched the film, and less than 24 hours since I finished reading the book, but it actually feels to me like the adaptation was remarkably faithful. The same air of mystique, the same suspense by talking about but never meeting Kurtz, the same almost indifferent relationship between narrator and Kurtz. My appreciation for the film has grown.

I'm not sure what my next book will be. I've started reading A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, based on a recommendation from someone at work, but after a few pages, I'm already getting a little fed up by the pretentious prose style, so I'm not sure if I'll get through it.

1 comment:

Sally said...

Why not stay on Conrad/ I could lend you my omnibus but it is heavier than an ipad.