Category Archives: Conrad, Joseph

Six bullets and a gun to take me to Mexico. That’s all I’ve got now. And it’s a long, long way.

January roundup

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post much – I’ve been busy at work and then looking to move jobs (which I’ll be doing in July). Between the two I’ve not been able to be online much.

So, by way of catch-up I thought I’d do a series of three posts summarising my reading in January through March. Today’s covers January.

If you read through this post I’m guessing it’ll be obvious which book I took the title quote for this roundup from…

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

My first book of the year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, the second in her Ancillary trilogy (SF writers and trilogies…). It’s a direct sequel to her highly regarded Ancillary Justice and I enjoyed it tremendously although the general view that it’s not quite as strong as the original is probably fair. I wrote a bit about Ancillary Justice here.

Ancillary Sword is a much more contained novel than Justice. For a far future space opera it has an awful lot of dinner and tea parties and there’s much more focus on the culture of Leckie’s setting, all of which I liked but it does make it inevitably a little bit less thrilling than the original. I still definitely plan to read the third in the sequence.

The Duel, by Joseph Conrad

This was one that Guy recommended – his review is here. It’s a really nicely executed little novella about a duel between two Napoleonic officers which lasts over twenty years off and on. It inspired the film of the same name.

The Melville House edition, which is the one I read, comes with copious end notes and historical background material much of which is genuinely fascinating and if the concept interests you even slightly this is an absolute must read. It’s a lot of fun, if fun is the right word.

The Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

I’d read a lot about it so had a look at the book. Sadly I remain rather untidy. To be fair I haven’t implemented any of Marie Kondo’s rules so this may not be entirely her fault.

Rain, by W. Somerset Maugham

This is quite a famous Maugham novella and but for being a little over 50 pages long would fit easily into one of the Far Eastern Tales collections. It features various colonial types trapped on a small island for several weeks when their sea journey is interrupted by extreme bad weather.

Tensions rise, particularly when a rather puritanical religious couple object to sharing the limited island accommodation with a fellow passenger they suspect of being a prostitute. It’s classic Maugham – powerfully written with strong characters and yet an extremely easy read. He’s famous for his short stories for good reason.

That’s not the cover I have by the way – mine is much plainer. I just thought that one rather good and it does actually capture part of the story (the racier part, but publishers do have to sell books…).

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

A man becomes accidentally involved in a deadly attempt to smuggle defence secrets to foreign powers. There’s some good passages particularly as the hero is tracked across the Scottish highlands, but by the end it depends heavily on extraordinary coincidence and the proper authorities continuing to keep the hero involved long after he should have been thanked and sent home.

The Hitchcock film is better and neatly sidesteps the various massive jumps of logic in the book. This is my second Buchan and I’ve not liked either, so while I wouldn’t argue with those who love him I think I can say at this point that I’m not the right reader for him.

Again that’s not the cover I had, but it’s great isn’t it?

King City, Lee Goldberg

This is a solidly efficient thriller by Lee Goldberg about an honest cop who irritates his less honest superiors so much that they despatch him to an inner-city hellhole without any useful backup or support.

Naturally he doesn’t just get killed on day one and the two very junior cops he’s given turn out to be more useful than they look. It’s Hollywood stuff done rather by the numbers and nothing in it will surprise you, but it’s well done Hollywood stuff done by the numbers.

So, while that might all sound a bit dismissive, I actually somewhat recommend it provided you want what Goldberg is selling. I preferred his Watch Me Die though which was a bit more fun so if you’ve never tried him I’d start with that.

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

I’ve reviewed a lot of Richard Morgan here and I’m something of a fan. This marked a departure by him from pure SF to more traditional sword and sorcery fantasy. It’s full of traditional Morgan traits including hyper-violence and strong sexual content, but none of that was ever what I read him for and I thought the story here depended more on that material than his SF did.

Anyway, it’s (of course) part of a trilogy and I’ve picked up the second. There’s some linkages to his SF work so I suspect by the end I’ll discover it’s all set in the distant future and isn’t really fantasy at all, but I’m not sure how much I care. I trust him as a writer though so I’ll stick with the journey.

One is a Lonely Number, by Elliot Chaze

Chaze is famous for Black Wings has my Angel, which I read in April, but I actually preferred this. A con on the run comes to a small town where he finds himself caught between two women each crazy in their own special way. It’s full-on classic noir with an evidently doomed protagonist and a whole lot of bad choices.

If you have any fondness for slightly pulpy noir it’s one of the good ones. Worth checking out. Here’s an early quote:

It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he always needed a cigaret desperately, afterwards.

January summary

My January reading reflects the fact I was absolutely flat-out at work. It’s heavy on genre reads and shorter reads, and I don’t think any of them will make my end of year list (except maybe the Chaze). February however was much stronger – I’ll post on that tomorrow.


Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Crime, Goldberg, Lee, Leckie, Ann, Maugham, W Somerset, Morand, Paul, SF, Short stories

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.


Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad

Back in April I reviewed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I liked but didn’t love and which I found rather racist in its execution. Many of the comments challenged my interpretation (always welcome). There was enough skill in Heart, and enough enthusiasm for Conrad in the comments, that I decided to give him another go before too much time passed.

Fast forward and not too long after the BBC decided to screen an adaptation of The Secret Agent, starring the marvellous Toby Jones. I didn’t want to watch it before reading the book, and I wanted to read more Conrad, so…


For those wondering if they’re about to read another not-so-positive Conrad review, you’re not. The Secret Agent is exceptional and quite easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s claustrophobic, psychologically astute and told in a wonderfully laconic narrative style. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Mr Verloc runs a small pornographic bookshop with the help of his wife, Winnie Verloc. He fancies that she loves him, which she does to an extent but less for himself than for the protection he can provide to her mother and to her mentally fragile younger brother Stevie. Mrs Verloc and her mother have devoted their lives to looking after Stevie, an impressionable and excitable young man who feels the pain of the world so keenly that he can’t cope with it.

Mrs Verloc is an incurious soul and never enquires how their small shop manages to supply the needs of four adults. The answer is simple. Mr Verloc has another occupation as spy for a foreign power. The difficulty is that his old employer at the embassy has retired and his replacement wants concrete results.

“A dynamite outrage must be provoked.  I give you a month.”

Verloc has spent years embedding himself in a circle of ineffectual anarchists, back-room radicals who meet regularly to discuss a revolution they do nothing to bring about. They don’t know Verloc is a traitor to them, but fortunately they do nothing worth betraying. Verloc’s new employer wishes him to provoke an outrage so as to excite public opinion into supporting new authoritarian measures and abandoning old freedoms. The anarchists Verloc knows are not the sort to act so precipitously. Matters must be forced.

I knew nothing about the plot of The Secret Agent, and if you’re very lucky neither do you. Verloc finds a means to attempt his outrage, and Conrad then examines both the precise events leading up to it and the consequences. This is no thriller; it’s an exploration of the psychology of extremist thought and act.

The Secret Agent is filled with memorable characters. Among the anarchists there’s Comrade Ossipon, a former medical student who still seems engaged in university-level debates while living off women he seduces. There’s also Michaelis, the angelic “ticket-of-leave apostle” who spent years in solitary confinement where he developed a harmless and rambling theory of bloodless and inevitable revolutionary progress. Their politics are radical but born mostly of their own dreams and failings. As the omniscient narrator dryly observes:

The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.

The anarchists are a varied lot. Ossipon is an opportunist, Michaelis an idealist, and then there’s the aged Karl Yundt who’s simply a vicious old man full of bitterness and resentment. They are all watched closely by the police, but it’s quite clear that left to their own devices none of them will ever do anything.

More sinister than all of them is The Professor, a nihilist who despises the other anarchists for their innefectuality and the rest of humanity for what he sees as its blind weakness. He’s a physically frail man convinced of his own genius, but what intelligence he has he wastes designing bombs that he gives out freely to any who ask for them. He dreams of destruction, but has no vision of anything to build when the smoke clears over the rubble.

The Professor is genuinely dangerous, and he too is known to the police. However, they do not arrest him for they know that he goes everywhere with a suicide bomb upon his person capable of blowing up everyone near him and with the detonator permanently held in his pocket. The Professor exults in his his ability to pointlessly kill at whim. He is comforted by dreams of outrage, by imagined headlines and public panic. He is terrified that even such an extreme act would be swiftly forgotten, that the world would continue unchanged save for those whose lives he took or ruined.

On the side of law is Chief Inspector Heat, a man who holds the anarchists in utter contempt and so is amazed when an outrage finally happens. Above him is the Assistant Commissioner, “looking like the vision of a cool, reflective Don Quixote”, who takes personal control of the investigation. Yet higher up is the Home Secretary, Sir Ethelred, to whom the assistant commissioner reports between Sir Ethelred’s attempts to steer a fisheries bill through parliament. It is absurd; it is credible.

Perhaps the best character though is Conrad himself. The book is full of laconic observations and descriptions which appear sympathetic to their subjects while subtly undermining them. Some examples:

The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.

Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.

A man somewhat over forty may be excusably thrown into considerable disorder by the prospect of losing his employment, especially if the man is a secret agent of political police, dwelling secure in the consciousness of his high value and in the esteem of high personages.  He was excusable.

I could quote vastly more. I had more quotes noted for this than any other book I’ve read for a very long time.

Conrad’s prose is of its period, he’s fond of long sentences and commas, but it’s highly effective and there are some lovely moments such as when he says of a street that “It was not actually raining, but each gas lamp had a rusty little halo of mist.” That would be a very ordinary sentence, save for the addition of that one word “rusty” which lifts it suddenly into poetry.

This is an intelligent and surprisingly funny novel, and while it’s a cliché to talk about how it remains relevant it’s true all the same. What’s particularly clever is how Conrad firmly roots the political in the personal. As the Assistant Commissioner observes, “From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama.” Nowhere else have I seen the psychology of self-justification so well explored.

One final note. One of the smaller pleasures of the book for me was the familiarity of its locations, not least when a late chapter showed “Mr Verloc, sitting perplexed and frightened in the small parlour of the Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that’s just over the road from where I work and where I’ve drunk myself. I don’t go there often, but next time I do it will be hard not to imagine Mr Verloc tucked away in one of its many corners.

Other reviews

None I know of, probably as it’s such a classic everyone but me read it long ago.


Filed under Conrad, Joseph

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.


That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.

Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.

As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.

Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.

The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.

Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”.  On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.

The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.

Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.

The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a  vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”

That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.

I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.

As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.

Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.

In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –

“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.

The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..

Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.

Other reviews

None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).


Filed under Conrad, Joseph