As a child Joseph Conrad pointed his finger to the heart of a map of Africa and declared: ‘When I grow up I shall go there.’ Two decades later, in 1890, Conrad sailed as mate on a river steamer up the Belgian Congo into the heart of Africa. Having joined the French merchant navy aged 16 and spent 17 years at sea, this was Conrad’s first freshwater navigation – and it was to be his last. Conrad was so deeply disturbed by what he experience in the Congo, by the greed and cruelty exercised by the regime of Belgium’s King Leopold II, and perhaps by the stirring of his own blood, that he was left a broken man, physically, mentally and to the depths of his soul, and never went to sea again.
Having stayed four months in the Congo, Conrad returned to Europe, where he spent his first weeks in hospital recovering from a debilitating illness that was to plague him for the rest of his life in fevers and gout. It was not only his physical health that failed in Africa; in the Congo Conrad suffered psychological and existential shock so profound that he was permanently altered. ‘Before the Congo I was a mere animal,’ he said. His friend Edward Garnett believed Conrad’s Congo experiences were ‘the turning-point in his mental life’ and transformed him from a sailor to a writer, for on his return to England, Conrad gave away his life as a sailor and began his ‘second’ life as a writer.
It is possible to see in Conrad’s existential crisis a clash between the culture of Victorian England, with its sexual suppression, and that of the Congo, renowned for the erotic power and beauty of its music, particularly its drumming. Conrad’s character Charlie Marlow finds the music and dancing of the people along the Congo requires his deepest strength to behold: a man ‘must meet that truth with his own true stuff – with his own inborn strength’.
In 1899 the first of three instalments of a story based on Conrad’s voyage up the Congo – then named The Heart of Darkness – was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary journals. The story appeared in full three years later as Heart of Darkness, the second story in Conrad’s collection Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories. Conrad described the novel as ‘the spoil I brought out from the centre of Africa, where, really, I had no sort of business.’ In the century following its publication, Conrad’s haunting novella has lived out its author’s own hopes that his tale would resonate long after its telling: ‘That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.’
The story of Heart of Darkness is simple – it recounts the journey of a sailor, Charlie Marlow, up the Congo in the 1890s during its brutal rule by King Leopold II of Belgium. It is in the telling that the story’s complexities and ambiguities arise. An unnamed narrator sits aboard the Nellie in the Thames Estuary with four other men, waiting for the tide to turn. As they wait, the only one of their number to be named, the haunted, sunken-cheeked Marlow, embarks on a troubled tale of his Congo voyage. The narrator recounts to us Marlow’s story as Marlow tells it on the darkening Essex marshes, recalling his experience of Africa and the infamous Mr Kurtz.
Marlow’s journey into the Congo begins as Conrad’s own did. Both hiked on foot along the lower reaches of the river to the registration port on the upper Congo to meet their assigned steamers. Both found on their arrival that their boats had sunk days earlier. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad suggests the sinking is deliberate, part of a covert plot to isolate the fictional Kurtz further upriver. Here truth and fiction diverge – Conrad was impatient to be afloat and took a position on another boat, the captain of which taught him the art of freshwater navigation. But Marlow stays at the station while his assigned boat is being mended, waiting months for a handful of rivets to arrive from downstream for the work to be completed, during which time he plumbs the depths of the cruelty of colonial life in Africa, finding it increasingly bizarre, increasingly surreal.
The manager of the station appears to have his own agenda, entirely focused on undermining the star of the Belgian colonial venture, the ‘universal genius’ Mr Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station. Although Marlow will later find on meeting him that Kurtz has become ‘hollow at the core’, he was once considered a prodigy, the most promising man of the colonial administration, ‘an emissary of piety, and science, and progress’ rumoured to be destined for great things.
The station manager, in stark contrast, inspires neither love nor respect, but uneasiness. But as Marlow soon realises: ‘You have no idea how effective such a … a … faculty can be.’ In the debilitating Congo climate rife with sleeping sickness, robust health is the key to success and the manager’s only distinction. ‘His position had come to him – why? Perhaps because he was never ill.’ The devil of imperialism that Marlow witnesses laying waste to the land and its people is Dostoyevsky’s decadent, modern devil, ‘a flabby, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly’.
From its earliest days, Conrad’s life was one of travel and exile, until he eventually found a home in southeast England: ‘I have been all my life – all my two lives – the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain and even of the Empire; for it was Australia that gave me my first command.’ Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Poland, at the time part of the Russian Empire, now the Ukraine. When Conrad was four his father, Apollo, a poet and Polish patriot, was exiled for his involvement with an anti-Russian movement, which later organised the 1863 uprising against Russian rule. Conrad and his mother joined Apollo in northern Russia and, following his mother’s death four years later, the boy lived a solitary life in exile with his father.
Conrad spent his days reading Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens and Thackeray in Polish and French while his father translated Shakespeare and Victor Hugo to earn a living. On his father’s death in 1869, Conrad was cared for by a maternal uncle, who sent him to school in Cracow and Switzerland. In 1874 Conrad left Switzerland for Marseilles, dreaming of becoming a sailor. Following a failed suicide attempt in February 1878, Conrad joined a British freighter, served in the British merchant navy for many years and became a British subject in 1886.
On his return to England from Africa, Conrad sent the story he’d been working on for five years, Almayer’s Folly (written in English, his third language), to a London publisher and in April 1895 it appeared under the name ‘Joseph Conrad’. The following year he married Jessie George and they eventually settled in Kent. Not until the publication of Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904) and Under Western Eyes (1911) did Conrad find financial security with his growing success as a writer. In April 1924, Conrad refused a knighthood from the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and he died in August of the same year.
The shock and uncertainty that struck Conrad in Africa shapes the way Heart of Darkness is told. There is no secure foundation to his story. In a much quoted line, the narrator observes that Marlow is no typical seaman:
‘to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.’
This quality in Marlow pervades Heart of Darkness: his circumlocution – coupled with the narrator’s retelling – gives the novel a haunted and haunting allusiveness. The novel’s vagueness is called to account as morally irresponsible by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in his influential essay ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘, first published in 1977. Achebe argues that Conrad’s much noted insistence on ‘inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery’ must not be dismissed lightly, ‘as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere sylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith’. According to Achebe, Conrad’s mystery in fact works to induce ‘hypnotic stupor’ in his readers, numbing them to the racism inherent in his story. Achebe calls Conrad ‘a thoroughgoing racist’ for his portrayal of Africa and its people: ‘Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.’
More recently, the German writer WG Sebald, who also moved from Europe to settle in England, shares in his writing Conrad’s shifting, multi-layered approach to truth and the impossibility of its direct telling. Like Conrad, Sebald was deeply engaged with an attempt to articulate profound, unsettling truths about the European psyche. His novel The Rings of Saturn (published in English in 1998) is, among many things, a reflection on Conrad’s voyage to the Congo and his troubled life lived apart from his birth country. Heart of Darkness also influenced TS Eliot, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Jean Paul Sartre, among others, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now famously draws on it.