I first read Heart of Darkness about twenty years ago. I was getting ready to study History and Victorian Studies at Lampeter University and I went on a spending spree in ‘one of those shops’ in Northwich. By ‘one of those shops’ I mean a ‘stack um hight and sell um cheap’ kind of bookshop that sells issues of long out of copywrite Victorian classics. I bought an entire bookcase of books which I read about ten years later.
Heart of Darkness by Conrad is said to be the first modern novel. By this I think critics mean that it can be read as a Fruedian text to be interpreted as opposed to being taken at face value. Certainly I read it with a sense of being drawn into the hinterland of the company, along the river and through the dense jungle being lulled by the heat, the oppressive heat and the absolute uselessness of European Imperialism. I once had an African friend who said that since the Europeans government in Africa had been a licence to loot. That sentiment certainly comes across in the novel where ivory and percentages are the main thing on the minds of the company agents and the rot and jawing about improvement a mere smoke screen against which the jungle just waits.
The sense of Africa as a mysterious and powerful demigod is powerfully portrayed by the jungle and the heat and the gradual oppressive nature of the journey Marlow takes up the river to Kurts. Its an oppressiveness that breaks people and minds down. Disease and derogation are rampant amongst the agents and the medical doctor at the port assumes that Marlow will go mad.
Conrads genius is the river journey that he starts on the Thames slowly weaving together an idea that once this place, just outside mighty London, had been one of the dark places of the Earth and what was being done in Africa, colonisation and exploitation, had been done in Britain by men just like him. He sketches the career of a Roman officer before starting his yarn which progresses though Africa and is drawn to Kurts which steadily applied pressure and darkness that grows on the mind and imagination. Its only when that pressure and darkness seems to overwhelm the reader that we suddenly are jerked back out of Africa and onto the thames. Ultra realistic storytelling that brings the reader up with a shock.