Monday, January 31, 2011

Joseph Conrad's Congo

I have been reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad - something a bit outside of my typical took some time to get used to his prose as I generally read works by more contemporary authors. "Heart of Darkness" was written in 1902, and follows the story of an Englishman who takes a job as a ferry boat captain in Africa for a Belgian trading company. Conrad does not name the area in which the story takes place, but it's widely accepted that his story centers around the Congo River in Belgian King Leopold's Congo Free State. Surprisingly, I found out that this novella by Conrad was adapted as the story for the Apocalypse Now, with Francis Ford Coppola changing the setting to the Vietnam War.

"Heart of Darkness" has many similarities to Conrad's personal experience as a steamboat captain in the Congo in the late1800s. As such, I was interested in hearing some of the depictions of the area at that time, as he had first hand experience. Through the character of Marlow, the ferry boat captain, Conrad describes floating along the Congo River:
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an inpenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find their channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once - somewhere - far away - in another existence perhaps.
I like how, through Marlowe the ferry captain, Conrad describes it as being almost prehistoric. Considering Conrad was living in industrialized England at the time he wrote this, thinking back to his journeys 10 years earlier in remote Africa must have seemed almost unfathomable.
This reminds me in some ways of part of what I read a few weeks ago in The Poisonwood Bible, where Barbara Kingsolver at one point wrote about one character's return to 1960s America after having spent years in the
Congo and how overwhelming and shockingly different and complicated American life was. There does seem to be an element of stepping back in time to a very different physical space and lifestyle when living in the Congo, although I'm not sure if it remains quite that marked today.

Later, the same character describes the passing of a day on the river in an especially evocative section:
I brought up in the middle of the stream...The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set. The currant ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks...Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf - then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering mulitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it - all perfectly still - and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly , as if sliding in greased grooves.

Here's some pix of the Congo River in which part of "Heart of Darkness" is situated, a map of its location, and a photo of a boat similar to the one described in the book:

Unfortunately, I have not completely finished the novella.....I'll finish it tomorrow and put the rest of my discussion of the book as a comment on this blog! I was just shy of finishing everything I wanted to research by the end of the month! I'll write tomorrow with my sum up of Jan and plan for Feb!

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