Heart of Darkness – this will need a second look

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is one of the books I am studying in English this year, so I have looked into it in more detail than I might have done if just reading it recreationally. Nevertheless, I get the impression that it is impossible to fully appreciate this novel through just one reading: it’s only 100 hundred pages, but every word counts. This is an art I admire hugely: good historians have wasted their intelligence in writing by following the principle of “why use one word when you could use fifteen?” I greatly admire any writer, particularly one of fiction, conveying such a wealth of detail in such a short length of text, making every word count. It makes me wonder how much shorter War and Peace might have been had Conrad written it.

Told from the perspective of the raconteur sailor Marlow, Heart of Darkness is the story of a journey up the Congo river, into the depths of the unknown, into the impenetrable wilderness, as Marlow calls it. Along the way, the terrible consequences of the greed of a Belgian ivory corporation are revealed in quietly shocking detail. Marlow cannot find refuge in his surroundings or in his fellow Europeans, such is the strangeness of the former and the despicable nature of the latter, and as he ploughs on he begins to lose his grip on reality; all becomes shady and ghostly.

A horrifying and tragic truth awaits Marlow on the completion of his mission, but the horrors of the story are spread fairly evenly throughout it. It is not excessive, it is tolerable but meaningful; the prose is engaging and understandable, yet with so many layers of depth. Conrad reminds me of Orwell, elegantly soaking an incredible volume of ideas almost invisibly into a small space of prose, without making them unintelligible. The quality of Conrad’s ideas matches Orwell’s, and some are even strikingly similar. Marlow’s view on the extraordinary demonic power of hunger forms an eerie forerunner to Winston Smith’s experience and analysis of pain in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On the surface, and as I can best describe it, this book does not seem like much, but reading it is a perpetually thought-provoking and stimulating experience, and I look forward to revisiting this book in more depth.

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