|Heart of Darkness (1899)|
It takes courage to pick up a book by someone who is as celebrated as Joseph Conrad, who is something like a high priest of English Literature. It takes an amazingly strong writing to elevate a simple tale to the high pedestal of folklore, good enough to survive the unkind winds of changing centuries. Writing is a delicate art and takes a great amount of hard work, and extraordinary dose of talent to become a writer worthy of being called such. It is as easily likely to be a grossly misused term by lesser mortals like this blogger. Just as man has a natural faculty to speak, it does not make him a speaker, a natural faculty to write trivialities does not qualifies one to be a writer. It is not about vocabulary, a fertile imagination to create complex constructs. It is all those things and a bit more as Authors like Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad tells us. These greats spread so wide across the spectrum in terms of style that it becomes impossible for an aspirant like yours truly to theorize and build a pattern which one may ape and try to get a hint of greatness in our writings.
It is a string of various pearls, from the no frills, simplistic writings of Maugham on one end, to the brilliantly adorned-by-metaphor writing of Nietzsche to the poetic and almost lyrical writing of Joseph Conrad. Only thing which connects the various and varied writing styles is the honesty which runs like a common thread.Joseph Conrad, the Polish author was borne in 1857, as India went through the throes of first battle for freedom and the great Mughal, fought their last battle to a definitive loss. While British set out to define colonial rule in India, Joseph Conrad breathed first to write this book of the continuous struggle between Colonial greed and Native way of life.
This is not the book to be lightly read. This does not imply however that this book is heavy in a sense of being boring or ancient in the feel. On the contrary, this is a book to seduce, mesmerise and captivate you and you have to let it. It is like the first shower of rain after an angry summer, which suddenly appears surprising all the nearly identical weather bulletins in a hot afternoon.If you try to run away from it, hide from the rain, it will bother you to no end and wreck your nerves, particularly as you try to hide you find no shelter within reach. But then what you can do is surrender to the beauty of the change of weather and soak in the sweet smell of rain falling on the parched Earth. That is how this book is to be read. You do not analyze it, nor do you rush through it. It is prose masquerading as Poetry or poetry breathing through the paragraphs as a soul in the body of a prose. You ought to let your soul soak in the beauty of the language.
The words though lovely and mesmerizing are too honest and innocent, which do not work too hard to grab your attention, but pleases you with their aptness. When he begins the narrative with "We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories." Who does not find the reflection of our own thoughts in a statement like that.
Charles Marlow, the narrator and chief protagonist of the book is set about by a company, which is into ivory trading, to ship to Congo River, to a country of savages as colonists would look at the natives. He is sent out to look for a Mr. Kurtz who is a company agent stationed there. The author speaks through Marlow and the gems of his exemplary command over the language shines with amazing brilliance as he writes about Kurtz. Young Marlow set about to the station commanded by Kurtz with very high expectations and high opinion of Mr. Kurtz. The image thus formed is quick to fall flat as Marlow comes to discover Kurtz on reaching the station as a mean person, too ordinary to the grand expectation Marlow had set on Kurtz. He concludes about Mr. Kurtzs based on his interaction with people at the station, with a rare eloquence,"The wilderness had found him early, and taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. (I think)it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, thing of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude-and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core." Hollow at the core- the phrase stays with you and hangs like a dark cloud on your head as you examine your own life and your own heart. That is the true power of language. That is the purpose of language, to express what is most difficult to express and Conrad sets an unsurpassable standard for expression. In Maugham, characters grown into expressions, in Conrad, expression grows into character.
The young Marlow finds Kurtz, a fallen man and struggles with the collapse of romantic illusions. He is confused as any young man is, who, as he grows, finds all those he kept on high pedestals falling to be mere mortals. He is a confused man and confesses,"If anyone had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man." His is left with his faith shattered and no explanation helps at such times, "No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity."
Darkness is a perpetual theme through the story. The landscape is of the earth where sun shines ever so dimly. The feel and strength of the language carries you to such a land, of savages and Pilgrims who work for the company and trees are wild and light is rare. The darkness deepens with the encounter with Kurtz, and is almost complete when Conrad writes,"His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines."
Marlow reaches back to the civilization leaving behind dead Kurtz but is smitten by then by the wild. He resents being back in the city. The city remains same today as it was then in the beginning of Twentieth century, "People hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense." The bitterness flows through the air and slowly enters your breathing, the hatred for what we call civilization and the longing for the pure, the true, the earthy honesty of savagery. He carries the document which Kurtz shared with him, meets the girl, who Kurtz described with so many "My". Conrad is never short of words, he builds people with words, "(She) carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow, as though she would say, I-I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves." There is a turn, a very mild turn in the end as the girl asks about Kurtz's last word. There is no earth-shattering shock in the lie which Marlow tells, as he tells the girl that Kurtz spoke her name as he died, in stead of the actual utterance,"the horror, the horror". Author does not explain why Marlow lied, but you somehow feel that it is not to glorify the dead or the protect the feeling of the living love; you feel it is because Marlow discovers sudden connect with the dead man on account of common savagery and wilderness through which they lived together for some time. It is in that savagery they discover camaraderie.
The language is enchanting and the book, little dark, takes you into a a realm of high literature. If you love words, you will love this book. After all, how often do you read sentences like,"This was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth- the strange commingling of desire" It is like ornamental designs delicately drawn on marble in the Taj, one sentence inter-mingled with others. Some people mention they got introduced with this book in literature classes as a lesson on how not to write, not to write such long-winded, verbose sentences. Which is a truth, you must not write such sentences, if you are Maugham or Hemingway, at least not when you are not Joseph Conrad. But then I then have another lament, where do we have literature classes. Not in India, where every man or woman of intellect is to be Doctor or Engineer and pursuing literature is more often than not is a mark of failed intellect. We are missing so much, and when you read Heart of Darkness, you feel how dark our lives would be if not for the brilliance of books as these. For the love of words, please read this book, as a reader, you learn life, as a writer, your learn life..and writing. This is small book of 70 pages, but what power. This was my first book by him (going back to my lament, it is common for young men in India of average intellect to move away from literature and focus on Resnick and Halliday-Physics), but definitely swayed by a captivating language, I am going to read everything with his name on it. It is