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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #21: Heart of Darkness

heartofdarknessIt was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.

I despise the N-word. It makes my skin crawl every time I hear it, no matter the context. I finished Heart of Darkness a few days ago, and I get that the book’s about colonialism and capitalist greed and exploitation, and that a white man of that time period would likely speak that way, but did Conrad HAVE to drop that word on every other page?

If you haven’t read it, here’s my condensed version: a white man named Marlow gets a job captaining a steamboat transporting hoards of ivory back from the African jungle, finds himself mesmerized by the completely corrupted ivory dealer Kurtz, and years later (back in England) he recounts the story to a group of amateur sailors who have expressed no interest whatsoever in hearing it. Marlow is a supremely irritating narrator partly for that reason (‘Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody?’ HAH!), but I have to admit that Conrad’s prose often had me fumbling for my pen.

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 impenetrable 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 the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps.

While the racism in this book (‘they had faces like grotesque masks’) repulsed me again and again, I wonder if it isn’t rather small-minded to level that accusation on the author himself, as many critics have; but I suppose that basic distinction—between the narrator who grinningly tucks into her filet mignon, say, and the author who will never put her fork in a steak ever again—seems to fall by the wayside when the subject is this serious. At any rate, I understand why Paré hates this book with a red-hot fiery passion, and it’s a relief to have it ticked off the list.

(See my 100 Great Books list here.)

2 Comments to Great Book #21: Heart of Darkness

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    December 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t there too many good books to read to waste your times on ones that make your skin crawl (and that I’m pretty sure you read in high school)?

  2. December 6, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    1, True, but it’s only 110 pages and the book IS very well written; and 2, I didn’t read it in high school, which is why it’s on the list.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.