(I read the Penguin Classics version, which includes a chronology, introductions, notes, a map of the region, the author’s Congo Diary, an author’s note and a glossary of nautical terms.)
Written in 1899, some nine years after the author’s visit to the Congo, this novel is clearly inspired by and based on his experiences in Africa.
Presented as a tale told to a partially reluctant audience trapped on a ship at anchor in the Thames Estuary, the story employs the many qualities of the unreliable narrator. Odd shifts in the timeline, occasional jumps without explanation, reports of garbled overheard conversations lacking context all add to the experience of the reader in joining that small audience.
But the book deals with many themes. Brutality caused by prejudice, the infant of ignorance, is perhaps the most telling here. The initial horror slowly dissolving into indifference as the narrator’s experiences and exposure to cruelty anaesthetise him in self-defence against the realities. There’s also the greed encouraged by rapacious western corporations allowed free reign in a land with few authorities and little structure to deal with either criminals or cheats. And, underlying the story, is a thread about ivory that lacks the modern concern for conservation but highlights man’s obsession with the acquisition of wealth.
Marlow, the seafarer who tells the tale, is a man of his time in so many ways that he must be difficult for the young generation to understand. Colonialism, with all its good intentions and foul outcomes, guides much of his thought. Initially appalled at the treatment of the native people, he becomes obsessive about a figure of mystery, a man who appears to have promise of progression in the company for which both men work. This figure, an enigma in many ways, seems to represent the conflicts in humankind whilst moving through the stages of moral decline that are presented as inevitable in the colonial situation.
Although it’s an engaging book, full of depth and marvellous language, it is also a hard read both intellectually and emotionally.
A book of its time, it nevertheless carries many messages still only too relevant today.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]