The dying gasps of Empire

I started reading Coetzee and then decided to re-read Conrad simultaneously because it explores similar themes. Both books deal with the wretchedness of empire, the depravities of colonialism, the dying gasps of hollow imperialists struggling to hold on to their prized possessions.

Coetzee’s book focuses on a magistrate at a distant outpost of an imperial power’s far reaches. One of the strengths of his novel is that the exact nature and period of this outpost is not specified and therefore the narrative could apply to any colonial outpost in any era. Right from the beginning — perhaps too early — the magistrate who enjoys great security and a comfortable lifestyle filled with wine and women sees the dissolving threads of his country’s imperial ambitions, even as they try to keep the invoked nemesis of the “barbarians” beyond the horizon at bay. He loathes himself for allowing torture of the natives but is bound to respect and follow orders from the military leaders. His circumstances change when he picks up a native beggar woman — one of the barbarians whose father has been tortured and killed for non-existent information — with whom he indulges in a strange, half-erotic relationship which is not consummated until very late. Not surprisingly, after a long and arduous trip in which he transports the woman to her own people, his own sympathies and doubts about the empire come under scrutiny. He is imprisoned and undergoes both psychological and physical torture. Ultimately he assumes the state of a neglected, filthy dog; his state reminds me of the travails of the priest in Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”. Finally the empire loses its resources, or perhaps just gives up, and he is released and finds himself a broken, doubt-filled, unfocused man, waiting for the barbarians to storm through the gate. Coetzee is no Naipaul, but the economy of his prose still often impresses. The novel becomes a bit tedious and repetitive at places, but if not equivalent to “Disgrace” which is Coetzee’s finest effort in my opinion, it is still a supple, evocative piece of work.

I first read Conrad in college but at that time much of it slipped past me, unappreciated and ignored. So I decided to read it again, and this time appreciated it better while still finding it a bit overrated. Like Coetzee’s magistrate, Conrad’s Marlow is a trader on a steamboat, sailing into the heart of darkness, the inchoate hole of the ivory trade deep in the jungles of Africa. Like the magistrate he has a perceptive eye and alternately appreciates and loathes the trappings of empire. The central character in the book apart from Marlow — and the famous inspiration for Marlon Brando’s character in “Apocalypse Now” — is a trader named Mr. Kurtz, a man of endless ambiguity, power and sinister possibilities whose name seems to be on everybody’s lips, who is considered a shadow that has gone mad, but who still evokes almost universal idolatry and jealousy. Much of “Heart of Darkness” centers on Marlow’s observations on both Europeans and Africans and his search for Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is in some ways everything that was wrong about colonialism and the exploitation of natives. Personally I think that the themes with which the book deals, involving, again, the hypocrisy and avarice of white traders in Africa and the ennobling narratives which they construct in order to sustain this dirty business, must have been novel in 1905, but are less so now when the ugly history of imperialism is part of the history books. Nonetheless, the characters of Marlow and Kurtz — one a self-loathing and observant cog in the system and the other the central gear — are universals which have existed in other ages and times. Kafka and Dostoyevsky among others have treaded this territory well.

Since it was first published in 1905, Conrad’s novel has become famous, mostly because of the ambiguity of its language and characters and the haunting beauty of the human and physical landscape: the famous dying words of Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!”, continue to spark debate. It has also become controversial because while the Europeans are properly lambasted as greedy oppressors in the story, the Africans are presented as a faceless whole without individual personalities. Some have accused Conrad of xenophobia in doing this, but the key thing to realize is that Conrad describes the Africans exactly as racist and xenophobic white Europeans saw them then. In that sense his novel couldn’t be a more accurate reflection of reality.

English was actually Conrad’s third language; Polish and French being his first and second. It can be pretty frustrating to follow the impaired flow of language in the novel. However, there are also times — most notably in describing both the darkness in people’s hearts as well as that of Africa — that the prose remarkably soars and glistens. The ambiguity and spare descriptions, the constant to and fro between various characters and the sometimes non-linear narrative lend a hallucinatory hue to the whole enterprise, one which has been responsible to no small extent for the constant literary churning of the book. It’s one of those stories where one can see what one wants to, but it should be noted that if a novel is famous *purely* for the ambiguity of its writing, it can veer dangerously close to being a poor novel. The often luminous nature of Conrad’s writing rescues “Heart of Darkness” from its fate, but it also downgrades (gasp) the book from being a truly great novel to a very good and thought-provoking one in my opinion. Conrad’s later “The Secret Agent” is a much better example of literary complexity and a more developed sense of language.

Ultimately both Conrad and Coetzee are valuable because they expose the rotten seed at the heart of the alluring colonial fruit: the ultimately hypocrisy of colonialism throughout history is that while every colonial conquerer and bureaucrat has claimed to bring enlightenment to his conquered masses, in reality the base greed, superficiality and dark, exploitative qualities of the conquerer make him far more rotten and barbarous than any of his supposedly barbarous subjects.

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