In between bouts of violent vomiting and, um, appalling diarrhoea, I finished reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last night at three or four in the morning. Yes, I, too, read something into the illness, particularly that type of illness: expelling poisons and toxins from my squirming, wrenching stomach. Expelling the book, the words of Conrad, who, as Achebe wrote, was clearly “a bloody racist”, became a physical act that has stayed with me this morning. I feel wobbly, weak and anaemic. Achebe has said it all (see foot of blog immediately below for link to his essay, written in a year which has become so terribly loaded for me, 1977) before, and I don’t think there’s much that I can add. Other than being amazed that people I like and respect have defended Conrad on this particular piece of work. Why? Why feel the need to defend him? He’s dead, for starters. But would these same people defend someone who wrote a similar work today? Perhaps they would.
Not that I regret the book being written. I’m glad to have read it. Glad to have thrown into sharp relief the ways in which we Europeans slide into thinking and writing about places and people when we land on this continent of Africa. The usual self-doubt rumbled away as I turned the pages: do I also fit this mentality? Is this how I see, in my case, Angola? Am I unaware of my own deeply self-obsessed thought patterns? For that is also what struck me about the book: it is incredibly self-orientated, I mean, about the self. And I am (deeply) aware that in my own case, my relationship to Angola is, shamefully, about my Self. Not only. But partly. Inevitably.
I’m relieved I didn’t read this particular Conrad until now. I’m glad I’ve done my own travelling first, had my own rows with all and sundry about the way African contries are (re)presented in the international (and sadly, domestic) media, in novels, talk shows, and songs. I’m glad I’ve dragged my mind through years of doubting, reading, doubting and more reading, before encountering Heart of Darkness.
But I see no excuse for the respected scholars, writers, journalists et cetera, who defend the piece of work. I was disappointed in it, as a story, but more stunned by the extent of praise and worship it has received over many decades. How deeply disappointing.