A few weeks ago, in preparation for a Book Club discussion of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I re-read Heart of Darkness, as well as Achebe's famous essay.
Some notes from the time:
Feb. 5, 2003: "Conrad is, as always, like walking through molasses -- thick turgid style and I can't say I always followed it. Marlow in England one moment and on the Congo the next, gliding to the heart, etc. Read Achebe's essay on it, which is rubbish -- he thinks it's not a work of art because it's racist, which would exclude most works of art or a number of them anyway, from the beginning of time."
This was not the only point on which I disagreed. The other was Achebe's assertion that there's no "filter" between Marlow's point of view and Conrad's own. Marlow, he said, "seems to me to enjoy Conrad's complete confidence." Personally, I thought Conrad put some distance between him and his character, and that he deliberately created in Marlow a outsized narrator of some rawness, a slightly daft character, perhaps, whose visions of Africa were certainly true for him if not his creator.
I became growingly disappointed in the essay as I went on to read Achene's Things Fall Apart, which intrigued and surprised me. I thought the book was going to be a mere anti-colonial rant, but it was much more complex than that, as the African village in the book is hardly a haven of paradise -- in many ways, it is downright evil -- and the missionaries and government officials who upset their way of life are not stereotypical blundering do-gooders who have taken up the white man's burden. Some of them are actually decent people who make progressive changes.
In a most interesting piece in the London Guardian Caryl Phillips -- whose superb The Atlantic Sound is a remarkable journey into the African-American, African-English past -- interviews Achebe and finds himself revisiting and revising his own pro-Conrad views:
* But is it not ridiculous to demand of Conrad that he imagine an African humanity that is totally out of line with both the times in which he was living and the larger purpose of his novel? In his lecture, even Achebe wistfully concedes that the novel reflects "the dominant image of Africa in the western imagination."
* However, despite Achebe's compelling "evidence", I am still finding it difficult to dismiss this man and his short novel. Are we to throw all racists out of the canon? Are we, as Achebe suggests, to ignore the period in which novels are written and demand that the artist rise above the prejudices of his times?
* Achebe is right; to the African reader the price of Conrad's eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the "dark" continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad's mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche. Achebe's response is understandably personal.