BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

An intense and hopeless despair ...

This was another of those books that I somehow missed on the way to my English major. Fortunately, it exists in a Dover Thrift Edition, so got added on to a sub-$25 Amazon order to get into free shipping land … sort of a Law of Unintended Consequences thing for filling holes in my education! Of course, I thought that I knew what Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was about from having seen Apocalypse Now, which is largely based on this novella (although if you read the Wikipedia entry on the movie, there are several other literary sources), but I kept waiting for that familiarity to kick in, and it only rarely did.

And, as regular readers of this space know, it's a rare thing for me to be reading any fiction, so I'm a bit lost on what to say about this. My main take-away was “gee, that wasn't like the movie!”, which being useful information to somebody else who was familiar with the Viet Nam version of the story, it would be met with a rather resounding “DUH!” for those who were coming to it expecting a tale from “deepest, darkest Africa”.

The story is bracketed by small sections which take place on a ship in the Thames, with a handful of sailors sitting about and trading stories. One of whom, Marlow (who I take it to be a recurring character in Conrad's stories, something of a fictionalized version of himself), launches into telling a tale detailing his experiences from his youth leading him into a commercial posting that led him deep into the Congo. The main thrust of the story is his going upriver to secure the delivery of some ivory, requiring the renovation of a river boat, and overcoming assorted difficulties. Unlike in the movie, the protagonist is not on a mission to kill Kurtz (here a Mr., not a Col.), or even to specifically contact him, but Kurtz is a figure that many suggest is a remarkable man (“Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together”), and that their paths are likely to cross.

The writing is lush, which is probably why this has become such a classic … how many writers do you know who could put together a passage like this:
The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.
Of course, the downside of something this rich with description often loses a bit clarity of the narrative. Indeed, reading this has a certain dream-like aspect to it.

I understand that readers of fiction get very upset when reviewers put in “spoilers” … so, if you are unfamiliar with the story (either via the book or the movie), you may want to skip to the end at this point!

Perhaps the most recognizable parallel between the book and the movie is the death of Kurtz. Of course, the particulars of the two are quite different, but the key line survives:
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope to never see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: 'The horror! The horror!'”
I have a hard time not seeing Marlon Brando, shaved head oozing feverish sweat, mumbling those words, crossed ever so slightly with The Rugrats (of all things) ironic take on it.

As I noted, the copy I have of Heart of Darkness is a Dover Thrift Edition, which carries the whopping cover price of $1.50 … which means that the odds of it being in a brick-and-mortar (who might have a 60¢ mark-up on it) are fairly small, but both of the big on-line guys have this (heck, B&N even knocks another 10% off!), which is convenient for situations where you're getting a couple of books, and aren't quite at that $25 free-shipping level. If you like adventure books, or English Lit “classics”, make a note of it and have it handy for the next time you're ordering on-line!

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Tags: book review
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