“The horror! The horror!” is a famous line whispered by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. It was made even more famous when it was uttered by actor Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
As an avid reader and film enthusiast, I’m asked all the time what my favourite novel and film is by people I meet. This is a very difficult question for someone who loves reading and watching cinema as much as I do. My response is nine times out of ten, Conrad’s literary masterpiece and Coppola’s critically-acclaimed film adaptation.
Due to the book’s simplicity and short length, I’ve read it a few times. Other than Orwell, there’s no other author I’ve read so rigorously. However, I admit I haven’t delved into Conrad’s other work with as much rigor as I have with Orwell.
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” wrote Conrad, addressing the injustice faced by the Congolese at the hands of the white Belgian colonizers.
Many continue to debate whether Conrad was himself a racist, or if he just wrote a story based on his own experience in Congo witnessing the depths of humanity, or the inherent evil facing the people of Africa before the “scramble” or cutting up of the continent took place for imperial purposes.
To counter this ideology, I discovered an author during my dive into post-colonial writing which made a huge impact on my reading habits, educating me on the effects of colonialism in Africa. This was Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, who stands out, to me and many others, as the father of African literature.
Besides Achebe’s literary achievements, he made a compelling critique of what is now called the heart of darkness stereotype. In An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe argues “Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.”
“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality,” he wrote in 1977.
Racism is the only horror in this novel, but some argue it’s used only as a way to convey the real horror of colonialism. The way Africans were treated by European colonizers. Conrad witnessed it, during his time in the Congo, and he exposed it. Isn’t that what writers are supposed to do?
While I admire Achebe’s writing and perspective on the portrayal of Africans in Heart of Darkness, I appreciate Conrad’s honesty and brutality, as well as his contribution to 20th Century literature. But Achebe pointed out a fact that’s hard to dispute. Conrad never gave Africans “human expression” and thus wrote a book that stereotyped an entire continent to future generations.
A stereotype which continues to this day.