Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The Horror! The Horror!"

I just finished the first of my "novels for 2013" - oops - it was short and I finished early. It was Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, often considered the best short English novel of African colonialism. For balance, I also read the acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's highly critical review.

Beside's closely paralleling certain event's in Conrad's life, Heart of Darkness was also the inspiration and pattern for Apocalypse Now, the parallelism extending to the names of the critical characters Mr. Kurtz (Conrad) and Colonel Kurtz (Coppola) and their respective last words.

Conrad's narrator is a sailor named Marlow who undertakes a journey up the Congo river to relieve Mr. Kurtz, a charismatic character who's dealing seems to produce an incredible bounty of ivory.

Achebe's critique of the novel charges Conrad with racism, mostly on the basis of his portrayal of Africans and Africa. It's certainly true that no African character is sketched as a fully realized person, but I consider that an irrelevant critique - any novel is guilty of not being about what it is not about. Conrad's very short novel is about Europeans' reaction to Africa, especially the reaction of the narrator and another central character to Africa.

Is the narrator character racist? Well, he is a man of his times, equipped with many of the prejudices of his milieu - and he would be a bizarre anachronism if he wasn't.

Whether he is or is not, the point is that the character is not the novel. The picture we get of the Africans is a distorted one - a vision seen through the dark glass of European eyes that can't speak their language or understand their culture, but it is not an uncompassionate one, or one without insight into their common humanity. No character in the book, except possibly the peculiar Russian wanderer, treats the Africans as equals. That's racist of course, but it's the real racism of history, the racism that actually existed. Neither Conrad nor his narrator is unaware of that racism, but again, it would be anachronistic for the narrator to forthrightly reject it.

In short, I consider Achebe's critique mostly nonsense. It's short though, so feel free to click the link and read it yourself.

Here is a fragment:

The Christian Science Monitor, a paper more enlightened than most, once carried an interesting article written by its Education Editor on the serious psychological and learning problems faced by little children who speak one language at home and then go to school where something else is spoken. It was a wide-ranging article taking in Spanish-speaking children in America, the children of migrant Italian workers in Germany, the quadrilingual phenomenon in Malaysia, and so on. And all this while the article speaks unequivocally about language. But then out of the blue sky comes this:

In London there is an enormous immigration of children who speak Indian or Nigerian dialects, or some other native language.

I believe that the introduction of dialects which is technically erroneous in the context is almost a reflex action caused by an instinctive desire of the writer to downgrade the discussion to the level of Africa and India. And this is quite comparable to Conrad's withholding of language from his rudimentary souls. Language is too grand for these chaps; let's give them dialects!

Well, I'm inclined to think that it might be the almost instinctive desire of the writer to avoid using the word language too many times in one sentence, and that Achebe's reaction to it is an almost instinctive reaction to the giant (but no doubt well-earned) chip on his shoulder.

For my penance, I have bought and started reading Achebe's Things Fall Apart.