"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Joseph Conrad. This has been mainly through my relationship with the Heart of Darkness.
I don’t specifically remember the first time I read the book, but it was while in boarding school in the DRC (then Zaire) in the early to mid-1990’s. The sense of chaos into which the country was descending – which would seem me and my family being evacuated and eventually move to Europe – and from which it has until today not fully recovered, leant a certain amount of familiarity to the story. But as I grew up, also intellectually, and become more “radical” in my sensitivities to white-black relations and colonialism / imperialism, in line with authors such as Chinua Achebe, I became critical of how Africa and Africans were portrayed in the novel. Since then – maybe the “conservative turn” that comes with aging? - I’ve become much more sympathetic to the novel.
The language used by Conrad can, at times, be from a different age. (His novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, is at the very least, strikingly titled…) But the complexity of Darkness is striking, in particular the fact that when reading it with nuance, it is clear he’s mainly criticizing the white presence in Africa. Aside from that, the story is gripping, and has inspired some great stories (e.g. the movie Apocalypse Now or Naipul’s A Bend in the River, both favorites of mine.
Recently I read Maya Jasanoff’s, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. A great biography of Conrad, which shows how he was shaped by his world (as a Pole at a time when his country was often effectively off the map; as a sailor in a great phase of globalization; as an immigrant writing in “new” language), as was his writing. More than anything, what the world is and how we see it is constantly in flux. This causes tension, both at the individual and collective level, and that was an important part of Conrad’s analysis – and his life experience made him uniquely suited to observe this. Jasanoff illustrates this very well in her brilliant book. One can only look at the world today, in particular the tensions through the current wave of financial and technology-driven globalization and wonder what there is to uncover and highlight.
Niamey, Niger, 11.11.2019