The contradictions of Joseph Conrad
Ngugi wa Thiong'o comes across the reckoning of Western conquest and advancing globalization revealed by the writer
I turned my back on reading Joseph Conrad in 1967. This was also the year that I published "A Grain of Wheat," my third novel, which I wrote soon after reading Conrad's "Under Western Eyes." I could not put words to what repelled me, because, despite the unease, his influence on my work was unmistakable, and long lasting.
"A Grain of Wheat" marked a dramatic shift for me away from the linear plots and single points of view of my first two novels to the multiple narrative voices and diverse temporal and geographic spaces of my later works. The difference in style was a result of my encounter with Conrad.
The majesty and musicality of his well-structured sentences had so thrilled me as a young writer that I could cure a bout of writer's block simply by listening to the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or reading the opening pages of Conrad's "Nostromo." It instantly brought my mojo back.
I am not alone in being so impacted. In Gabriel García Márquez's "Hundred Years of Solitude," the sweep of history and dictatorships that litter the social landscape of the novel reminded me strongly of "Nostromo," Conrad's complex epic about an imaginary South American republic. García Márquez's title even seems to nod at the fictional historical tome contained within Conrad's novel: "Fifty Years of Misrule."
In her fascinating book, "The Dawn Watch," the Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff offers detailed background on the evolution of Conrad's books, describing how each was a sort of reckoning with Western conquest and advancing globalization. We learn, for example, that "Nostromo" was written as Conrad delved into the oral and written sources about the "liberation" of Latin America that often ended in Western-backed dictatorship.
As he was writing, he was taking in news of the crisis over the Panama Canal, an episode of political and military manipulation in which America emerged as a new, wily imperial power. In other words, Conrad and García Márquez were drawing from the same well of post-colonial Latin American history.
In the same way, Conrad and Chinua Achebe are also connected. And yet, Achebe led the charge against Conrad. In 1975 the Nigerian novelist delivered a lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness," which was then published as an essay.
He built on the insights of the groundbreaking literary critic Es'kia Mphahlele, who accused Europeans like Conrad of depicting Africans as acted on by history instead of making it. Achebe went ever further, calling Conrad a "bloody racist." This critical perspective has become an inevitable companion to any discussion of the writer's work. Jasanoff herself uses it to frame her quest for a more complex vision of Conrad.
Achebe's essay helped explain what I had found repellent in Conrad's work and why I'd stopped reading him. In the novels set in the outer reaches of European empire the native characters always seemed to merge with their environment, reminiscent of the Hegelian image of Africa as a land of childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night. I accepted everything Achebe said about Conrad's biases.
And yet, I could not wholly embrace Achebe's overwhelmingly negative view of "Heart of Darkness" or Conrad in general. Somehow, the essay failed to explain what had once attracted me: Conrad's ability to capture the hypocrisy of the "civilizing mission" and the material interests that drove capitalist empires, crushing the human spirit. Jasanoff does not forgive Conrad his blindness, but she does try to present his perspective on the changing, troubled world he traveled, a perspective that still has strong resonance today.
In "Heart of Darkness," Conrad's literary stand-in Charles Marlow talks of imperialism as a form of robbery accompanied by violence and aggravated murder on a grand scale. Colonial ventures are mostly about taking the earth away "from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves."
This captures, in one sentence, capitalism's racist roots in slavery and conquest. Conrad also anticipated a capitalist system's capacity to dismantle societies, a point he illustrated through his depiction of Mr. Holroyd, the cynical American silver and steel tycoon in "Nostromo." Jasanoff does an excellent job pulling on all these threads.
I suspect Achebe missed this side of Conrad because he didn't stop to consider the diabolical character of Kurtz, the brilliant station agent gone rogue whom it is Marlow's task to retrieve. In "Heart of Darkness," the final image of Kurtz, the man of light and reason, is one of him hedged by human heads, capturing the horror of imperialism and the hollowness of the enlightenment philosophy with which colonialism wrapped itself.
It is a scene reminiscent of Marx's comparison of bourgeois progress to the pagan idol who drank nectar but only from the skulls of the slain. Congo was littered with 10 million skulls, the work of civilized hunters for rubber and ivory to meet the greed of King Leopold of Belgium.
The Conrad who was able to imagine Kurtz in this way is often obscured by Marlow, Conrad's literary alter ego. In "The Dawn Watch," Jasanoff goes behind the mask and, like Stanley in search of Livingstone, or Marlow in search of Kurtz, sets out to find the elusive Conrad by tracing the physical, historical, biographical and literary footsteps of the writer.
Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in a Poland then under the thumb of czarist Russia and to parents engrossed in the struggle for independence, he later becomes a homeless traveler of the oceans, and eventually ended up as Joseph Conrad, an English-speaking citizen of the most global of the European capitalist empires of the time. Jasanoff returns Conrad to all of these contexts, understanding what impact they had on his novels.
In the process, she becomes a detective piecing together the incidents big and small that formed classics like "Lord Jim," "Heart of Darkness," "Under Western Eyes" and "Nostromo." She helps us make sense of the seeming contradictory decision on Conrad's part to write about the effect of empire but never set his novels in any of the colonial possessions of his adopted homeland, Britain, letting their actions unfold in mostly Dutch, Belgian and Spanish colonies.
This Conrad may have looked at imperialism through the eyes of both a deracinated Polish nationalist and of a grateful member of the British Empire. His art, which he defined as the capacity to make readers hear, feel and see, was able to capture the contradictions within empires and the resistance to them.
This is the Conrad who comes alive in Jasanoff's masterful study. "The Dawn Watch" will become a creative companion to all students of his work. It has made me want to re-establish connections with the Conrad whose written sentences once inspired in me the same joy as a musical phrase. (excerpt)
The reviewer is a Kenyan author and a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.The write-up has also appeared on www.nytimes.com