This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.
I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.
I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.
I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.