Saturday, June 9, 2012

Heart of Darkness

Book: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Description: A masterpiece of twentieth-century writing, Heart of Darkness exposes the tenuous fabric that holds "civilization" together and the brutal horror at the center of European colonialism. Conrad's crowning achievement recounts Marlow's physical and psychological journey deep into the heart of the Belgian Congo in search of the mysterious trader Kurtz. (from

(I wrote this right after I finished the book back in April)

Wow.  Beautifully, beautifully written.  Especially the first few times I sat down to read this book, it really drew me in--into a world where everything seemed mystical and mysterious and ... I don't even know, but the mood created by Conrad was amazing, dark and brooding and mystical.  Kept coming back to mystical, because there was such a sense, at least in the narrator's mind, of this darkness, personified in the extreme, waiting to tempt and destroy 'civilized' men.

Was really racist.  On the one hand, Conrad really really condemns the greed and cruelty in the Congo, the darkness that creates in people--but on the other hand seems to see that as a result of the corrupting influence of the dark wild, wild jungle, and he saw the Africans as having succumbed to that influence entirely. But also condemned imperialism, I thought, even while he thought Africans inferior--in the beginning he compared the wilds of Africa to what Great Britain must have been like for the conquering Romans thousands of years ago, which I thought was a really powerful comparison--but maybe he was just talking about the lack of civilization. He did make one other similar comment, however; he said something about how all the villages along the main road were deserted, but then adds something along the lines of, "Of course, if some group of people started marching through Dover and making people carry heavy loads for them, I imagine Dover would clear out pretty fast too."

This interesting idea that civilization keeps the savagery away. Must say I don't agree. 'Civilized' people can be just as cruel, if not crueler, than so-called 'savages'.  Also the play between others seeing what you're doing--Marlowe comments a few times about how the men were all alone, with no one watching them, i.e. they had 'ultimate power'.  Definitely a play throughout of men as 'gods'.  But society doesn't keep us from cruelty or sinning. Sinning is in our nature.  Who says that outright cruelty is a worse sin than things like corruption or whatever, that happens in 'society'?  Maybe murder and so on only seems so horrible to us because we don't see it as much as, say, premarital sex.  But that doesn't make those other things any less of a sin.  And just because society says something is right or wrong doesn't mean society is right.

Also: Hochschild said something about how people seem to think that Heart of Darkness isn't really about the Congo, since a lot of the movie adaptations aren't even set in Africa.  But he argues that it is about the Congo.  I think, though, that Conrad may have meant it to be about the Congo, but he really wrote a book about humans and the evil side of them.


King Leopold's Ghost

Book: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Description: In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million--all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold's Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopold's Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo--too long forgotten--onto the conscience of the West. (from

(I wrote these on two separate occaisions, during and after I was reading King Leopold's Ghost in March of this year)

Wow, I'm so impressed with this book so far (just finished chapter 8 or 9).  Firstly, Hochschild out and out condemns the horrors and crimes that happened in the Congo--no justifying their actions because of the norms of the time or anything (although he does explain some of hte cutlural stuff going on, it is absolutely not in a way to justify their actions, more in a way to help us understand).  He also condemns the main actors in the whole thing, especially King Leopold II of Belgium.  Hochschild doesn't hide his contempt for him--and no, I don't think it's too strong of a word--or for some of the other main people.  I must say, all of the people are very well described and feel very real to me.  Even the people who fought against what was happening in the Congo weren't described as saints--he also described their faults, and honestly rather condemned those parts of them even while praising them for their other actions.

The whole things seems so real.  Very well-written, and in a way to engage the reader.  Described so interestingly, and often with really interesting epeople, too.  Hochschild is also so sarcastic!

Wow.  Need a moment to gather my thoughts...

A lot of what I said last time are still my strongest impressions of the book: Hochschild's whole-hearted condemnation of practically everything and everyone that had anything to do with the exploitation of the Congo, his portrayals of people (and, untimately, the movement against what was happening in the Congo) were fair and portrayed both the good and bad aspects.  He was also curiously cynical and optimistic at the same time--acknowledged human nature, questioned the fact that there were so many other horrible things going on at the same time that no one even questioned, pointed out that not much changed in the Congo after the reforms even to the present day, how the 10 million dead not acknowledged by Belgium today; but also praising the efforts of everyone working against what was going on in the Congo, and definitely thinks well of organizations fighting for human rights today.
Really impressed with how hard Hochschild tried to acknowledge important workers in the story, especially people not much talked about before (often because they were black).  Also pointed out that Africans weren't all that innocent or virtuous before Europeans came, something I found oddly brave--no one ever wants to talk about that.

Would highly recommend.  Riveting story and resounding condemnation of imperialism, exploitation, and greed.


Half of a Yellow Sun

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Country: Nigeria

Description:  With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war. (from

(Various thoughts I wrote down while reading the book last January, as well as my review)

Too much sex.  Very poignant other than that, though, and very poetic thoughts of everyone.

All the violence and suffering makes me think how lucky I've been in my life.

Really liked.  Very well written.  Showed the violence, disappointment, and corruption (moral as well as governmental), suffering that comes of war.  Showed how both sides did horrible things--Nigerians massacred Igbo, really cruel to the Biafrans after the war and when occupying.  But Biafrans had high officials who were living in luxury while the people starved and were bombed, "conscripted" anything male practically, and the soldiers raped and stole and were arrogant just like the Nigerian soldiers.
Characters very believable.  They all struggled, and I thought they persevered and broke down and suffered in very, very realistic ways.  I do stand by my earlier assertion that there was too much sex, but I do agree that it all served the story and character development.  The same was true of the violence--all graphic, but absolutely none of it pointless.

Would definitely recommend. Made me think/reflect on violence, on how much we have and how much others don't have, on how there's still injustice (because even though set in the 60s felt modern, too).

Read Around the World

Back in April of this year, I decided to challenge myself with the following reading challenge: to read one book about every country of the world (see a full list of countries here). I later decided to increase that number to two books, because one book is not enough to get a really good feel for a country. Any one author will have biases and things that they don't think are important enough to mention and so on. I'll admit, I'm not sure two books is much better, but I thought anything else was a bit excessive, at least for the beginning.

Unlike a normal reading challenge, I'm not trying to finish this challenge as quickly as possible. I'm incorporating it into the other reading that I do. I'm trying to do it slowly, contemplatively, to learn as much as possible from what I'm reading. This is as much a spiritual journey, a way to understand people and the world better, as it is a list of topics I want to read about.