Conrad, Kurtz & the Congo

On this day in 1890, thirty-two-year-old Joseph Conrad took command of a small stern-wheeler, appropriately named the Roi des Belges, for the trip down the Congo River from Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls) to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Conrad was in the employ of a Belgian trading company; his primary cargo on this occasion was not rubber or ivory but Georges Klein, the company agent at their Inner Station, now gravely ill and soon to die on the downriver journey. The stern-wheeler’s regular captain was also ill, thus requiring Conrad to take temporary command — his only captaincy in all his years at sea.

These experiences were the genesis of Heart of Darkness, published twelve years later. In actuality, the company’s Inner Station was quite well organized, and Klein was no Kurtz (though “Klein” was the name used in early drafts); nor was Conrad exposed to the full horror that Marlow witnessed and felt beckon, though in his memoirs Conrad recalls his early temptation toward Africa, filing it in the “be careful what you wish for” category:

It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character: “When I grow up I shall go there.” And of course I thought no more about it until, after a quarter of a century or so, an opportunity offered to go there, as if the sin of childish audacity was to be visited on my mature head.

Foreign journalist Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (2000) follows Conrad’s tracks into the next generation horror that descended upon the Congo, the tragically absurd “Alice-in-Wonderland universe” ruled by the despot Mobutu Sese Seko:

In Mobutu’s hands, the country had become a paradigm of all that was wrong with post-colonial Africa. A vacuum at the heart of the continent delineated by the national frontiers of nine neighboring countries, it was a parody of a functioning state. Here, the anarchy and absurdity that simmered in so many other sub-Saharan nations were taken to their logical extremes. For those, like myself, curious to know what transpired when the normal rules of society were suspended, the purity appealed almost as much as it appalled. Why bother with pale imitations, diluted versions, after all, when you could drench yourself in the essence, the original?

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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