We’ve all met Apocalypse Now obsessives. For them, this book is only important as a source for the film that managed to make Vietnam boring. There are also people who bang on about this book as confirmation of how terrible the British Empire was, which is odd as the majority of the book is in Belgian territories, run with a brutality that made even the British ashamed on behalf of Europe. There is more to this novel than either of these special-interest interpretations.
First things first: is it actually a novel? It’s short enough to be included in with other works in a standard-size paperback. Moreover, the storytelling device of Marlow, the possibly unreliable narrator, makes this yarn a little elusive and inconclusive. It begins on the Thames Estuary with a comment that, for the invading Romans, London was terra incognita, a blank space on a map for them to fill, regardless of what anyone already there thought. Automatically, the inversion of the British Empire’s hubris is there as a rhetorical device (as in that other great anti-Imperialist how-would-you-like-it short novel of the 1890s, The War of the Worlds, which had London invaded by technologically-superior beings who died of local diseases). For much of the narrative, the Thames is an analogy for the Congo and I’ve seen it argued that the story is improvised based on what the speaker can see on the journey upstream (as with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, perhaps). Moreover, the route into an almost-inaccessible dark jungle to find a man who has set himself up as a god has a strong similarity to Freudian analysis (as well as to Badger’s house in The Wind In The Willows and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also books that have suffered in translation to the screen). I’m not being flippant in these comparisons (well, not just being flippant): to reduce this work to any one interpretation is to do it a disservice. You can decide which of the many interpretations available works for you after you’ve read it, not before.
Another obvious thing to point out is that the author was a sailor from Poland who learned English after French and Russian and his native tongue. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing in his fourth language and having had a ‘proper’ job for most of his life. A less-obvious point for anyone reading it after 1895 – the Foreign Office couldn’t always spare officials to check on the safety or reliability of transport routes, so they used an improvised test of whether you could get Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits (rather like doctors using a radioactive marker to follow blood-flow in the body). Now that I’ve told you this, watch out for the reference. This is a book written by someone who had been places and seen things and then decided to use them in his writing, rather than the Graham Greene/ Norman Mailer procedure. That mix of observation and conscious shaping of events to make a point makes it tempting to think that it all ‘really happened’ as described, as so many of the details are plausible and verifiable. There are whole theses to be written on how much he saw or heard about the incidents described or the overall patterning of events. Regardless of whether it is art or journalism, it had an effect on a generation of readers. Much of this was in the narrative voice used, to the extent that Orson Welles tried to film it and came unstuck, deciding to do Ciizen Kane rather than explain to audiences how to watch a movie differently. John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola had to dilute this apparently artless narrative to make their flick. Read the real thing, and read it on its own terms instead of as a footnote to a film.
Smell that son? That’s Huntley and Palmer’s. No, doesn’t work, does it?
By Tat Wood