I bought this book as part of my African readings for a trip to Uganda that I took about a year and a half ago now, but I didn’t get round to reading it on the trip. Since then it has languished in the spare bedroom at various ranks in my pile of books ‘I really must get round to reading sometime soon but I’m not sure how much they appeal to me’. I’d occasionally pick it up, read a few pages, and then put it back to the bottom. But eventually I persuaded myself to plunge back in, to see if my reaction to it had changed in the 14 years since I read it last.

And I’m still confused by it. Whilst it has strands of anti-colonialism in it, the juxtaposition of images of discarded machinery and African workers, the Manger’s sidekick expounding that “Transgression-punishment-bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way” and Marlow’s reaction to him and this and the heads on Kurtz’s house, seem to speak of an awareness of the potential evils of colonialism, I’m not sure that this is really what the novella is about. The novella does highlight, and especially did at the time it was published when some of the atrocities carried out in the Belgium Congo were just becoming public, the implicit profit motive and exploitation of Africa that was carried out under the hypocritical guise of a ‘civilising mission’. But that seems to just be one of its focuses. 

So what is it really about? Is it about what white European men can do to Africa, or what it can do to them? Is Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” the horror of his actions and how he fell morally from his lofty perch, or is it the horror of Africa and how in the end it bewitched and destroyed him, a recognition that a European white man could never really own or claim that land? And who is Marlow? Is he just a mouthpiece for Kurtz’s story or is he a warning for how easy it would be for a good man, for he does seem a good man, to be turned into a Kurtz in the depth of the West African jungle?

And who is the Intended and what is Marlow’s relation to her? What are we meant to think of her buried in the “sepulchral city” with her delusions of Kurtz? Is she just a symbol for all those other people wandering about that city deluded in their ideas and vision of the European role in Africa?

I guess one of the reasons this novella has risen to the classics is because I, and many others, can only raise questions and then add our viewpoint to the plethora it provokes. It has an ability to be flexible, to highlight the issues each generation and place wants to stake as their own. And while I accept that, and welcome the challenge it throws down, I’m not sure I’ll return to it for a third time looking for answers it can’t seem to give me.