carcass of Empire is overwhelmed by nature; rewilded in time
Orwell’s novel is about the ugly face of empire. It takes place in a Burma that was administered by the British as part of their Indian colony—but it’s in the waning days of the Empire, much to the chagrin of the entitled and chauvinistic European characters of the book. Most of the characters are shockingly racist and life abroad hasn’t broadened their thinking in any discernible way. The notable exception is the lead character, John Flory, whose best friend is Dr. Veraswami (an Indian medical doctor and government official) and who is unique among the British for being able to see the native ways as anything other than primitive and preposterous.
However, the hero is deeply flawed. Flory is a coward, and in the early pages of the novel is unwilling to support the nomination of his good friend Dr. Veraswami for membership to the expat’s club because many of its more vociferous members will be damned before they admit a brown person. Flory is also a bit morally loose for the taste of his early post-Victorian comrades. He has a birthmark that he’s constantly trying to conceal, and whose presence we are led to believe is crucial to his lack of confidence. While the main intrigue is provided by a plot by an unsavory Burmese official named U Po Kyin to undermine Dr. Veraswami and bolster his own stock among the whites, it’s Flory’s story that we are following. The reader hopes that Flory will develop the confidence needed to rise to the occasion—he being the only likable person in the cast (except perhaps Dr. Veraswami, depending upon how put off one is by the Indian doctor’s borderline Uncle Tom-ish obsequiousness.) Flory’s relationship with a young woman plays an important role in his story and sometimes it seems she may spur him to heights while at other times she looks to be his downfall. Flory’s conundrum is that the more virtuously he behaves, the more a target is painted on his back.
While the book is set almost a century ago, I found that it has something to say today. While the times have changed and the Empire is long dead, there are times that the long shadow of this period can still be seen in the current era.
I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and particularly those interested in the past and present of areas under colonial rule. Orwell builds interesting (if often despicable) characters and the book has a well-developed and interesting narrative arc.
The inscription reads: “Through this breach the British assault was delivered March 21, 1791.” I guess that means that the 223rd anniversary of the British attack on Bangalore is right around the corner.
Bangalore Fort is a tiny piece of the 16th century Vijayanagar fortification that remains intact–it’s all that remains. It’s located between city market and Tipu Sultan’s Bangalore Palace. As it takes only about 10 minutes to walk through, a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Heart of Darkness is a story within a story (i.e. a frame narrative) in which the protagonist, Marlow, tells a group of men on a ship on the Thames about his adventures captaining a boat on the Congo River. The use of a frame narrative both gives this novella/ novel a confessional feel, but also imagines Marlow’s audience feeling his tale particularly viscerally as some of them might be caught up in similar intrigues themselves.
Marlow’s job in the Congo is transporting ivory. However, the core of the story revolves around a trip to extract an agent of the ivory trade named Kurtz, and to transport the ill man to medical care. Kurtz is an intriguing character. This isn’t a man one can feel indifferently towards. Some love his intellect, charisma, or even his ruthlessness. Others despise him as the face of villainy. Kurtz represents imperialism at its most vile. Some natives are at war with him. Others respect and fear him. However, he’s willing to destroy them all on a whim to make the flow of ivory come more swiftly.
Marlow isn’t a member of Kurtz’s fan club initially and thinks the agent is completely insane, but he becomes intrigued with him as their journey progresses. In a way, Marlow is the moderate face of Imperialism. He doesn’t like the way the natives are treated, or the power plays and bureaucracy of the trade. However, he’s an active and willing participant, and, ultimately, when given a choice to work against the system or in support of it he chooses the latter. He hands over Kurtz’s report on the “Suppression of Savage Customs.” He also shows his sympathy towards Kurtz through his interaction with the dead man’s fiance.
This is definitely 19th century literature. While the book is very short, it’s readability isn’t high by today’s standards. It’s organized into just three parts or chapters, and the prose isn’t built for speed. Also, while it turns out to be a gripping tale, it’s slow off the blocks. It must also be put in the context of 19th century literature because the themes of imperialism and suppression of “savagery” have long since been settled. Viewed through today’s lens, the story might not ring true. Though I suppose there’s still a heart of darkness in urban environments today, behind walls rather than across seas.
What are the book’s strengths? While it may seem silly, the title is pure-D awesomeness. Also, while it’s not organized or written for readability by today’s standards, by 19th century standards it’s a page-turner. It’s certainly a compact tale. As I indicated, I’m not sure whether to call it a novel or a novella. Reading this book isn’t a major time investment, and it does pay off. Conrad’s use of descriptive language is often beautiful. Conrad’s characters all ring true and serve to sit one in a world of darkness beyond the imaginings of the London elite, where sad and terrible things happen to make their world possible.
Lastly, the book makes one think. Like Kurtz, one is likely to love it or hate it.