Posts Tagged ‘Heart of Darkness’

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

Paul Theroux: Dark Star Safari

January 5, 2017

41d180a54cl-_ac_us200_It took a long while to get into this book: I found Theroux‘ approach initially very annoying. The whole premise of his journey came across as self-indulgent, and his attitude to many of the people he met seemed patronising, to say the least. Then I found myself coming back to my taxonomy of travellers and travelling, and realised that here was another example of wealthy and sophisticated Westerners being able to do just what they liked: when he feels like it, he can hop on a plane, take a train or a taxi, spend a night in a luxury hotel…

I’m also being terribly unfair here: Theroux lived and worked for several years in Africa when he was younger, and obviously developed an empathy with and understanding of its peoples, too; here is is re-visiting some of his earlier haunts and meeting up with some of those he knew and worked with in those earlier days. What I was trying to tune in to, with varying degrees of success, was his attitude to Africa’s perceived current problems, and what he thought possible solutions might be.

There is a good deal of excellent description of places and travelling in this book; his approach is thoughtful, once I’d tuned in to it, and he clearly was both shocked and conflicted by the lack of progress, the regression even, that he saw since he had last visited some of the places he writes about.

A great deal of Africa’s problems stem from whites, colonisation and exploitation which lasted several centuries; Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness serves as a shorthand for such attitudes and behaviours. Tourists compound the problems, as much infrastructure serves them rather than Africans, and tourists come away with totally false perceptions of what the continent is like. Parasites is too kind a word.

Foreign aid is another serious issue, and Theroux is rightly scathing about this. Aid exists in its own self-perpetuating bubble, creating its own elite, again divorced from the realities of the continent and what it really needs: the charities recycle foreign money endlessly in a closed loop, and very little goes towards building African economies, supporting African ways of life. This, in turn, tends to foster corruption in governments and leaders, whose interest lies in things staying the way they are, rather than any change of direction…

At times, it feels like a portrait of despair, and that Africa really is the basket-case that many glibly name it. Theroux clearly loves the place with a great affection, and his frustration bursts through at various points as we see outsiders doing all the wrong things because it suits them, and Africans being fatalistic and unwilling to help themselves, almost expecting others to provide them with a living. It’s the cities that are the real problem; out in the sticks, people muddle along as best they can as they have always done, when wars don’t intrude…

As the Irishman said when asked for directions, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…’; this is what I felt by the time I’d got to Cape Town in Theroux’ company; our interference has compounded so many problems, perhaps we need to leave and let the people begin to sort themselves out. And yet, there’s the small question of our (partial) responsibility for the chaos in the first place. A sobering read, ultimately.

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website (www.litteratureaudio.com) dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

Joseph Conrad: Almayer’s Folly

December 1, 2014

51HlPDwijGL._AA160_I discovered Conrad at university, and have always enjoyed his novels, perhaps partly because he was Polish. I have the impression of a novelist slowly fading into obscurity, perhaps because his major theme – white men’s colonisation of the world – is now deemed to be part of the past, and can therefore safely be forgotten. Perhaps Nostromo and The Secret Agent may survive, along with the supreme Heart of Darkness.

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel, and it seems to foreshadow much of what came later. Almayer, the white Dutchman who has never seen Europe, stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Dutch East Indies, fails to make his fortune, loses out to other commercial rivals, makes an unhappy marriage with a native Malay woman, and eventually disowns his beloved mixed-race daughter because she chooses a Malay… and the background is small groups of people squabbling with each other, striving to get one up on each other, trying and failing to outwit the Dutch masters. It feels almost tragic: why did he waste his life on all this?

And this is what, to me, Conrad seems to understand, as a result of his own origins, and his travels as a merchant seaman in those faraway parts of the world – it is all a waste. Colonialism is a nightmare, an insanity for the people engaged in the actuality of trying to make it work. He has been criticised for not being politically correct in his approach to race and to indigenous populations; this is of its time, I think, and does not invalidate his picture. Conrad is very perceptive, in many ways.

He sees the sadness of a white man isolated in alien surroundings – where he does not belong and never can, where he can never be happy because he does not understand – lonely, prey to all kinds of disease and illness, fearing those who must live there because they belong and can be fulfilled. Almayer’s life, like the lives of many others in his novels, leads a wasted and pointless existence, driven by never satisfied cupidity, dreaming increasingly crazed dreams of a wonderful future to mask the empty present.

And the outsiders, the colonists are resented and loathed by the indigenous people: Conrad sees this clearly and presents it mercilessly; they delude themselves when they think otherwise. The only ones who get anything from this are the anonymous, faceless ones that inhabit the mysterious Brussels offices in Heart of Darkness.

Of course, Conrad’s perceptiveness did not stop any of this. But he saw through it all, from a white man’s perspective – and who else’s could he see it from? – and presents an indictment of a dreadful episode in our history through fiction, just as others have detailed it in personal narratives and historical analysis. I do not think we should overlook his achievement.

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