One of those classics you hear mentioned so often until one day you finally decide to have a look, that’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1990 , Dover Thrift Editions) for me. First, I had procrastinated on this one because of my classics-aversity, but when the book arrived and I noticed it’s a mere 72 pages, I thought it’s actually quite doable. I am ambivalent about it now, mostly because I didn’t find the story interesting (old white man telling a story about an old white man tellinga story about yet another old white man dying in the “heart of darkness” – which of course had to be central Africa), but was intrigued by the poetic use of language.
After reading Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa“, this impression didn’t much change, or certainly not for the better. Achebe critiques his style, pointing out that it is repetitive and overusing adjectives to create a mystical atmosphere (something I actually liked), but more importantly shows that “Conrad was a bloddy racist” (p. 788). He continues to outline how “Africa” became a mere setting for the story, it’s people being depersonalized and dehumanized, negated almost any voice or action within the story. That this is not merely to be understood as Conrad being “a child of his time” was once pointed out to me by a student in one of my seminars: there always also have been other, different children of the time.
How did I come across the book?
Again, and again, and again, one of Michael Taussig’s works. I think it was Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Taussig has an incredible capacity to make me want to read into classics, which already worked with Walter Benjamin – and so much so that I discovered his usefulness for my own research. With Conrad, I am sceptical the experience is becoming something else than a footnote in the long history of novels with racist (under)tones.
When and where did I read it?
Even though a mere 72 pages, it still took me two weeks to get through with it. I had it with my for a conference trip to Milan, where I ended up reading way less than I thought. On the bus, I frequently fell asleep while reading. After the conference, I was busy organizing a workshop and finished a few days post-workshop, enjoing the sun at lake Constance.
I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. (p. 63)
“50th Anniversary Edition” it says on the title – a phrase that always makes me wonder what makes books, or rather, the stories they present, endure. Acknowledging my bias for contemporary – if not postmodern – if not recent – literature (meaning I’d be surprised to find more than 5 books in my shelves that are older than 40 years), 50th anniversary editions are not something that regularly ends up in my bookshelf. Now Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1994 , First Anchor Books) did. I am struggling with labels such as “truly African”, which is how Achebe’s prose is labeled in the backpart of the book. I find this problematic especially thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the dangers of a Single Story, because it perpetuates imageries of an exotic Africa, that “still” organizes in “tribes”. What is worse, that’s exactly the kind of condescending colonialist logic the writer quite eloquently exposes in the novel.
Achebe does this in two ways: there is first, the story. It’s the story of Okonkwo, a man from an Igbo tribe in times of expanding colonialism, and his coping mechanisms with this new order of things. As the title suggests, these mechanisms do not work out well, and the reader presences continuous backlashes and misfortunes, interpreted through the lense of Igbo beliefs. After showing how colonialist expansion and christian belief turn the Igbo order of things upside down and endanger and disappear people, their beliefs and traditions, Achebe’s final twist is the exposition of the appropriation of a story of conquest through the lense of the British colonizer, who, in the worst ethnographic tradition, writes a book about the “Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, when really there was no need to pacify, and the only thing primitive in the story is the white man’s racism and ignorance.
The second way in which Achebe criticizes the colonial appropriation of the narrative of conquest is more a question of style. At first, readers used to certain mainstream noveistic prose may find it challenging to read. But then, at least for me, there was a point when it dawned on me that this style is actually an impressive way of writing orally. The book comes across as a story told by one of the village elders themselves, and imitates the style they would tell tales. The text is full of proverbs, often following a path and an episode for illustration of a point, without ever coming back to it: the threads are not knotted together, but left open for the reader/listener to find her own interpretation of what to do with the episode. In this way, the style metaphorically doubles Achebe’s critique in pointing out to the reader her own (eurocentric) prejudices and expectations about how stories should be written.
How did I come across the book?
This one was recommended to me by Amazon. Their algorythm probably didn’t have too much trouble getting from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Chinua Achebe, not only because they’re from the same country, but also because she lists him as one of her inspirations. Which was the reason for me to read it, and surprised me insofar as I expected something different, probably closer to her books. In the end then, this was a lesson in expectation management as well, which made something clear to me: Inspirations does not mean immitation, necessarily.
When and where did I read it?
Mostly at home, before bedtime, since this was the only opportunity I had to actually read, in the last weeks. The end of the semester took its toll on me with yet another conference and correcting my student’s works.
“A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm.” p.67