The novel that I started reading yesterday and keeps my attention riveted is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012). Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years ago. The reason why I bought this novel of his is not that, however. The novel is about Roger Casement, a controversial hero of Irish nationalism. My reason for buying the novel was not that either.
I ordered for the book when I read in a review that the novel was about the barbarism perpetrated by the European colonists in the Congo. Llosa’s protagonist was an Irishman who went to the Congo with the noble desire to “civilize” the people there. A few pages into the novel, I am quite delighted to come across Joseph Conrad as a character. Conrad was a sailor and he met Roger in the Congo. In Llosa’s novel, Conrad tells Roger that the latter “should have appeared as co-author” of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
In Heart of Darkness, a character named Marlow tells the story of Kurtz to the narrator. Was Marlow in fact Roger Casement? Llosa’s novel suggests so. In The Dream of the Celt, Conrad tells Roger that it is “the moral corruption, the corruption of the soul that invades everything in this country (Congo)” that disturbed him deeply.
Roger thinks that moral corruption is the degeneration of the human soul to the extremes of greed, prejudice and cruelty.
Heart of Darkness implies that if one has a certain degree of solidity in one’s character society need not corrupt one much. Kurtz lacks that solidity. The narrator of the novel [Conrad’s famous character, Marlow] describes Kurtz as “hollow at the core” .* Moreover, Kurtz is placed in a peculiar situation: there is a society which consists of the savage natives of the African jungles of the British colonial era. That society, for a colonialist is as good as solitude. The colonist/colonialist can only view the natives as the others. Hence he virtually remains outside the society, superior to the society. Kurtz controls the natives to such an extent that they are ready to dance to every tune that he plays according to his moods. Kurtz has no principles except making profits by selling as much ivory as he can. Ivory is what he is after. He is an agent for an ivory company.
Kurtz is an excellent agent. He brings in a lot of the commodity by means fair or foul. Kurtz is an ideal blueprint for the profit-making local director of a present-day MNC [Multi-National Corporation]. But Conrad is more interested in the character of that director. Conrad’s narrator says of Kurtz that he “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which ... could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” [70, emphasis added].
Kurtz comes across to Marlow as an example of cleverness and enterprise, qualities that will be envied by any MBA today. But as Marlow gets to know Kurtz closer, Kurtz becomes a kind of supernatural monster who has kept all the natives under his control by hook or by crook. Kurtz, the outsider, controls the habitat that rightfully belongs to those natives. Kurtz exploits the wealth that belongs to those natives. Kurtz exploits what the natives wouldn’t have exploited. Kurtz has degenerated the natives with his “magnificent eloquence”. Kurtz knows how to ‘collect, barter, swindle, or steal more ivory than all other agents together’ . There is that terrifying “deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness” .
Did the Congo corrupt Kurtz? Conrad seems to suggest that. Or were the Europeans the real savages? This second question is raised by Llosa. I’m quite excited to continue reading Llosa. So let me return to the novel.
Note: A part of this post is extracted from a blog I wrote last year, The Ghost of Kurtz.