He would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul

the_memory_of_love_by_aminatta_fornaThe Memory of Love
by Aminatta Forna

I can’t remember how this book made its way onto my TBR, but I picked it up thanks to the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo, which for me includes the square “Set in Africa”. If not for that I might have avoided this for a long time, expecting a dark, disturbing read. It’s not quite what I expected.

The book has dark, disturbing moments for sure. It is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, post civil war, pre Ebola, so approximately when it was written (this book was published in 2010 so presumably written in about 2008). The civil war is a scar for the native characters, creating a distance that can never be breached by the primary non-native character, a white British doctor.

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist on secondment to Sierra Leone. It is his second assignment to Africa, and he spends much of the novel dwelling on his reasons for being there. He has a wife and daughter back home in England, but his marriage is failing and over the years he has lost the feeling that he is actually helping his patients.

Continue reading “He would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul”

A benign immensity of unstained light

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps if I had come to this book with no surrounding knowledge my response to it would be different, but I’ve read Chinua Achebe’s essay and many other articles on the subject so I came to this looking for the racism. That said, I think it’s pretty hard to ignore. The question is: is it still a good book, even so?

This is a short, readable book but I’d have to say it’s not gripping because I often found the floweriness of the writing disguised the action – it’s essentially an adventure story but you’d almost not notice that from the style. It is very descriptive – the kind of writing where you can miss the plot moving on because you’re mesmerised by the words.

“The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”

What is the plot? An unnamed narrator on a boat on the River Thames introduces fellow crew member Marlow, who in turn tells his story of a job he took in Africa to transport ivory, having had a whim to go on a voyage of discovery like the great explorers. Marlow describes his journey from Europe to Africa, around the coast, then inland by various means (the destination is unnamed but widely agreed to be Congo, where Conrad had himself worked as a riverboat captain for a trading company) until he reached the station where he was to captain a riverboat, only to find that the riverboat has been wrecked and he must rebuild it before he can start his job. Urgency is added by reports that Mr Kurtz, the manager of a remote station upriver, is gravely ill and Marlow needs to fetch him as soon as possible. Kurtz is a bit of a legend within the Company and Marlow feels that their fates became dangerously entwined.

Because this is a story within a story, it can be difficult to decipher the book’s attitude toward Africans. Yes, there are plenty of racist things said, but we hear them through the filter of not one but two narrators – so is this a comment on how European trading companies saw Africans or is it Conrad’s own opinions?

“They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.”

To be clear, we’re not just talking about racist language that might be deemed “of its time” and therefore to an extent excusable. We’re talking about language that characterises many of the Africans as lesser beings, as supernatural monsters or as inferior idiots. And while Marlow develops a fondness for at least one African member of his riverboat crew, he also states that it was wrong to train this man to do a job, that it is somehow an unnatural pretence.

On the other hand, the Company’s treatment of natives appears to be condemned by Conrad, as he describes in clearly negative language enslaved Africans and the devastating effect of the trading routes on the settlements that they pass through or near. Marlow certainly shows no love for the Company in general, finding fault with most of its employees whom he meets and struggling to bite his tongue in the face of nepotism, incompetence and corruption.

An added level of ambiguity comes from the dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, quality of the story as a result of Marlow’s psychological state. The unfamiliar heat, lack of sufficient food and recurrent illness combine with a growing fear of attack (which is in fairness justified as the riverboat and its crew are indeed attacked) to create a kind of madness. The Company sends Marlow to see a doctor before he leaves Europe and the doctor does a psychological assessment, stating that he finds the effects of such voyages on Europeans to be “scientifically interesting”. Fairly early on in his travels in Africa, Marlow states that he feels he is becoming “scientifically interesting” (it’s one of my favourite moments in the book). So by his own admission he is therefore unreliable.

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is…Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger.”

Of course this actually raises more questions. If this degree of psychological imbalance is common in western Europeans who travel to central Africa, is that an excuse for some of the behaviour depicted? Is it a comment on the continent itself – a place that sends men mad? Or is it simply an honest observation of people going there ill equipped for the conditions? (Which would, thinking about it, be further condemnation of the Company, as it was responsible for the wellbeing of its employees.)

I can certainly see how so many books, essays, articles and theses have been written about this book, as there is far more I could say about these subjects and more. But for me it comes down to quality of writing, and on that count Conrad scores fairly high. The writing is gorgeous and atmospheric. I suspect I could pick out any line and it would be a great quote. Perhaps the story would benefit from more straightforward language but the prose would not.

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”

Which, overall, leaves me predictably on the fence about this one. I’m glad I’ve read it but I can’t say I side wholly with Conrad’s detractors or his defenders. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he was objecting to the mistreatment of Africans much as he might object to dogs or horses being beaten, overworked, made homeless, etc. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Originally published 1899 in Blackwoods Magazine.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Challenges: This counts toward the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

A small cicatrice had been made on the memory

Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene

I read this as part of Greene for Gran, a challenge run by Simon of Savidge Reads in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. Strictly the challenge was intended to run just for August but I got a bit behind. Sorry, Simon! Anyway, on to the book…

Initially the narrative switches between two characters in a West African country – a policeman called Scobie and an accountant called Wilson – but it gradually becomes clear that Scobie is our hero, with Wilson merely a player in his story. They are both Brits, serving time in a British colony that is at war (I wasn’t entirely clear if this was a civil war, a war with a neighbouring country, or the tail end of the Second World War).

“A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie…He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at midday, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.”

Scobie doesn’t love his wife Louise, indeed they have been growing apart for years, but he does love this un-named country he has been living in for 15 years and he feels a strong sense of duty to look after Louise, who suffers from insecurity and depression, and he would do anything to protect her. Except lie. Because Scobie is so honest it’s painful. The book opens with him being denied a promotion because everyone is suspicious of him, or at least uneasy about him, because his level of honesty just cannot be believed.

“There was no reason to call…yet it was his habit to cry her name, a habit he had formed in the early days of anxiety and love…When he called her name he was crying like Canute against a tide – the tide of her melancholy and disappointment.”

Wilson, on the other hand, is clearly a liar from the start. He goes to great lengths to hide his love of poetry, but it is just that love that leads him to Louise, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. She’s simply amused by him, and that would be that were it not for an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Wilson is far from being a mere accountant. And Scobie is gradually getting tangled up with some shady Syrian businessmen and then, at the least expected moment, he meets another woman.

“He told himself: Be careful. This isn’t a climate for emotion. It’s a climate for meanness, malice, snobbery, but anything like hate or love drives a man off his head.”

Scobie is so tortured it’s almost ridiculous. His Catholicism plays an increasingly large role, highlighting how the average person can commit all kinds of sins and then renounce them at mass, while Scobie wrings his hands at the very idea. To be honest, I found Scobie deeply frustrating but he still got my empathy and I really did care about the outcome for him.

“The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths. He involved himself in what he always knew was a vain struggle to retain the lies.”

One other thing that frustrated me about this book was the undercurrent of racism. It was written in the 1940s so I know it’s unfair to hold it to today’s standards but it’s still pretty shocking to read the language used about the native people, or indeed all non-Brits. Not just the “n” word, but the way the occupiers talk to them in condescending language that’s even simpler than the natives’ pidgin English. The way the Brits all have a house boy whom they call “boy”, whether that servant is 10 or 50 years old. The way not one of the natives gets to be a fleshed out character (though at least one of the Syrians is humanised a bit; in fact he’s a very interesting man).

Something I found curious about this novel is the way that it’s divided up so much. There are three “books”, divided into parts, divided into chapters, divided into numbered sections. It’s almost like an academic textbook except that the numbers always start again at 1. There’s something oddly disconcerting about turning to page 218 and it saying “chapter 2”.

But all the frustrations and oddities aside, this is a beautifully written book that really closely examines the human heart and how people can misunderstand so horribly what each other thinks or feels. The ending is heart breaking and made me almost want to throw the book down except that the language kept me spellbound.

“He felt no jealousy, only the dreariness of a man who tries to write an important letter on a damp sheet and finds the characters blur.”

So thank you Simon for the prompt to read more Greene. I’ll certainly come back to him again. And he wrote a lot of stuff, so there’s plenty to come back to!

First published 1948 by William Heinemann.

Source: Part of a set of beautiful Penguin books I bought several years back, can’t remember where from.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Justifiable anger

An Image of Africa
by Chinua Achebe

This is actually two essays by the great Nigerian author: “An image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, and “The trouble with Nigeria”. Which are some pretty heavy topics, so it’s possibly best that they total less than 100 pages between them!

The first essay is fascinating, though I would no doubt get more from it had I actually read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But then the major reason Achebe came to write this essay is that Heart of Darkness is so widely read and studied that the grotesque myths and caricatures it perpetuates cannot easily be erased from the public consciousness, so perhaps by not reading it myself I’m helping just a little bit?

As the title suggests, Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness is hideously, unforgivably racist. From subtle linguistic differences between descriptions of black and white to outright lies told about African natives, Achebe’s argument seems hard to counter. I found it interesting that he calls Conrad a “great stylist of modern fiction”, which is perhaps akin to saying he ought to have known better. He speaks of Conrad’s fixation with blackness and the word “nigger” but mostly he is concerned with the way the book questions “the very humanity of black people”. Which is a grievous accusation indeed, and certainly I can see why Achebe might feel such anger toward the book.

Achebe doesn’t just look to the book itself but also to modern scholars’ writing about it. Not one of them, he says, has dealt with the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness, which suggests that all those scholars considered racism to be entirely normal and/or acceptable. The possible damage of continuing to teach such a text widely is that such attitudes will continue to be normalised, that the image of Africa as the dark, prehistoric continent will be perpetuated and therefore racism continue.

Reading the second essay is to some extent dependent on having some knowledge of Nigeria and in particular the Nigeria of 1983, when the essay was written. Achebe speaks largely about corruption and rule-breaking in his home country. Though he lambasts his fellow Nigerians, occasionally lapsing into caricature and generalisation, he always comes back to how the country’s leaders have made the situation what it is. He balances out the generalisations with specific examples of men or occasions that highlight his points. Politicians Azikiwe and Owolowo come under particular fire, but I was more interested to hear brief mention of a name entirely new to me, Aminu Kano, who Achebe compares to Mahatma Gandhi and calls a “saint and revolutionary”. I am immensely curious what is behind these words of admiration and am off right now to ask the internet what the story is.

“An image of Africa” was originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, February 1975; later published in the Massachussetts Review 1977.
“The trouble with Nigeria” first published by Fourth Dimension Publishing 1983.
This selection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the “Great Ideas” series.