Quick thoughts: Kenneth Branagh reads Joseph Conrad. Spectacular, even if some cultural aspects haven’t aged well.
I’ve read Heart of Darkness several times before, and with each new reading I am astonished anew by the evocative nature of Conrad’s writing. That’s not to say that it’s one of my favourite books—it probably wouldn’t even make my top twenty—but it’s undeniably a masterpiece of mood and tenor. This particular edition slipped nicely into my reading schedule, both on account of the sales offered by Audible over the holidays, and because it seemed like an appropriate segue between the two books I was reading by African authors.
Having Heart of Darkness sandwiched between two works of African literature was truly an eye-opening experience as to how overexposed I am to a Western worldview. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—the book I had read just prior to Heart of Darkness—the story begins from a purely African point of view, where a well-established system of tribal government is self-evident to the reader. Unfortunately, this is not so self-evident to the British. That same cultural blindness and willful ignorance is amplified and placed in sharp relief when these two works are read back-to-back.
While I remained impressed with the elusive and suggestive atmosphere of Conrad’s writing, it was disappointing to fully realize how faceless and inhuman Africans are presented in his work—and I admit to being a little ashamed at accepting it without question in the past. Unbeknownst to me, Chinua Achebe actually wrote and delivered an essay almost 40 years ago called An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, where he argues that any proper criticism of Heart of Darkness needs to address the xenophobic mindset of the author. Although the accusation of racism is ultimately unhelpful, the underlying thesis brings a much-needed counterpoint to any critical discussion.
In looking beyond that taint of ethnocentric jingoism, Heart of Darkness is actually quite critical of European colonialism. The title holds references and double entendres regarding a voyage into the middle of the unknown jungle, and most likely an unfortunate allusion to skin colour—but the real heart of darkness is the greed and exploitation of empire building.
Audiobook notes: Do I really need to say more than Kenneth Branagh? He is one of those few people with enough talent to interpret prose in a way that reveals unexpected nuance and innuendo, much like a diamond cutter who can see the facets of a rough stone. This is one I would recommend based on performance alone.
Read what some other bloggers have said:
The Sleepless Reader: “Sometimes you just create an image in your mind of what a certain book will be like, and in this case, I was genuinely surprised on how different it turned out…. What I found was a clear story that easily dragged me along. It was also the perfect book for audiobook because most of the book is story-telling [by] the main character.”
Jules’ Book Reviews: “Overall a good story, but I suggest using a readers guide to look over afterwards, or read it in a book club to help ensure you’ve have a grasp on everything. And, although it’s a short book, it’s not a short read.”
A Literary Odyssey: “I can appreciate the language and the beautiful way Conrad expresses his thought and ideas. I just didn’t like the overall delivery.”