by Karen Press.
Where is the heart of darkness? We think we know. It’s the impenetrably savage jungle of ‘the Congo’. It’s the depraved misery of Mr Kurtz. It’s the sweating, terrifying bulk of Marlon Brando.
But for Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s faux-naif narrator, darkness begins on a boat moored in the Thames, surrounded by mists that render the city beyond the vessel invisible; it coils itself queasily in the offices of the Belgian colonial bureaucrats where he receives his commission for the journey into the Empire’s most lucrative plunder zone, the ivory routes of West Africa; it accompanies him on his journey, in the philistine greed and cruelty of the Belgian ‘pilgrims’ whose hearts are filled with fantasies of ivory wealth and tortured with spasms of fear; and its fountainhead seems to live in the raddled body and ‘brilliant’ mind of the mythical Kurtz – that pinnacle of European visionary insight into the nature of existence.
Darkness, then, has a pale and misty countenance in Conrad’s tale, which he based on his own journey up the Congo River in 1890. And in Catherine Anyango’s profoundly shadowed visual realisation of the novel, it is this mist that accompanies the reader frame by frame along the way.
Anyango’s opening ‘shot’, a single unframed image that fills the page, hints at familiar scenes from the novel – and at the same time poses the essential question of the story: how close are you to this place? Are these the microscopic movements of distant tiny creatures on a far planet, or the ragged ink dots of an over-enlarged shape whose outline has been blurred beyond recognition as it invades your personal space? In the final image of the book this shape returns, awaiting the reader’s answer.
Between the pale fog of the first page and the shadowy geometry of the last, Anyango creates a sequence of frames that, with their constantly shifting perspectives of the river, of Marlow’s encounters with passengers and natives, of sections of the boat looming and fragmenting, keep our gaze destabilised. They are near, far, partial, whole, tilting away or looming close as if rocked by the boat’s movement; they are full-bodied social beings or faint skeletal echoes of the foliage and the lightless space.
Anyango places the viewer behind Marlow, watching the thick tangle of vegetation that offers no clues, or standing in front of him witnessing the distress that passes through him; we tower over the soft bodies of brutalised slaves or watch from a great distance as they carve patterns of chained labour through the terrain far below; the European voyagers pass in the middle distance like little marionettes with indistinct faces, or tumble the grotesque expressions of their venal souls across the page. Anyango achieves a filmic quality of scenic fluidity, in which the one anchoring visual element is the haunted eyes of Marlow, staring at what the Belgians do to the Africans, staring at his own thoughts, staring at us.
In the first scenes of life along the river there is a rhythmic grace in the depictions of the ‘savages’ at work. The complex interplay of black human bodies, misty river air and the pathways worn into the earth by exhausted labour fix themselves in the reader’s mind as living moments of historical oppression, at the same time as they blur into dream images of absolute suffering. There is a deep humanism in these compositions that wrenches the people they depict free of Marlow’s grudging recognition that these ‘creatures’ are in some strange way ‘not inhuman’.
The visual focus changes as the boat moves up river – the landscape thickens and darkens, the European faces start to fill the frames and then the pages, even as they become increasingly distorted, as if they have been soaked in the river water and swollen beyond the confines of their ‘civilised’ skin. By the time the boat reaches its destination, all we see of the world beyond it are the fragments of objects and people framed in Marlow’s binocular lenses – until Kurtz takes centre stage with a spectral nakedness, squeezed into the frames so he seems to emerge from Marlow’s own body, or to be trying to climb in there.
All this visual turbulence is brought to a surprising point of stillness at the moment when the second-most famous line in the novel is uttered; here Anyango resolves the chaos of the climactic encounter into a scene resonant of both the Last Supper and the Dickensian workhouse. Thus we are returned to the world from which this story comes, and reminded that the meaning of the journey will be reckoned there, in the barren gloom where men sit at an unrocking table, keeping their betrayals to themselves.
The closing scenes lead us further into the cultural museum where the Empire’s exploits are clothed in metaphors of moral power and rectitude. Frame by frame these scenes evoke old European stories of devilish creatures that frighten children, young ladies in gloomy drawing rooms trapped forever in the grief of lost love, moody men whose adventures have made them wise.
If there is a weakness in this graphic version of the novel, it is in the text boxes that are used to convey narrative information and the occasional speech bubbles given to characters. These have clearly been inserted to help the reader/viewer navigate through the darkness. They use short fragments of Conrad’s words to do so, but without any of the rhythmic power of Marlow’s narration in the novel, which builds to echo the swift flows and choked regions of the river. With their brief, blunt statements of plot points and their flat white rectangularity, the boxes sit on top of the frames like road signs masking the scenic view, and disrupt the eye too often for comfort.
The best way to experience the flowing rhythm of Anyango’s version may well be to (re)-read the novel first, then to immerse oneself fully in the visual density of each page without referring to the text boxes for guidance; the shifting shadows and light of Anyango’s drawings are powerful enough on their own to shape the story’s full depth of field, in
all its impenetrability.
Karen Press is a poet, writer and editor based in Cape Town. She’s published eight collections of poetry, a film script, short stories as well as science, mathematics, English and economics textbooks.
This review features in Chronic Books, the review supplement that comes with each edition of the Chronic. This edition (published in April 2013) also includes features on Mongo Beti’s return to Cameroon, secular censorship in South Africa and India (by way of The Satanic Verses) and the business of crime writing in Kenya, India and Nigeria. As well as an interview between Kojo Laing and Binyavanga Wainaina, dispatches from Abuja, Beirut, and Kampala plus more reviews. To order a copy visit our online shop or ask at your nearest dealer.Buy the Chronic