I’ve written before that I don’t read too much fiction because for me it’s hard work—at least in essays and other nonfiction the ideas tend to float near the surface (when they’re not being shoved in your face), whereas with literary fiction I never built up the skills needed to extract what the writers bury down deep.
But occasionally I’ll stick with a piece until my efforts pay off. That happened with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I re-read every few years and think about constantly. It has taught me a lot about civilization and its discontents, and I suspect it contains some Big Answers to questions that still haunt me.
This recent account of a journey along the Congo river is excellent reading. The writer, Maya Jasanoff, is about to publish a book-long exploration of Conrad’s writing and thought about what we now call globalism, and I’m tempted to pay the freight to read it.
I took a walk down the riverfront road, past a market of thatched stalls tumbling down the muddy slope and street vendors in the shadow of colonial bungalows, when I spotted something startling. Behind a whitewashed wall stretched a shipyard for Onatra, the national transport agency, and on the grassy bank sat the rusted-out hulls of four or five old steamers. I approached a group of men sitting in the shade outside the office and asked to have a closer look.
One of them led me to the craft that had caught my eye. The Yanonge, he explained, was a wood-fired, stern-wheel paddle steamer built in 1928 from pieces cast in Hoboken, Belgium, and assembled in Kinshasa. It had a 250-horsepower engine and traveled at nine kilometers (about six miles) per hour, the same speed as the faster boats now. It had electricity, showers, a kitchen and refrigeration.
I’d never imagined I would see something so similar to Conrad’s Roi des Belges, and the feeling of proximity to the past was electrifying. And then, just beyond the hull of the Yanonge, I saw the passenger boats of today, so overcrowded and so squalid they look like refugee camps.
Conrad was rightly skeptical about imperial promises of progress. I left the shipyard sickened by a hideous realization: Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.