The Conradian: Review

By Rachel J Fenton 

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, adapted by Peter Kuper, foreword by Maya Jasanoff (W.W. Norton, 2019) 160 pp. £14.99.

Opening an essay for The New Yorker, on October 29, 1995, David Denby asked, “Is Joseph Conrad’s novel a critique of colonialism or an example of it?” Without irony, Denby then went on to do both as he simultaneously criticised critics of Conrad’s text, Chinua Achebe and Edward Said, and narrated the various responses a class of students had to the text, noting racial demographics and describing their physical traits. To write about colonialism from the position of a culturally privileged power-holder is an act of colonialism. 

Peter Kuper has identified this paradox and has sought to take a more culturally sensitive approach to his graphic adaptation of Conrad’s imperial adventure yarn than the original’s author could ever have envisaged. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a post-colonial rendering in which Kuper has illustrated the “faceless”, not as Conrad did, from Conrad’s perspective, but by flipping his “exterior view of Africa”. But drawing from the Congolese characters’ perspectives puts Kuper at risk of steering himself into a post-colonial guilt trip; however, by addressing his privilege head-on in his introduction, along with a foreword from Maya Jasanoff, Kuper has gone some way to “inoculate” himself from criticism, as one academic phrases the practice.

Cultural sensitivity is becoming more prevalent in Comics as discourse shifts from predominantly white male Comics creators to diverse perspectives. It is no longer acceptable for privileged Westerners to write narratives about non-Westerners without reasonable criticism, such as that attracted by Jack Gantos and Dave McKean. Fiction is one of the last cultural spaces where colonisation, albeit imaginative, is still permitted, defended even. Writer Elaine Chiew addresses the issue in her February 17, 2020 interview in Bad Form Review:

I don’t believe in policing fiction or the imagination, but I do believe that if you’re going to write experiences very far from your own, it takes an incredible feat of empathy, imagination and hard work to check all your blind spots. It’s important to do it right, it’s important to do it with incredible sensitivity. I contend that freedom to write is not in question, but peeps seem to be expecting freedom from consequences when they get it wrong.

No one intends to get it wrong, but as with other forms of literature, when created by culturally privileged power-holders who do not situate themselves geo-politically, Comics about colonialism are colonialism. They can be a source of re-traumatisation for indigenous groups. Care needs to be taken. Kuper cares.

With his careful research of the Congolese, including the documentary photographs of Alice Seeley Harris, which he used to bring Conrad’s text out of the homogenous every-colony and in line with Conrad’s journals, placing the text historically, Kuper has worked to humanise the characters, of whom some are recognisably illustrated directly from Seeley Harris’s photographs. Where Kuper’s efforts are most successful are with those characters afforded least humanity by Conrad; women.

Women bookend Kuper’s adaptation, occupying more physical space in his 160 pages of Comic than in Conrad’s novella, though equal importance. Conrad mentions “women” approximately eight times, and “woman” seven in his novella. Women are more visible in Kuper’s book, appearing in approximately sixty-one panels, and significantly so. 

The story opens with a full-page illustration of The Nellie, the vessel Marlow is narrating from, a cruising yawl that Maya Jasanoff’s foreword reveals belonged to a friend of Conrad’s with whom he sailed. Given a face-like stern, the ship seems to personify Europe’s colonial interests and lends more interpretations to the selected quote “This also has been one of the dark places of the earth” than Conrad’s text alone.  When Kuper quotes “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are,” it builds the sense that the reader is being steered through Conrad’s text. Of course, Conrad chose to steer his readers via the vehicle of Marlow, but Kuper’s book differs in that we are shown that Marlow’s audience are indifferent to his narrative. Whatever Conrad’s intentions were with his novella, whether to inspire social change, ease his own feelings of guilt and shame for his participation in the colonisation of the Congo, or something else, Kuper’s intentions have been stated at the outset in his introduction; as he “reflected on current events” Kuper saw a parallel between the public consciousness raising Conrad achieved with Heart of Darkness and what the book could “offer modern readers”. The question modern readers can draw from this is, are Kuper’s readers indifferent to the material he is presenting us with? 

Kuper’s adaptation lends itself to a feminist reading. The next key quote from Conrad’s text, that “Women should be helped to stay out of it, in that beautiful world of their own,” is more ironic in Kuper’s adaptation given that he has gone out of his way to include representations of women where Conrad did not. Making visible those groups that have been erased by dominant-cultural narratives is part of the ongoing reclamation work feminists are challenged with.

Drawn as a simple caricature, Kuper’s illustration of Kurtz’s fiancé stays true to Conrad’s descriptions, but whereas Conrad gives barely a few lines to the description of Kurtz’s African concubine, Kuper makes her the most realistically rendered character in his book. The effect is to make the reader acknowledge as a human being a character Conrad only saw reductively. Her poses are echoed in Kuper’s illustrations of Kurtz’s fiancé, drawing parallels between the two women and drawing readers’ attention to the disparity between the treatment of the two, both in Conrad’s text and historically.

Kuper frequently echoes imagery to visually remind the reader of details and make connections. One more obvious example is when Marlow throws his shoes overboard after they are soaked in the blood of his dead helmsman, drawn as a half-page panel with a close-up of Marlow untying his shoes inset, we have an old-school Comics “SPLASH” where they hit the water. When we are shown the helmsman being thrown overboard a couple of pages later, he is given the same treatment, just the extremities of his limbs, small black parts, protruding from the water with the word splash comically written around them. Certainly, this conveys the ambivalence towards the Congolese shown by the colonisers Conrad wanted to draw his readers’ attention to. It also juxtaposes strongly with the more realistic illustrations of Kurtz’s concubine that in turn evokes the powerful documentary photographs of Seeley Harris. But drawing parallels in this way raises another question: who are Kuper’s intended readers?

Perhaps a clue is also in the illustrations. Several panels are framed by Congolese characters witnessing the events unfolding within. “Seers, not merely parts of the scene,” Jasanoff remarks in her foreword. Africans know all too well what happened during Conrad’s time, as all people who have suffered under colonial rule and their descendants know. Kuper can only offer what Barack Obama noted about Conrad’s novella, quoted by Jasanoff, “a particular way of looking at the world.” Kuper’s way of looking at the world has hippos and birds as seers, too, if readers are intended to interpret the images framed by animals the same as those of the people.

Graphic novels require two readings, once for text and once for imagery. Conrad’s text is dense. English was his third language, making his prose comical in its formality at times. Through careful selection, Kuper presents an arresting rendering of Conrad’s text, stripped of its overwrought sentences, edited down to its stark essential minimum. Conveniently, the brain decodes imagery faster than text, making a reading of Kuper’s adaptation less than an hour’s work. But it rewards a closer reading, when the details initially overlooked as pattern and background yield more significance.

The artwork seems at times too comical, too, considering the subject-matter, the grotesque almost ridiculous in its repetition, yet when one re-reads Kuper’s depiction of Kurtz’s Congolese partner – for she is, from her perspective at least, his partner – it is her loss that the reader is directed to feel most keenly when Kurtz leaves. One cannot help but feel she is the one being rescued rather than Kurtz; Kuper shows her walking back into the jungle through a curtain of plants, whereas Kurtz, on his curtained stretcher, contains within him all “The horror. The horror”.

It is fitting, then, that the cover should be a close-up of Kurtz’s eyes staring out from a background heaped with corpses cut through with strips of maps resembling photographic negatives. Conrad’s book gives insight into the imagined mind of Kurtz and the real mind of Conrad; Kuper’s gives us their plus his, revealing more about the atrocities in the Congo than Conrad’s the more one looks. As with Conrad’s novella, Kuper’s adaptation will be open to different interpretations by different readers. Ted Hughes remarked that poems are like houses; it’s up to people how they choose to live in them. The readers of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will have to decide for themselves if they want to dwell in it to see the apocalypse within or get the hell out. 

© 2020 Rachel J Fenton 

The Joseph Conrad Society (UK) 2020
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