The Conradian: Review

By Andrew Francis, University of Cambridge

Heart of Darkness: A Graphic Novel, adapted by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Catherine Anyango (SelfMadeHero, 2010). £12.99.

Adaptations of works, even more than translations, entail significant compromises in order to be realized in the new form. This is all the more so when an adaptation is inter-media. In the case of a graphic novel based on an original novel, the added visual element forms a partnership with an abridged text, and this new partnership’s success can be viewed as a weighing up of the addition against the subtraction. If of some combinations it can be said that 2+2=5 - the effect of the combination surpassing the effects of the individual contributory elements – can in this case 2 (the graphics) + 1 (the necessarily abridged text) = perhaps 4?

“Heart of Darkness” as a text has, more than any other work by Conrad, been subjected to reductive readings and the extraction of “messages.” One aspect of this treatment has been a conflation of Conrad with Marlow. Another has been the condensing of a complex, subtle, and often ambivalent text into a number of apparently simple truths. Thanks to a balanced and thoughtful selection from the original text and from Conrad’s “Congo Diary,” the graphic novel represents well the texture of the original.

Nor does the selection exclude some of the more complex writing of the original, for example: “He had kicked himself loose of the earth. He had kicked the very earth to pieces...” [p. 98],1 and, one of the central questions of the novel, “What were we who had strayed in here?” [p. 39]. Nevertheless, one misses so many passages from the novella, including some sharply critical of European supposed civilization, as when Marlow says of Kurtz’s memory: “I’ve done enough for it to give me the indisputable right to lay it if I choose for an everlasting rest in the dustbin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and, figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilisation” (96.6-9).

The black-and-white illustrations often powerfully support the selections of text, helping us to “see the story” [p. 41]. But that story, Marlow says, is “a dream – that notion of being captured by ... the incredible” [p. 41]. The illustrations to an extent convey something of this unreality through their gloomy, indistinct images; tusks of ivory appear impenetrable, malign [pp. 76, 87], appearing as if engulfing bowels. The original text’s problematizing of truth, vision, and comprehension is well served in this respect. White faces are, appropriately, frequently ghastly and distorted in this gloom.

The graphic novel commences with images of dominoes; drawn huge, they obstruct the view and suggest the elements of play, uncertainty, and arbitrariness that infuse Marlow’s tale, one of his “inconclusive experiences” [p. 7]. The illustrations also on occasion impress on the reader features which in the original text may not necessarily register as strongly. This is the case with broken equipment, which symbolizes the fractured impotence of European “improvement”: while the locomotive boiler, railway truck, and holed steamer may be familiar, the illustration of the wantonly broken drainpipes [p. 22] arrests one’s attention with the implications of a so-called civilizing mission that cannot, or will not, convey away possibly even its own foulness. Equipment and the oppressed are carcasses alike. The only functioning equipment is iron collars and chains. (The brickmaker who cannot make bricks, suggesting figuratively the impossibility of any literally “constructive” European behaviour in the stations, is unfortunately absent from the graphic novel.)

By contrast with the portrayal of the Europeans, it is the dignity of the Africans that, in keeping with the original text, the illustrations convey, people whose sounds are beyond the ability of the Europeans to understand. Marlow ascribes to them possibly “as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country” (61.38-39), and whose response to the “invasion” (104:15) is “grief” (86.26) and “sorrow” (87.28).

Although the gloom of the images recalls the “darkness” of the novella’s title, and is used to imaginative effect, it comes to feel an overworked device. The original text emphasizes not only gloom but also, from time to time, the brilliance and harshness of the light, so that “the great cause” (57.20-21) portrayed in the novella is also played out in an unforgiving brightness in which the Europeans are, with fierce irony, cast as “pilgrims” in what in fact is an invasion. The graphic novel does not allow for the shock, and sense of unreality, provided by the “delayed decoding” of the original (for example, the death of the helmsman), even though its images convey shockingly the reality of death.

An important reservation about the illustrations is that Marlow’s face is depicted as Conrad’s, a view also expressed by Mairowitz in the prefatory note. The intertextual use of Conrad’s “Congo Diary” in the graphic narrative further complicates this issue. While this may not trouble the general reader of the graphic novel, the implications of this unhelpful conflation of author and narrator are a serious matter for critics as well as, for readers in general, for an understanding of Conrad’s art and for a just sense of what Conrad is writing in “Heart of Darkness.”

The Swedish steamer captain remarks of “these government chaps”: “It is funny what some people will do for a few francs a month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes up country?” (56.1, 3-5). “Heart of Darkness” attempts, among other things, to answer just that question, and in doing so reveals as much about the colonial subject as about his role as oppressor, his evil, and his baleful effect on those he comes to dominate in the Belgian Congo as well as in his intrusions elsewhere (“The French had one of their wars going on thereabouts” [p. 16]).2 This graphic novel represents anew, with a certain appeal, what Conrad writes, and should be an encouragement to its readers then to turn to Conrad’s novella itself.

1 References to “Heart of Darkness”: A Graphic Novel appear in square brackets. References to ‘Heart of Darkness’ are by page/line number to the critical text of the novella in Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, ed. Owen Knowles (2010) in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad.

2 For a valuable discussion of this aspect, see David Trotter, "Colonial Subjects," Critical Quarterly 32.3 (1990): 3-20.

© 2011 Andrew Francis






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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.