:: Article

‘To the Very Beginnings of the World’

By Max Dunbar.


Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Catherine Anyango and David Zane Mairowitz, Self Made Hero, 2010

This is the strength of the graphic novel. The texture and background. The background to Marlow’s journey up the Congo River is coloured brown and grey and off-white, the colour of faded journals and dying memories, faded yet still retaining some necrotic vitality. Perhaps colour is too strong a word. There are rather varying shades of darkness. The book, in fact, opens your eyes to just how many shades and facets darkness can have. ‘No use telling you much about that,’ Marlow says of a two-hundred mile trek, ‘paths, paths everywhere, up and down chilly ravines.’ The double page shows a line of coolie slaves on a precarious route cut across an aural cacophony of grey swirling lines, broken up here and there by dark questing patches that could be areas of water or the wing of some monstrous bird.

In Catherine Anyango’s illustrations the figures of the foreground are often rendered blurred or indistinct by shouts and motion and more often by the weight of the background. Marlow’s Congo is sparsely populated (‘… and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut!) The indigenous Congolese we see are yoked slaves or heads on sticks. Marlow wonders why his coolies don’t just attack their oppressors: ‘they are thirty, to five of us… what’s holding them back?’ Natives react with terror and even with a sense of great loss to the sight of the steamboat and the presence of the invader. Blowing the ship’s whistle, Marlow hears ‘such a prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair… as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from the earth.’ The only African we see with autonomy and grace is the dancing girl at Kurtz’s camp: ‘a wild and gorgeous apparation of a woman.’

Conrad’s tale despite its timelessness and constant reimaginings is forever bound up with racist ideas about Africa that shade Western writing on the continent to this day. The dark continent. Deep into the heart of the Other and the land of the Other that is so much the Other that it can break one’s sanity. The space that is so terrifying in its unknownness that it must be fought and quartered into manageable things. In his introduction to this breathtaking graphic treatment of Heart of Darkness, David Zane Mairowitz points out that Conrad was attacked by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for ‘dehumanising’ Africans. Yet he has Marlow, stepping off the boat, anticipating that ‘in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a rapacious and pitiless folly.’ Mairowitz notes that Marlow is ‘grateful for these cannibals – in their place’ and later says that what interests him about the Congolese is not their inhumanity, but their possible humanity.

Nevertheless, men of Victorian London with their ‘assurance of perfect safety’ could not fail to have been uprooted and terrified by a trip along the Congo river in the 1890s – ‘like travelling back to the very beginnings of the world’. This is where we see Anyango at her most powerful. Her depiction of this deserted river brings home what Conrad must have felt on his original voyage – every movement coated with fear, the air molecules themselves full of fear, the conviction of placelessness and dimensionlessness in the darkness. You see faces in the formlessness. The emptiness that is not empty. The blankness that is somehow animate. The terror of nature. The knowledge that this is no longer a place where humans make the rules. ‘A rotting invasion of soundless life,’ Marlow writes, ‘ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence’. No wonder that the merchant seaman, relating this story years after the fact, feels a contempt for his audience, and finds no catharsis from the retelling.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 21st, 2010.