The story is framed by a group of men sitting in a boat on the River Thames, listening to Charles Marlow tell a story from his past. Our narrator is actually one of the unnamed men on the boat, but almost the entire novella is Marlowe telling his story.
It’s a story of his time captaining a steamboat on the Congo River. I’m not sure they mention that he’s in The Congo Free State, as it was then called, but I knew this going in. When he first arrives, he stops briefly at a trading station and returns to find his boat sunk, possibly due to sabotage. He spends a few months repairing it, and during this time he learns about Mr. Kurtz, a man both hated a revered in the station – revered for his skill at acquiring ivory and hated for fear he’ll take over their manager’s position and for rumours that he’s gone rogue.
They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.
There are also rumours that Kurtz is seriously ill, so after Marlowe repairs his boat, he takes a small company of men and a crew of native cannibals up the river and into the heart of the jungle’s darkness, only to discover the heart of man’s darkness.
Every time I try to keep the meat of the story vague I end up sounding a bit like a tool. Oh well.
Why frame the story with the men sitting on the boat? I think it’s to keep us out of Marlowe’s head, to allow us to hear him struggle with interpreting his feelings. We feel like we’re sitting on that boat, letting someone work through a story they desperately need to tell.
I love novels about people exploring new lands and encountering new cultures. The depiction of the Congolese felt a wee bit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but if you write that off as an unfortunate artifact of the time, it’s an exciting old travelogue with a lot to say, bringing up questions and letting you answer yourself.
The language in this is wonderful, but dense at times – particularly when he’s struggling with the imposing silence and darkness of the jungle. I probably listened to the entire second part of this twice, because I kept getting distracted. It would’ve been a great audiobook for a flight or bus ride, somewhere you wouldn’t feel guilty about just sitting there listening.
Kenneth Branagh was an amazing narrator. There was really no doubt that he would be great, but he really lived up to my expectations. I checked on Audible, and he also narrates a Graham Greene novel and a collection of Chekhov stories, so I’ll eventually make my way to those. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this as much without his performance.