I chose this for our local book group because it had a profound impact on me when young and I wanted to see if it stood up to the finer scrutiny of age.
It is a story told by a man named Marlow to the first narrator, written by Conrad, a Pole. It provides us with a complex result, a kaleidoscopic view of the activities of a commercial enterprise in an unknown continent. To further complicate matters, all three, writer and first and second narrator - engage in irony :ie, saying the opposite of what is meant, known in the broader world as sarcasm.
So we get the "compassionate" secretary who is unfeeling; the reference to "high and just proceedings' that are totally unfair; the "miracle" of the mad chief accountant; the reference to these iniquitous, rapacious stations as being "beacons...for humanizing, improving, instructing"; "pilgrims" who shoot people; a world where in the one breath, the mad Kurtz writes of being a "power for good" over "savages" and also "exterminate the brutes"; a world where black is white and white is black and often it is impossible to tell one from the other.
But in the end what matters is the effect on the reader. Despite the cringe worthy us of the word "nigger, and the word "gay" which has a somewhat different meaning 115 years after this book was written does Heart of Darkness stand the test of time: both the 50 years between my first reading and now and the hundred years since publication? How not.
The language is superb; the words jump out at you; the images conjured up are extraordinary - reading this I lived, breathed, smelt the fetid air; saw "sea and sky welded together without a joint"; knew this vast collection of ratbags - the "elegant" chief accountant; the papier-mache Mephistopheles; the man in the pink pyjamas; the pilgrims; the harlequin; and above all Kurtz, in whom the hear of darkness resided; appreciated the relevance of Marlow's narrative to what came much later: the ideas that colonising nations are justified in destroying people just because they've got darker skin; the abomination of apartheid; war; and the inroads of multinationalism. But it's the over arching elements that really hit home - the idea of man's inhumanity to man; the destruction of the enviroment; peoples inflexibilty with the truth, to which Marlow declares himself wedded, only to lie to Kurtz's Intended at the end - conveniently forgetting Kurtz's last words: "The Horror, The Horror" and Kurtz's gorgeous regal, native lover to tell the Intended that the last thing Kurtz said was her name.
This book inspires me - not in its condemnation of individual people but for stating the soaring principles we must aspire to while exposing our tendency to backslide and lie; in it's cleverness; and above all, for me as an aspiring writer, to show what can be done, given sufficient talent and caurage and determination, with mere words. 10/10