While I was at it, I decided to go for two other short stories from Joseph Conrad. It was actually enjoyable to read fiction of which I had no preconceptions at all—usually when choosing a book I make my decision based on what I assume the story will be like.
Conrad himself apparently held An Outpost of Progress (1897) in higher regard than Heart of Darkness. It’s a much tighter story, taking place in just over 20 pages, and restricted both in terms of place and characters. Two white men, Kayerts and Carlier (presumably Swiss), are brought by steamboat to a tiny trading post by the river Congo, where they join a Sierra Leonean man called Makola, an assistant to the previous station chief who has tragically died of fever, or possibly too much exposure to the sun. Kayerts, the new station chief, and Carlier, the second in charge, are tasked with participating in the ivory trade, and generally improving the station in the hope that it’ll one day be something grander:
“In a hundred years, there will perhaps be a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and—and—billiard-rooms. Civilisation, my boy, and virtue—and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier, were the first civilised men to live in this very spot!”
The company representative doesn’t quite see the potential in them:
“Look at those two imbeciles. They must be mad at home to send me such specimens. […] I always thought the station on this river useless, and they fit the station!”
Needless to say, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. The men go slowly mad thanks to the isolation, lack of food and medication, and the whole debacle reaches its climax in a very comical chase and a suicide on the cross of the previous station chief’s grave. I’ll let you find out for yourself who does what! Many similarities with the Lord of the Flies here.
In Youth: A Narrative (1898) we meet Marlow from Heart of Darkness again. This is Marlow’s story on his adventures at sea as a you man. Telling the tale to a bunch of drinking buddies, he describes how he is for the first time made second mate on an ancient barque called Judea, headed from England to Bangkok. The motto of the ship, painted on its side, is “do or die”. Anyone see the parallel here to “get rich or die tryin’“? It’s also Marlow’s first trip to the East, and he’s of course very excited. His story is occasionally paused by a “pass the bottle”—reminded me very much of a character in the Finnish classic Seven Brothers (1870) whose stories end with an “and then we all got drunk”!
This is a truly action packed and fun narrative, involving nearly shipwrecking at least twice, a fire on board, and an explosion. Marlow is so much more energetic in here than in Heart of Darkness, which is of course appropriate for a young man, and his enthusiasm in the face of difficulties almost made me want to join a ship myself. I can only assume it’s not that well know because its tone is so far from the anxiety and, well, darkness of Heart of Darkness. All in all a really entertaining story, and very much recommended for an adventure that you can take part in from the comfort of your chair!
Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857–1924) was a Polish-British writer. He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe. Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works still contain elements of nineteenth-century realism.
(featured image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barque#/media/File:Unidentified_sailing_ship_-_LoC_4a25817u.jpg)