Fear and loathing in the Congo

Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.

The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles

an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.

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Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)

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Opium, bonanzas, and whores — New Zealand’s wild west in The Luminaries

In a world where we’re supposed to cry tears of joy whilst ridding ourselves of old crap (cue KonMari), I’m not ashamed to admit I’m prone to nostalgia.

In particular, I’m endlessly drawn to revisiting places. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from recognising familiar features, familiar sounds, a familiar sense of space. Yet these moments are at the same time coloured by sadness because they, more so than any other moments, make me feel difference and change in me. The place might be the same, but I’m not.

This is my awkward transition to books: I also hugely enjoy rereading them, mostly because I know exactly what I’m getting. The risk of going for a new book, possibly the beginning of a new love affair, possibly a horrible, time-wasting letdown, is occasionally more than a vulnerable reader can handle. I don’t get bored of re-encountering stories, characters, and moods — they never feel quite the same as they did the previous time, because I’ll have changed.

Of course, a book must be great for me to want to reread it in the first place, and Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries (Granta, 2013) is a fantastic example of such a book. I first read it just over a yeah ago (yes, its 832 pages took me, hmm, maybe 2 months to finish, and yes, I am ashamed to admit that), mostly sat on the train in or out of London whilst doing my internship. I’d bought the book mainly because I knew it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and also because the location, New Zealand in the 1860s, sounded cool. Also, I was really into astrology as a teenager, but let’s not go there. Continue reading