Here’s one of the rarely discussed facts of fiction. Whether we’re writing an alien-filled sci-fi adventure, a sprawling fantasy saga, or a historical epic, all these stories are ultimately a reflection of the specific writer’s society, worldview, ethics, and morals. If you want a true representation of the past, don’t turn to historical fiction.
Turn to fiction actually written in the past.
Warning, though. Often their ethics and sensibilities are vastly different from ours. Sometimes disturbingly so.
If you want to be disturbed and unsettled, then read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In it he depicts a world that is cruel and brutal and blatantly racist. And, yes, heartless and dark.
This is a controversial book, because of its unvarnished description of 19th century European colonialism. But if it’s going to be an accurate portrayal of that time period, how could it not be?
Heart of Darkness is a short book that recounts the story of a less than reliable, and possibly slightly insane, sailor named Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s sprawling and ambitious Lord Jim, as he tells of his journey into the Belgian Congo to retrieve the mysterious Kurtz for his trading company.
Along the way Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of so-called wild Africa. The writing has a dreamlike quality throughout that’s a testament to Conrad’s skill. It moves at a fast clip and doesn’t let up. Sometimes it moves too fast for me–especially in the scenes where he finally arrives at Kurtz’s renegade compound I wanted Marlow to slow down and tell us more. But we get what we get.
Heart of Darkness is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it. It was the inspiration for the movie Aopcalypse Now (which I have to rewatch now), so much so that Marlon Brando’s character is also named Kurtz, and he utters the famous line from Conrad’s book.
“The horror, the horror.”
I read commentary on Heart of Darkness captured from writers throughout the 20th Century, and they all dissected it based on where they sat in time and place. I am too. For me, Heart of Darkness was an indictment of the 19th century European colonial enterprise into Africa. The people in London who run the company are presented as cold. The European men in Africa come across as casually cruel. The Africans in their employ are first seen as brutally treated. Conrad does not spare these details. He doesn’t present the Africans as fully human. He does the Europeans, which does them little favor.
Heart of Darkness shows how, rather than “civilizing” Africa (the thin sheen of respectability placed on an enterprise that was really about plunder), European colonialism corrupted those involved.
It made their own hearts dark.