“When you have to attend to … the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades,” narrator Charlie Marlow says in Heart of Darkness. “The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.”
Joseph Conrad’s novella, in which so much is called mysterious, impenetrable, inconceivable and inexplicable – in which the essentials lay deep beneath the veneer of vague appearances – might not be the best candidate for reworking as a comic book. Yet that has now been done, with drawings by Catherine Anyango and text adapted by David Zane Mairowitz.
The artist admitted to some reservations about the endeavor, according to a Guardian article about it. “I wasn’t sure initially if it was a good subject for a graphic novel as the writing is so dense and the style of it is partly what attracts me to the book,” Anyango said. “As I knew we couldn’t keep most of the text in, I tried to make the drawings very rich in detail and texture so that immersive feeling you get, especially when he describes the river and the jungle, was carried across.” Although some of the words supposedly had to go, others, from Conrad’s account of an 1890 journey on Congo, were brought into the illustrated book to give it greater “immediacy.” This decision reflects what the Guardian story suggests is an abiding concern with the history and politics of colonialism rather than sensitivity to or awareness of an essential element of Conrad’s fiction: the undermining of certitude.
Then again, the newspaper account isn’t reliable either. For one, it perpetuates the practice of calling Conrad Polish, even though it would be more accurate to say he was born to Polish parents in Ukraine. At the time of Conrad’s birth in 1857, as biographer John Stape points out, “Polish” was “an ethno-linguistic and cultural, not a political, identity.” Another simpler, but hardly trivial, problem also relates to dates. The Guardian says Heart of Darkness was published 108 years ago in reference to the tale’s first appearance between book covers in 1902. In fact, it was first serialized in a magazine in 1899. It’s a nineteenth-century – not a twentieth-century – work.
All that aside, I’m not convinced readers need it pre-interpreted with pictures, no matter how well made.