Tag Archives: Conrad

Making Time Spectacular: the slow, violent journey from Conrad to Habila

29 Mar

What made me feel the most excited about Helon Habila’s ‘Oil on Water’ was the fact that for me, this book marked a clear departure from “classic” post-colonial literature (in particular, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’) towards writing that is far more grounded in the modern, multiple realities of post-colonialism as they exist today. Where the concern in the past was always the colonizing power of the center over the periphery, as well as the role (and use of) dichotomies and unsustainable positions, it can be argued that the concern of the modern post-colonial novel is with the newer forces of colonization, whether it is the privatization of public resources or environmental degradation brought about by the new colonizers: multi-national corporations, engaged in the age old post-colonial hunt for resources.

In a blogpost written for Nieman Storyboard, Rob Nixon points out effective storytelling techniques for approaching the issues raised by the slow violence of systematic environmental degradation or by association, socio-political corruption that has the most deleterious impact on populations that live on the periphery of society. Nixon places importance on these techniques by underlining the need to make unspectacular time spectacular, in order to create an impact on the reader.

For many of us I’m sure, the parallels between ‘Heart of Darkness’ (HoD) and ‘Oil on Water’ began with the opening section of Habila’s novel, which clearly situates the plot as a memory, recalled by the narrator (Rufus) in much the same way Marlow recalls the story he tells his companions as they wait for the tide.  In addition, this same retelling includes references to the role of fog, literal and metaphorical, that accompanies both first person narratives:

I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions.

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air.

Previously, we analyzed the mention of fog in Conrad’s HoD as a tool used by the author to convey not only the confusion felt by the white colonizer in attempting to navigate the “dark continent”, but also to describe how moving from the center (England) to the periphery (the African continent) within HoD constituted what Fabian described as a “denial of Coevalness”

Habila in ‘Oil on Water’ however, does not focus on the issue of center-periphery to arrive at a new discourse as much as he focuses on highlighting how the process of uncovering the truth about a situation (here, the kidnapping of James Floode’s wife) moves from a place of false assumptions and platitudes (physically– Nigeria’s urban centers, metaphorically conveyed by Floode’s own attitudes– “you people”– as well as the out-of-placeness of the Lagos journalists) through a “fog” of lies and corruption, towards the final truths revealed to the narrator by multiple voices— Isabel Floode, the kidnapped victim,  being just one– which are situated in Nigeria’s deltaic periphery, namely the island of Irikefe.

One of the storytelling devices Rob Nixon puts forth in his ‘Slow Violence’ is the use of “powerful analogies”, which Nixon suggests is effective when calling attention to the slow and violent fall-out of an occurrence of  environmental degradation. In addition, Nixon goes on to refer to the importance of rejecting “conventional narrative frameworks”, of telling stories “no one else can tell”, of “re-configuring big stories on a human scale”  and of using “striking” imagery.

Habila achieves all these approaches in ‘Oil on Water’, even while in some instances riffing off of Conrad’s HoD– there is a journey by boat undertaken; there are parallels drawn between the two primary characters, Rufus and Zaq, in a way that is similar to those drawn between Marlow and Kurtz; there is oil where Conrad had ivory, and the mysterious character who is overcome and changed forever by living with the natives is not Kurtz but Isabel Floode. There are also parallels between the light and the dark, the aforementioned fog, and the use of the first person narrative.

What I have come to appreciate most about Habila’s techniques and content is that unlike Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an effort to “write back” with regards to the implications contained within the text of Jane Eyre and thereby was limited by this approach, Habila uses Conrad’s HoD as a jumping off point, linking to it in his writing only for the purpose of illustrating ways in which Nigeria is still being colonized in our supposedly modern and informed world. By doing so, I feel, Habila has successfully pointed out the still-relevant need to study and speak of Post Colonialism in new ways, bringing it out of (reflective, passive) literature and into the active world of International Development, non-renewable resource hunting and environmental degradation, while still having written a literary work that can hold its own comfortably in the Post Colonial canon.

The Female Characters of Conrad and Salih

1 Mar

On Tuesday in class we talked a lot about the unreliability of the characters in Season of Migration to the North, as well as the novel’s connection to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While these connections are important, I think it is even more important to recognize the different ways in which both authors portray women. In Conrad’s case, women are either inconsequential to the reality of the world, or are portrayed as animalistic and barbaric. Kurtz’s “intended” is spared the truth of his fate by Marlowe, while his lover in the wilds of the Congo is merely described as a fearsome and awe-inspiring being – inhuman, in other words. But the traits applied to his white and “civilized” fiancée give her the same inhuman qualities as well. Because she is a woman, she is not important enough to hear the truth of what colonialism has done to Kurtz.

In the case of Salih’s novel,  women are given more agency, and are seemingly left in charge of their own fates, while still nevertheless remaining under the control of the male characters. While the narrator is uncomfortable making decisions for Hosna, Saeed’s widow, his own personal desires get in the way of allowing Hosna to make her own decisions. Hosna reminds me of Kurtz’s intended: she remains fiercely faithful to Saeed even though the evidence of his many affairs with English women is prevalent. This difference is important, though, because while Kurtz’s intended remains in the dark over the true nature of his demise, Hosna takes charge of her own fate and kills her new husband and herself because she swore never to remarry after Saeed’s death. Even though the female characters in both Conrad’s and Salih’s novels function more as points of antagonism rather than actual three-dimensional characters, Salih’s characterization of Hosna eventually leads the narrator to veer from his path of becoming a mirror image of Saeed. In this way, the narrator sees the truth through Hosna, whereas Marlowe hid the truth from Kurtz’s intended in order to preserve her original feelings for him.

Un-Orientalising: Reversing a Discourse in Season of Migration to the North

26 Feb

SPOILER ALERT: Though I sincerely tried, I could not find a scholarly article worth writing about that handled only the first half of the book. Thus, I’ve included a spoiler alert before my last paragraph. Honestly I don’t think it’s THAT big of a deal, but read cautiously, thanks!

Though there is much scholarly work surrounding Season of Migration to the North, I found it most interesting to focus in on the multiple works that specifically look at this novel in relation to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One such article, “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North” by R.S. Krishnan, makes an argument about the relationship between the two books, and Season of Migration to the North’s larger impact within the discussion of Orientalism. He writes that Salih works to “resist, reinterpret, and revise [Heart of Darkness] from the perspective of the colonized Other,” and in doing so “reinscribes the ‘truth’ of colonial encounter from the perspective of the colonize, and in so doing, engages in a dialect of cultural discourse that reverses the narrative and ideological conventions that inform Conrad’s dark fiction” (7, 15).

Krishnan demonstrates Salih’s repositioning of Heart of Darkness through a number of explicit examples, including the river that grounds the “root” of civilization (the Thames, and in Season, the Nile), the omnipresent narrators that move in and out of telling past and living present (Marlowe, and our unnamed man), and the ostensible “villains,” (Kurtz and Mustafah Sa’eed). Krishnan meticulously proves that these similarities between the novels are no accident by showing how precisely Salih has used these points of reference to turn the binaries of Orientalism on their heads. Ultimately, we see that Sa’eed’s journey to England becomes the journey from the fertile womb of civilization into the “Heart of Darkness,“ beautifully mirroring Kurtz’s similar and yet entirely oppositional experience in Conrad’s novel.


However, Krishnan makes note of one essential aberration from this smooth reversal of Conrad. While Marlow concedes to recognize a glimmer of himself in Kurtz (or perhaps vice versa), our narrator acknowledges the possibility that he could become Sa’eed, then resists that notion. As Krishnan puts it, “Salih concludes Season with the narrator’s rejection of Sa’eed’s vision of himself, to not let him ‘complete his story’” (14). Krishnan marks this as the point of the “rejection of colonial ideology” and the ultimate reversal of the discourse that permeates Heart of Darkness.

I think that Krishnan could take this one step further. It is clear, firstly, that Salih’s story is not a “perfect” reversal of the discourse of Orientalism – there are many points in which its vestiges remain engrained. One example: though Sa’eed bucks the stereotype of a “feminized” Arabic male, it must be noted that his ferociously masculine sexuality is only awakened by his first “taste” of Europe in the form of Mrs. Robinson. Secondly, this moment of awakening for the narrator does not strike me as a “reversal” – I think that is far too soft a word for the work that Salih is actually doing here. As McLeod reminds us in his summary of Said’s Orientalism, “orientalism constructs binary oppositions” (49). Orientalism works not because Europe is “light” and Africa is “dark,” but because they are placed in opposition at all. To reverse the discourse would simply be to make Europe dark and Africa light, which Salih does to an extent. However, by refusing to allow Sa’eed to be manifested within himself, the narrator breaks the binary – his fate is no longer tied to this cyclical way of thinking. In this way. he pushes beyond Conrad, and thus rather than merely reversing the discourse, Salih attempts to escape it entirely.

 Krishnan, R.S. “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.The International Fiction Review 23 (1996) : 7-15. Print. 

Narrative Time and Imperialism

1 Feb

In the introduction to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism he writes, “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (xii). In this way, literature is how people understand and make sense of colonialism and imperialism. Narratives are what connect people to nations. However, if we look back to Heart of Darkness, it seems that this narrative confuses identity and picks away at the cohesive element that establishes nations to people. Said explains later, “Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz’s great looting adventure, Marlow’s journey up the river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa” (23). All three aspects of the novel also contain different time, which distances us to these stories. While we get parts of Kurtz’s story, parts of Marlow’s story, and step back once more to the narrator, who is listening to this inner story, we end up not getting a complete story with a definite understanding of the author’s views, the narrator’s views or any of the characters’ own views. Moreover, none of the outside world of the novel– the ‘natives’– don’t have a voice, so their thoughts are never captured. Said makes an interesting point to this, saying, “Conrad’s realization is that if, like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation – which in the case of Heart of Darkness allowed it to speak for Africans as well as for Kurtz and the other adventurers, including Marlow and his audience – your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you actively to comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence” (25).  So we as readers understand the workings of imperialism through the imperialism of the novel. The point is no longer to understand the identity or thoughts of the characters, author or narrator, but to instead focus on how imperialism works. Then my question is, does the ending of Heart of Darkness with the sudden mixture of time [Marlow saying, “ ‘I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow’” (69)] change anything for our understanding of Conrad’s narrative? Does a “world being made and unmade more or less all the time” influence our understanding of imperialism in the novel?

Time and Civilization

1 Feb

Author’s note: I apologize if this sounds like nonsense!

Fabian’s concept of time and Said’s ideas behind imperialism fit together almost seamlessly. Also adding in Conrad’s claim in Heart of Darkness that the idea behind imperialism redeems it, these three men establish a cycle of time and conquest that seems to thrive on a vague perception of superiority. I was really struck by this particular statement in “Culture and Imperialism”: “How we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present.” In this quite simple idea, Said establishes that our own understanding of the past “shapes” our own view of the current time. What I find interesting about this is that all of this is cerebral, rather than physical. Looking at imperialism and colonialism, I immediately think of the physicality of such ideas. But then again, imperialism begins with an idea, so even though it requires the physical exertion of traveling to a place and enforcing new ways of life, it is nonetheless an “idealistic” pursuit.

So if I think about Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, and how his ideas have consumed him to the point that he has become something less than human, I start to wonder how Conrad meant this transformation to be perceived by his readers. Did Kurtz go insane because he got too close to the “native” way of life? Did imperialism itself cause him to lose his mind? Or maybe Fabian’s concept of time has something to do with it. Perhaps Kurtz lost himself in time because without anyone to “wake him up” or give him some sort of reality check, any ideas of civilization went out the window. Maybe time is what holds our “modern” way of life together; maybe without a logical way to count the seconds and minutes and hours, and without a way to label past, present, and future, we would all be floating in some kind of dark abyss.

I am rambling horribly.

Ambiguous Darkness

25 Jan

“Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else!” (Achebe 7)


Although I agree more with Brantlinger’s view of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I found Achebe’s argument to give some interesting points. Especially his comparison of Dorian Gray to what he believes Conrad’s Africa to be. You’ve probably all read Dorian Gray, or at least know the basic story line. If Africa is like the picture, slowly decaying while Europe strengthens, then Conrad’s message in his novel would definitely be “keep away from Africa” because that is the hiding place to Europe’s own shortcomings (if I’m understanding this correctly). But then Europe can only improve if Africa deteriorates. Is that really the message Conrad is giving? I believe Conrad to be much more ambiguous in his message to his readers; he is not telling us what to believe or how to view Europe or Africa. We take what he gives us and make our own evaluations. As Brantlinger states, “At what point is it safe to assume that Conrad/Marlow expresses a single point of view? And even supposing Marlow to speak directly for Conrad, does Conrad/Marlow agree with the values expressed by primary narrator?” (Epilogue 2). Achebe seems to think Conrad’s novella is straight forward – black and white. However, not only does the distancing narration make this idea problematic, but also the characterization of Kurtz complicates this; he lives in the middle of black and white, quite literally in fact. Brantlinger discusses Kurtz as divided between two desires: to change/correct the ‘savages’ or identify with them. He states, “Kurtz is a product of this painful division. Yet not even Marlow sees Kurtz’s going native as a step toward the recovery of a lost paradise; it is instead a fall into hell, into the darkness of self-disintegration.” Kurtz has lost himself in this split. He has both a life with a ‘savage’ woman and a life with a European woman. If the ‘idea’ of colonialism (that Conrad discusses on page 4) is development and progress of (possibly) both Europe and Africa, then can Kurtz be seen as the embodiment of this idea? Does Kurtz’ death symbolize the death of progress in colonialism or at least the death of the redeemable quality of this idea? Even if this might not be the case, I think it’s safe to say that Brantlinger is correct is saying, “Ambiguity, perhaps the main form of darkness in the story, prevails.”