Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Joseph Conrad

For you lovers of darkness, of Africa, of greed, and exploitation, it is Conrad's birthday today.

He had an interesting life: Polish born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdichev, which is now in the Ukraine. His father was a scholar and an outspoken opponent of the oppressive regime. He was arrested, and the family was exiled to a northern province in Russia, where both Joseph's parents contracted tuberculosis and died. So the boy went to live with his uncle in Switzerland. His uncle was kind and supportive, and he gave his nephew a good education. But Conrad was restless; he wanted to travel. So as a teenager, he headed to France, and from there, he went to sea. He ran guns, he smuggled, and he got himself in debt. He couldn't pay his creditors, he tried to commit suicide but failed, and he lost his job. But his uncle paid off his debts, and Józef changed his name to Joseph Conrad and went back to sea with the British.

In 1890, he captained a steamboat into the Congo, which was then the Belgian Congo, controlled by King Leopold II. He saw horrible atrocities there. People had been forced into slave labor camps, where many of them were abused and killed. He called it "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience."

He went back to England, settled in Kent, and never worked as a sailor again. He wrote adventure stories, and 10 years after returning from the Congo, he wrote Heart of Darkness (1902). It's about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa and about a powerful and mysterious trading agent named Kurtz. Kurtz has established himself as a god among the natives, surrounding his trading post with severed heads on stakes.

Joseph Conrad said, "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."

(Information from American Public Media)

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