James Reich, Mistah Kurtz!, (Anti-Oedipus Press 2016)
‘All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
‘The colonial age narrowed the gage of currency–and within that was the irony that for all of this stolen flesh to become valuable, it had first of all to be rendered worthless.’ James Reich, Mistah Kurtz!
The cover of this book is worth the price of the ticket, but I was also dead keen to read it, having become reasonably well acquainted with Conrad’s infamous character through many readings over a long time. It also helped that I was on holiday at home during a rather humid and mosquito-plagued midsummer, so the setting was right for reading this remarkably densely textured but, dare I say it, meticulously restrained novel.
In Mistah Kurtz!, James Reich takes the characters, events and language of Heart of Darkness and recontextualises them. He names the unnamed and elaborates histories, ultimately making manifest the latencies lurking beneath the murky river water of the original. It does not try to be a set of answers to the puzzles of Conrad’s novella (except in one darkly comic twist, which I won’t identify here). The reader is not invited to meet the ‘real’ Kurtz (actually a character whose encounter with Marlow in HoD is very brief, but whose presence murmurs throughout the book) because that would be stupid. Kurtz is not telling ‘his side of the story’ to a voyeuristically curious reader, because he is a character, and can’t do that. Yes, in the opening Kurtz writes to his ‘Intended’, ‘What is Kurtz? Company man, poet, cannonball, or feral god–we shall find him out’, but the ‘what’, not the ‘who’ is the key. The ‘what’ is very explicitly technocratic colonialism.
The best way I can describe Mistah Kurtz! is as a critical intervention, an appraisal and an amplification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The ‘unspeakable’ is spoken in a manner that reminds us of the murderous European corruption and complicity that Conrad could not fully name. His reticence, and that of his implied readers allowed the novel to be read as allegory for over half a century. From ivory to uranium, from rubber to the murder of Lumumba and beyond to ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, Heart of Darkness was about ‘the darkness of the human soul’, ‘a journey into the unconscious,’ ‘a myth of death and renewal’. (I recall that in Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 film by Eleanor Coppola about the making of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, the filmmakers were complaining that they were losing time because Marcos had commandeered their helicopters to shoot up the people of Mindanao. Talk about missing the point.)
Well, yes, these allegorical explanations have potential, but they are hardly sufficient. The novel is about abusing and enslaving people and cutting them into pieces. Reich takes this on. The often hypnagogic rhythm of his prose brings the reader into Conrad’s circle of hell, but it is a verifiable material hell. Kurtz’s dreams are material dreams. Unlike Conrad, Reich names the places where the events take place. (For example, the names Kinshasa and Leopoldville are both used, as if to emphasise the bloody colonial, and neo-colonial, history.) Kurtz’s steamer to Africa is called the SS Mandingo II; steamers named Mandingo existed at the time. The Congo is the Congo, not just ‘that river’.
Interrupted by fugal fits, and knowing that his days at his ‘station’ are ending, Reich’s Kurtz writes a letter (of sorts) to his ‘Intended’ (actually his very much ‘unintended’). This is to be a part of Marlow’s ‘package’ that he brings out of the ‘heart of darkness’. As a narrative strategy this works brilliantly. Through Kurtz’s letter, Reich unravels Heart of Darkness and reweaves it into his luminous prose. Otherwise banal phrases and words: ‘the current’, ‘crowd of men’, ‘we were travelling’, ‘Huntley and Palmer biscuits’, ‘Martini-Henry rifles’, become part of Reich’s symboliste imagery, along with the sublime and the grotesque, but affect and pity are also part of the mix.
The literariness of Reich’s novel also appeals to me. As I make connections to other texts I am conscious of but not too concerned about all the ones I miss. Rimbaud is an obvious contender, Mary Shelley, Wilde, Eliot, Dickens (!), Roussel, even Ballard. (I could not help connecting some parts of the novel, especially the extraordinary repeated passage of Kurtz’s dream of inhabiting an elephant’s remains, with Ballard’s African works, but also with The Unlimited Dream Company.) Some of these allusions and borrowings are pretty funny. For example, Kurtz writes some letters to be sent to newspapers in England, possibly exposés of atrocities in the Congo, but who could be sure? He says to a returning company employee Johnny Malebo, ‘“You see that they get through, all right? Are such things done on Albion’s shores?”’
That is one of the many jokes in Mistah Kurtz!, I was amused by Kurtz’s encounter with the dreadfully anal Company Chief Accountant, named Rommel. (Also perhaps a reminder of Léon Rom, a monster of a man working for Leopold’s company who is said to be one of the prototypes of Conrad’s Kurtz.) Reich’s Kurtz gives Rommel a richly deserved short sharp throttling and head smashing. I laughed, as I did when Kurtz writes, ‘The Company is disturbed: Good! I have got above my station.’
Mistah Kurtz! is a wonderful remaking of Heart of Darkness. I found myself rationing my reading, as I did not want to finish it, but was strangely charmed when in one of Kurtz’s dreams, Marlow first appears silently on board his steamer, signalling the approach of the end.
A steamer was coming slowly through the choked tributary to my Station. There was a white man standing in the bow. I saw him with the euphoria of a dying man who feels his pain suddenly eclipsed. The smoke from the fire must have cleared slightly, for he suddenly observed me….