Written following her stay in A Room for London, Naomi Alderman's short story Ivory takes Kurtz, one of the most puzzling characters in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and tries to bring her to life. But who is Kurtz's so-called "savage and superb" woman? And isn't the task of reviving her character completely unfeasible or, worse still, artistically dubious?
When she was a child, she loved to go with her father on the fire hunt.
He would process with many men, each one sharp-eyed and strong. To one of the men, he gave the duty of carrying his daughter, Kapapa, to keep her safe. They walked through the brush for many miles, until they saw the elephants. When they spied them from far off, the men made low sounds to each other, some spreading right, some to the left.
To start, they chased the elephants. Not coming too close, and making sure not to pick any females with young calves, for they will stampede and trample any men who frighten them. But the older elephants are weary with men and walk away slowly when they approach. There are around ten of them. By waving their hands and making noise, Msidi and his men encouraged the elephants, slowly and ponderously, to walk through the long grass – all the while plucking up small trees with their trunks and eating them – towards the place where the valleys lead into a deep ravine. And then they set the fire.
Not every year is the right time for the fire hunt. Sometimes the grass does not dry well. Some years the elephants will not walk. Some years, when the diviners place the bark into the salt water, it withers in such a way that they can see the elephants should not be hunted. But some years the grass is just dry enough, and the elephants so numerous that the time is ripe.
Msidi’s boldest men set the fires to the east of the herd. The wind will catch it here on the dry grass and shrubs and cast the flames westward. They catch very fast when they go, and one of the elephants lifts her trunk, lets out a low rumble, then a sharp, high trumpet. The others shift uneasily, stir. They move away from the direction of the fire. A second, then a third, begin to rap their trunks on the ground. The earth beneath the feet of Msidi, his men, and the man Likoko who is holding Kapapa vibrates with the elephants’ sounds of warning. And then the elephants begin to run.
They run west, at first, and try to head towards the dense forest, where the river flows and they will be safe. But Msidi’s men have split into several parties. Another is ready, before the forest, to set the fire as soon as they see the elephants coming. They beat the flames high with the reed mats they’ve carried, sending gales of wind into them, dispatching the flames towards the elephants, cutting off their line of retreat.
The elephants are frightened now. They trumpet loudly, as if shouting to one another “this way,” “that way”. The fire leaps towards them, set by the strong men with spears in their right hands. The elephants run towards the ravine, that is the only way they can go. The earth trembles with their, soft, heavy footfalls as they run.
Msidi, King of Garenganze, smiles at his daughter. He takes her for a moment from the arms of Likoko and lifts her up high.
“Do you see?” he says, “do you see the elephants run from us, little Kapapa?”
Kapapa, her eyes very wide, nods and says nothing. He kisses her again, nuzzling at her cheek until she giggles and kicks her feet. He hands her back and they begin the final run.
There is nowhere to go for the elephants, nowhere but down into the rocky ravine where the flames cannot follow because there is nothing there to burn. The ravine is a dead end, but the elephants will shelter there until the fire dies away. Elephants are clever. Msidi’s men are more clever.
There are forty men with strong right arms and spears waiting along the clifts of the ravine, and when the elephants run in, heavy, frightened, eyes rolling, trumpeting and calling to each other, the men with spears are waiting. The first blade is loosed almost casually – just to see if it can be done. It finds its mark, catching the one of the creatures on the top of the head. The elephant nods up, as if looking for the source of the injury. It raises its trunk, pulls the spear out, and there is blood running down its dark skin, red and full of life.
And then there are more and more. A rain of spears, each man throwing down ten, fifteen spears, one after another, some missing but most finding their marks, in the flanks of the elephants, their sides, their heads. One man gets an elephant straight in the eye, and it goes down heavily, taking another with it, flailing on the rocky ground of the base of the ravine. Another elephant pulls a spear out of its side and hurls it at the men, gouging a great lump of flesh out of his side. They throw down more. The rocky floor is slippery with the blood of the elephants and one slides, falls to its knees, lets out a great bellow as they bring it down. They struggle, these elephants, they fight. If they could run, they would, but the fire presses close at the mouth of the ravine and so they run, helplessly, from one end to another. They cannot scale the walls to get at the men who hurl their blades down. The men must win.
When the animals are all dead, Msidi sends his slaves down to retrieve his spears and to bring up the bodies for their meat. The fire hunt has been a success.
Kapapa, safe in the arms of her father’s servants, waits for her portion to roast on the spits over the fire. She is calm. She is a queen, a daughter of queens. This is her whole life.
There is a problem with resurrecting the dead. As the stories tell us, they never come back quite right.
I am in search of Kurtz’s woman. The “savage and superb” woman who lives with him in the jungle, whose desires and aims are always uncertain, whose voice is not heard in the story, whose fate is unknown after we leave her, stretching her arms out towards the boat that carries him away. She is difficult to find. Accounts of life in the Congo before the colonial settlers arrived are thin on the ground. Accounts of women’s lives are even rarer. All I have been able to find are traces: artefacts, songs, mentions in passing in the writings of missionaries who came to convert the people and spend most of their books discussing the wonders of Jesus.
Most of the time, in researching this piece, I have felt like that other woman, Kurtz’s ‘intended’ back at home. That protected, cosseted woman, who cannot be told the truth, who cannot even imagine the life in the jungle. I am trying to make my imagination stretch out to reach her, constantly aware that I might be appropriating her voice, stealing her story. Still. She’s been a long time dead, that fictional African woman. And who else is going to try to bring her to life? So I stroke the monkey’s paw and try not to bring her back too wrong.
I am fortunate in that I have just finished writing a novel about Roman-occupied Judea. So I know a little something, already, about the brutalities of occupation, about the way those power dynamics work, about how the incessant logic is towards more oppression, tighter control, increased dehumanisation.
And I recognise something else as well, in those books left by missionaries about the people they met in the Congo with their wealth and skill, their culture of slave-taking in battle and their absolute rulers, and their rather cavalier attitude to children. The people whom the missionaries and later colonists saw as savages are actually, surprisingly, fairly Roman. The dark heart of evil, of summary justice and heads on spikes, would have been extremely familiar to Europeans only a handful of centuries earlier. It was probably only skin colour that made the difference, made it impossible to see.
Probably even in these reflections I’ve said something appalling, something inadequate, something which betrays my ignorance. And yet, like the ill-equipped boat down the Congo, I continue. Into the heart of my own incomprehension, hoping to bring something worthwhile back.
“He gave fifty lashes to a poor little negress because she wouldn’t be his mistress, then he gave her to a soldier.” From the diary of Louis Leclerq, a Force Publique officer in the Congo Free State, writing about an officer whom some scholars have suggested as an inspiration for Kurtz
Why does a woman stay with a man? Sometimes it is because he treats her well, and sometimes it is because her father has given her to him and she is loyal. Sometimes it is because she has borne him children and cannot leave while they are young.
In her father’s kingdom, if a man mistreated his wife, she would run home to her parents house or village. And perhaps the husband would pursue his property and call her to account in the great court before Msidi the King and Msidi would ask what had happened and search out people who had seen it. If King Msidi found that the woman had left because the man had hurt her, he would say: remain in peace with your family, you may keep the bride-price that was paid for you because he has given you pain. So a woman should not have to stay with a man because she is afraid of his blows.
It is not that there was no choice in it. There is always a choice, she had seen it. She was not afraid to die. If she died her spirit would go to the spirits of her ancestors, who were kings and queens and great people, and her family would bring her gifts and she would eat the food they ate. The choice was, she had seen and understood: this, or death. But death is not unattractive. She considered it. She decided.
Her father, too, cut the heads off men who rebelled against him and displayed them at the entrance to their village as a warning. Her father, too, sent men across the plains and through the trees to bring him ivory and held great feasts to celebrate their return with dancing and flickering flame and men and women finding one another in the dark. Her father, too, took slaves and had other wives in other places.
This man Kurtz did not wear his deeds as strength, it was true. He did not use them to rule a mighty nation, to feed his people and bring them honour in battle. He did not reward good men with riches or take them to new lands to hunt for food and find crops. Still, he was the new king, in a sense. She recognized something in him. Yes. No death today.
Perhaps it was not like this at all. Perhaps it was more simple. Perhaps she saw what had been done and was afraid. Perhaps he whipped her with the chicotte, the lacerating whip of hippopotamus hide. Perhaps he raped her so often and so violently that she knew she could never go home, to her husband or her family.
The woman Conrad places with Kurtz is stately, magnificent. But Marlow, Conrad, we, cannot understand her. He says: “Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve.”
Something has happened. Is she pained to see him leave, or is the pain longer, older, deeper? Does the resolve concern what she will do now, or what she’s already done? Marlow and Conrad would not have attempted to understand her. Women, of course, were not rationally comprehensible anyway.
So much has been lost, or thrown away, of the understanding of human experience.
Let us say this, then.
There comes a day when the new moon has been and gone twice and she has not bled. Her breasts are tender, the nipples swollen. Her hips feel odd to her, her back new, the place between her legs has a low, humming, sweet sensation to it. She is surprised, for it has been almost two years now with her and Kurtz and she had thought that maybe this thing would never happen and this seemed good. But she is certain, yes. So she will have to decide what to do.
She has seen how these men deal with babies. When there is a long march, a woman with a baby in her arms is slow and must stop to feed or clean it. She has seen men take babies from the arms of their mothers and hurl them into a field to die as the column of workers walks by.
She walks into the jungle for half a day, carrying a small pot on her back and some kindling, water and food in her pack. She is looking for precisely the leaves she wants. There are two kinds, a red tubular leaf, and a small yellow flower, they both grow where the earth is fine and dry. She finds the red leaf easily, folds several of them into her pack, and considers this a good sign, but the yellow flower is more difficult. At last, she comes across it in a clearing, hiding its head in amongst tree roots, a great clump of it. She plucks all the leaves, making sure to get the thick parts of the stems near the base where they are juicy and old. She makes a little fire. She boils the water. She throws the leaves into it, stirs them with a twig, allows the whole to cool and then pours it back into her water skin, leaves and all. She begins to walk back.
When she can see the station off in the distance and has come to a level place not far from the river, she sits on the earth, and drinks the cold tea down in three swift gulps. She waits.
The whole thing takes a night and a day. It hurts – the old women at her father’s court had told her it might hurt but she did not expect such pain – a ripping, convulsing, sickening pain. Like the thing inside her was determined to drag her inside-out before it would let go. It feels like a hand is clenching and wriggling in her belly, ripping its nails at her flesh and gouging lumps out. She vomits up some of the liquid and is terrified that she will have to begin again. But at dawn she has finished bleeding. She washes herself in the river. She knows she cannot do this thing again.
She remembers the elephant hunts she went on as a child, how the men had to be cunning, subtle, let the elephants lead themselves into the trap. And how then they had to be without mercy, for no animal would show you mercy if you let it have its head. Kurtz has a head that gleams like ivory.
When she returns to the station, she wraps the red tubular leaves in a bundle of rags in the house.
Mr Kurtz trusts her now. She has been his companion for nearly two years. When she makes food for him, he eats it. When she brings water for him, he drinks it.
A man does not simply die of the jungle.
How can I possibly write about Africa, when Chinua Achebe has already written Things Fall Apart? When he is still alive and writing. When thousands of African writers compete for the tiny space of attention we give them, because the books that succeed, in the West, are almost all books written by white people about other white people.
I don’t believe, of course, that I don’t have the right. Writers must be allowed to write about whatever they choose, and the act of imaginative empathy is not limited by sex, age, class or race. Writing is a fundamental belief in the ability of human beings to understand one another. To bridge the gap between us, to hold fast to the idea that we are not so different after all. It’s not that I’m not allowed to write it.
Adam Hochschild talks about the colonial desire of white enslavers and abusers to record Africa copiously in books, journals, letters, reports. He says: “It was as if the act of putting Africa on paper were the ultimate proof of the superiority of European civilization.”
Is this what I’m doing? Taking part in this great project of ownership and superiority by writing? Is it that my fear of doing that makes me feel the story’s not mine to tell? That unlike every other story in the world, I don’t get to work with this one?
In Achebe’s remarkable, spine-stiffening, true essay on Heart of Darkness he finds out Conrad’s racism, pulls it out wriggling for us to acknowledge. It’s not that the Heart of Darkness is, as we might now say, the greed and cruelty and inhumanity of Kurtz and his ilk. The Heart of Darkness in Conrad’s work is Africa itself. The sense of mystery and horror that hangs over the novel isn’t just in Kurtz, it’s in some unknowable force in Africa which has corrupted him.
Achebe says: “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! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its lair. But he foolishly exposed himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and lo! the darkness found him out.”
Conrad is, as Achebe says, a bloody racist. The woman I’m trying to find and revive from the dust is probably a creation of this racism. Can it possibly make sense for her to be at the station with Kurtz under any circumstances other than force? Her argument with the Russian over the rags, which seems to imply her role as a sort of mistress of the house, how can we accept it? If I see her as other than a victim, am I denying the terrible things that happened, but if I portray her as a victim, am I denying her any other identity? This is not a unique problem. How can we write about Jews without writing about the Holocaust, but also must we not find something else to write about?
One cannot hide in one’s work. Am I a bloody racist too? If I try to write this story, will I be unable to conceal it?
And then he is gone.
She watches the boat until it is out of sight on the river without any feeling at all. As if her heart had been taken away in the great metal ship, as if her heart were still on it, tracing the curves of the river towards where it fights with the sea in a mess of white water. All the white men are gone. But she knows there will be more. She looks down at her feet and says to them: time to go. Her feet say: good, we are ready.
This part of the country is not her home. Kurtz had taken her a great distance from where he found her. He had protected her, it is true, and although she wanted him gone, now that he will never come back she knows she is prey for many things. Her home is upstream. She does not know what she will find when she gets there. She packs things to make fire, and some of Kurtz’s good strong blankets and clothes, and food that is easy to carry. When white people speak of Africans ‘disappearing into the jungle’, they have failed to notice how much is needed to be able to live in the jungle.
Before she leaves, she makes a mourning tar out of palm nuts and palm oil and burned peanuts. It must be burned and blackened to a sticky mess – it takes several hours. When the tar is made, and cooled, she pours some onto her head and shoulders and arms. It will keep the sun from her body on the long walk. She puts some of the tar into a skin bag. Later, when the jiggers burrow into her feet, under her toenails, itching and hurting and growing larger and larger, and when she has to puncture the nail with a sharp stick to dig them out, the tar will be useful to coat the bloody hole that is left, as she carries on walking.
The next morning she rises before dawn and begins her journey. Some of the men are arguing in a desultory way, pushing and shoving by the fire. They are men from six or seven different tribes, some with long, deep blood-feuds going back to familial disputes three or four generations before. Kurtz had brought them here and kept them from fighting by sitting darkly on their hearts with fear and worship. That is all over now, and there are new feuds, one remembering that Kurtz had specially favoured another, a second remembering that another had stolen food from him in the leanest days. And the guns are left here. And the knives, and the spears. She takes a knife, and a little axe, and three short spears, and some coils of wire and rope. She hears them shouting behind her.
She walks from dawn till dusk, for twenty seven days. In the evenings she uses the axe to cut branches and build a cage in the trees held together with wire to protect her from leopards. She digs the jiggers out of her feet. Her hair, which she has been used to coat with palm oil every day and mould into its crown-like shape, becomes matted and in the end she hacks at it with the knife. She throws the hair into the river, and watches as a crocodile raises his snout above the water to snap at the pieces as they float past. She uses up the food she had brought, and she is hungry and beyond hungry, but there are few plants here that are good to eat – the land has not been left fallow, nor have the seeds been spread through the forest as they used to be.
On the twenty-eighth day, she hears a crashing sound by the river’s edge. She has lived long enough to know what the noise means, and climbs a tree near the water to get a better view.
On the bank are two elephants, mother and calf, ripping at the foliage, tearing up small saplings and eating them, the mother watching the baby all the time, encouraging it with small noises, showing it with her trunk how to reach for the tastiest soft leaves.
She watches the elephants for a long time. The mother has three deep scars on her face – one of her eyes is scored by a scar and is milky white. Some team of men for some reason had tried to bring her down but had not succeeded.
She sits in the tree for a long time, watching. The mother, and the baby. She has three spears on her back and she is hungry. She tries to decide. An elephant is not a man, after all. But she will only be able to take one.
At last, the animals have eaten their fill and stand, swaying slightly, on the river bank. They will rest only for a little time and then they will move on. She knows this down to her fingers’ ends, she has lived so long among elephants and men who hunt elephants. She balances her weight on the strong tree branch. She has a clear line of sight. She hefts the spear at her shoulder. She practised this skill of course when she was a child, with her brothers, but has not done so for a long time. Still. Two elephants, mother and calf. She aims. She pulls her hand back and hurls the spear.
The first goes wide. Splashes in the water by the elephants’ feet. They both look around, startled, cannot see what it was. She pulls the second swiftly. Hunger chews in her belly saying “this time, you must hit this time”. She draws back her arm. She aims carefully, correcting from the previous throw. She hurls the spear. It hits the baby elephant just where she had aimed: at the top of the head where the skull is still soft. It goes in deeply and well. The small elephant lets out a piteous sound, like a cry, like terror. Its head jerks from side to side. The mother trumpets in alarm, looks around wildly. To have saved the calf from so much, and not this. The calf’s head goes up and back. It falls into the mud at the river bank.
The mother stamps and shouts. She pulls her child further up the bank, tugs at the spear in its head, bellows with fury, stops for a moment, caresses the little elephant with her trunk, then looks into the forest where the spear came from and begins to butt at the trees with its head, calling wildly.
She lashes herself to the tree branch with her rope. She waits. It is more likely than not that the mother elephant will not be able to find her or dislodge her. The mother elephant will eventually walk away, farther upstream, to where there are many more of her kind. She will leave the body.
It is only a small elephant. She will be able to camp here for two days, roast its meat, take some of its skin and even bones. She thinks she has another month’s hard travel ahead of her before she reaches her family lands, if her family is even yet living. This small elephant will keep her alive.
The mother is still raging and trumpeting, hurling branches and saplings and vines. She speaks to it in her heart. She says: “there will be another calf. There will. There will be another.”
“My greatest frustration lay in how hard it was to portray individual Africans as full-fledged actors in this story... If we are to enter deep into the personal lives of individual Congolese in this period, it may have to be done in fiction, as novelists like Chinua Achebe have done for the colonial era elsewhere in Africa, or as Toni Morrison has done for the life experience of American slaves.” Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost.
Hedged around with uncertainty, this attempt at an investigation is a failure. A necessary historical failure, because of the millions of documents that went up in smoke when King Leopold ordered the records of what he had done in the Congo to be burned, because Belgian governments since have kept records sealed, because no one thought to gather first-hand testimony.
A literary failure, because the essence of Heart of Darkness is the mystery which never ceases, the thing which cannot be spoken. I have come to the conclusion that the nature of Heart of Darkness is to conjure something unimaginable. The depths of Kurtz’s depravities, Conrad suggests, are such that whatever you imagine, it was worse. This is what makes the novel so frightening.
Atrocities are very simple, really. They can be described extremely fully and accurately, as we see from the records kept by the Nazis or by Japanese Unit 731. There are a large, varied, imaginative, but not infinite number of ways to cause pain and distress. They can be recorded. It is not the nature of what Kurtz did in the jungle that is unspeakable – it is the various refusals to speak it that have made it so. King Leopold of Belgium who then owned the Congo as a personal property would not allow it to be spoken. The continuing reluctance of every colonial power which once operated in Africa to acknowledge the terrible things that were done make it a blind spot in our consciousness. The most terrifying thing is the thing you’re not allowed to look at.
A side note. The horrors of Leopold’s Congo elide constantly in my mind with the Holocaust; which I feel of course more equipped to write about than the Congo. It’s my personal belief that anti-Semitism is such a shapeless, baggy, shambling terror still, that the Holocaust seems incomprehensible still, because we’re not allowed to say the one simple thing about it: that anti-Semitism was caused by, and continues to be fed by, the New Testament.
How terrible when the cause of evil is the thing that’s supposed to be holy. The very place one is not allowed to look, so searching everywhere else brings up nothing, so we conclude “it’s a mystery”. It’s not a mystery. The cause of the rape of the Congo is not a mystery. We see it all around us in the beautiful wealth we live in. I see it in the sleek calming lines of the laptop I’m writing this piece on, filled with columbium-tantalum, the coltan used in computer chips, much of which comes from the Congo, and in the rubber wheels of the car that took me to the station this morning. If the cause of horror is a thing we don’t want to do without... why then our eyes are going to have to glide over the horror.
I have tried to conjure, from the mysterious woman living with Kurtz in the jungle, a living person. I have tried not to make her only a victim. I tried to make her strong, and brave, and I have given her an elliptical ivory-minded ending, in an attempt to honour Conrad a little. Was it ridiculous to even try to bring her to life, since she’s less a person than a metaphor, or a symbol?
Let us say this. There were some women, living with some of those station captains in Leopold’s Congo. Some of them had been raped and some had been whipped and some had been bought and some probably, like the women who slept with Nazi commanders in Vichy France, saw an opportunity for a more comfortable life for themselves at least for the time. All of their stories are gone, every one. No one asked and no one saw and no one wrote them down. Conrad’s woman is the last trace of every single one of them.
There is no resurrection for the dead. We’ll never get them right. Whatever stories we tell about them will fall short of the crenellated complexity of real human life. Still, I think, we do have to try. If not just for their memory, then for ourselves. To shine light into the dark places. To try to imagine the unimaginable. To know that there is nowhere we are afraid to look.
Naomi Alderman is an award-winning novelist and games writer based in London. Her third novel, The Liars' Gospel, was published by Penguin in August 2012.