Friday, June 06, 2008

Hearts of Darkness

Two works of non-fiction I've read this week were both in a sense journeys into the heart of darkness.

I picked up a copy of William Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness at the Big Bookshop sale. It's a very slim volume, just 84 pages long, which started life as a lecture given at a symposium sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. It was later developed into a piece for Vanity Fair before being published as a book.

Styron was hit by serious depression at the age of 60, and describes most evocatively his own struggle with the life-threatening illness from first symptoms, through his treatment, his brush with suicide, hospitalisation to eventual cure. Along the way he includes the stories of friends and others so afflicted - many of them also writers.

It's the honesty of the book that makes it so compelling. It was one of the first "insider" accounts of depression, and captures extremely well just what it feels like. (You have to have been there to know.) I agree with him that the word "depression" is totally inadequate, sounding more like a mild case of the blues rather than something that fills your soul with dread and despair.

The second book involved a physical journey into the part of the world that Conrad described in his novel Heart of Darkness - the Congo. Tim Butcher, a journalist for The Daily Telegraph decides to recreate H.M. Stanley's famous expedition in the 1870's. (Stanley had been also sponsored by the same newspaper!) He was also curious to see the country that his mother had visited in the 1950's as a tourist. He was told that by just about everyone he contacted that the journey was impossible, but against the odds he manages to enlist the help of aid workers (including a pygmy human rights activist and the Malaysian commander of a vessel working for the UN) and others. Each stage of the journey is uncertain, and he's constantly in danger of his life and in great discomfort. But he does manage in the end to find the transport he needs (motorcycles, dugouts, a UN barge) and the journey continues. It's impossible not to salute his courage.

Blood River : A Journey into Africa's Broken Heart is a fascinating account, not just because it takes us into a part of the world we wouldn't normally venture into and lets us share the journey (from our comfy armchairs!), but also for the historical perspectives which are woven into the narrative.

In the space of half a century, Congo has gone completely backwards - it is not "a developing country", or an "underdeveloped country", so much as an "un-developing country", going backwards so fast that almost nothing remains of the infrastructure left under Belgian rule due to the greed and incompetence of its leaders. It's a terrifying portrait of how quickly things can unravel. You also come to realise that putting things right isn't a matter of throwing financial aid at the problems, but in establishing the rule of law.

It's impossible not to really pity the ordinary people of this failed country, but that there is such potential for economic growth (minerals, fertile land) turns this missed opportunity into a tragedy.

As you would expect, there's plenty of coverage of the book on The Telegraph website, including photos and extracts.

The book was chosen as one of the reads for the Richard and Judy bookclub and of course made the shortlist for this year's Samuel Johnson Prize.

Many thanks to Kavita of Pansing for passing me this copy.

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