In Other Words Mis­tah Kurtz! A Pre­lude to Heart of Dark­ness by James Re­ich

by James Re­ich, Anti-Oedi­pus Press, 190 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - James Re­ich reads from “Mis­tah Kurtz! A Pre­lude to ‘Heart of Dark­ness’” at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226) at 6 p.m. on Mon­day, May 16.

Mis­tah Kurtz — he not dead. In this fic­tional alt-lit re­boot of Heart of Dark­ness, nov­el­ist James Re­ich re­con­structs the early life of one of world lit­er­a­ture’s most haunt­ing and enig­matic char­ac­ters.

In Joseph Con­rad’s orig­i­nal 19th-cen­tury novel, Kurtz is an em­bod­i­ment of Euro­peans gone to im­pe­ri­al­ist rot in the con­quest of Cen­tral Africa. He is the white man turned crazed tribal war­lord, whose suc­cess in the ra­pa­cious ivory trade has cor­rupted him com­pletely. But what re­mains so spell­bind­ing about Kurtz is less his desul­tory end in Africa than his elite be­gin­nings in Europe.

“All Europe con­trib­uted to the mak­ing of Kurtz,” en­thuses Con­rad, who de­scribes Kurtz’s many clas­si­cal tal­ents as a writer, painter, dancer, and as­pir­ing states­men, as well as his par­ents’ mixed English-French an­ces­try, to heighten the at­mos­phere of im­pe­rial dread. Af­ter all, Heart of Dark­ness is nar­rated by Mar­low, an English­man in Lon­don who is re­flect­ing back on his chaotic ad­ven­tures in the Congo, where he ven­tured up a wild river to meet the mys­te­ri­ous Mr. Kurtz.

In this pre­quel retelling by Re­ich — chair of the cre­ative writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture pro­gram at the Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign — Kurtz is newly ar­rived in Africa, wrestling with the con­stant threat of dis­ease, still blessed with a la­conic wit and a gift for el­e­gant turns of phrase to de­scribe the fetid ways of death in the African jun­gle. “Tinged where I was pale, bleached where I was rich, I have be­come some kind of pho­to­graphic nega­tive,” Re­ich writes, de­scrib­ing the “creep of gan­grene, or the las­si­tude of coma that have over­whelmed so many of what used to be my kind. The jun­gle is flecked with white corpses.”

In Con­rad’s orig­i­nal novel, Kurtz’s char­ac­ter is nearly in­scrutable — his de­vo­lu­tion into a deca­dent tribal lord is more the stuff of river lore than a re­al­ity ac­tu­ally en­coun­tered in the book. When he does ap­pear at the tail end of Heart of Dark­ness, mad­ness and ill­ness have al­ready en­veloped him; he has be­come his own sym­bol for the tor­pid de­cline of Euro­pean moral­ity in the African jun­gle. His am­bigu­ous legacy is con­tained in a hand­ful of Con­rad’s most evoca­tive pleas: “The hor­ror! The hor­ror!” and “Ex­ter­mi­nate all brutes!”

But the Kurtz on dis­play here is a few years younger, try­ing to make sense of the turns of life events that made him into an ivory trader. Un­like the elite fam­ily ori­gins sug­gested in Heart of Dark­ness, Re­ich has re­fash­ioned Kurtz as a self­made man who over­came a hard­scrab­ble up­bring­ing as the son of an English pros­ti­tute mother and a father with his own legacy of mas­cu­line violence. “My father had been a pro­fes­sional bareknuckle fighter be­fore I was con­ceived, and for a while af­ter I was born, a stut­ter­ing ca­reer, of sorts,” Re­ich writes, from Kurtz’s first-per­son view­point. “His en­gorged hands and rav­aged fea­tures were tes­ta­ment to the hard fists of Europe. From War­saw to the bear pits of Cologne, from the mead­ows of Flan­ders to the turf of Ep­som race­course, he had stuffed bet­ting money and prizes into his rope belt.”

Of­ten enough, Re­ich can de­liver lines that re­ver­ber­ate with Con­rad’s dry wit, his fas­ci­na­tion with place names, and his sug­ges­tive leaps of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight. Here is Kurtz again, re­flect­ing on a teenage stay in the Broad­moor asy­lum. “I thought then, in my sana­to­rium, how valu­able it is to live to the con­trary: that a man’s name be im­mea­sur­able, louche, un­con­tain­able, in­fi­nite even as his body turns to the com­mon dust,” Re­ich writes. “There is, per­haps, noth­ing more dif­fi­cult on this earth for a Charleville runt stuck in a Berk­shire asy­lum to con­ceive, but it came to me like an in­stinct to swim against the bad flow of all my blood and to live as man and ghost, aus­pice and omen, to di­vine my royal am­biva­lence.”

Like Heart of Dark­ness, Mis­tah Kurtz! is built around a min­i­mal plot that re­counts Kurtz’s ap­point­ment to his sta­tion in the Congo and maps his psy­cho­log­i­cal break­down into a mes­sianic war­lord. At the end of the book, Re­ich’s novel con­verges with Con­rad’s plot, as Kurtz, near­ing death, presents a packet of mys­te­ri­ous pa­pers on his mis­sion in Africa to Mar­lowe, the com­pany agent. Re­ich does fill in some blanks left by Con­rad — such as vis­cer­ally de­tailed ac­counts of ele­phant killings on tusk hunts — as well as adding some twists. The con­clu­sion of Re­ich’s novel hov­ers around the un­ex­plained death of a “half-caste” child, who may have been sired by Kurtz.

Writ­ing a pre­quel to a clas­sic can be more of a lit­er­ary stunt than an en­dur­ing work. It’s no stretch to as­sume that a new reader, opt­ing between the two nov­els, should lunge for Con­rad’s un­flinch­ing mas­ter­work of early mod­ernist style. But for those read­ers cap­ti­vated by the Pol­ish-Bri­tish nov­el­ist’s de­pic­tion of Western bru­tal­ity on dis­play in 19th-cen­tury Africa, this is an ad­mirable at­tempt to hu­man­ize a man who ap­pears in the orig­i­nal as less a hu­man be­ing, and more a metaphor for the ghastly racism coun­te­nanced un­der Europe’s im­pe­rial am­bi­tions in far-flung colo­nial out­posts. — Casey Sanchez

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