In Other Words Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness by James Reich
by James Reich, Anti-Oedipus Press, 190 pages
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