Joseph Conrad was a Pole who wrote in English. His novels have a tendency to stray into masculine stereotypes, similar to Hemingway, but with a subtlety that provide literary merit. Heart of Darkness (1902) is his most popular and enduring work, perhaps made most famous by Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now. It concerns the steamship journey of a man named Marlow up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, a fellow employee of the same Company who appears to have “gone native.” The journey into the heart of Africa is a descent away from civilization for Marlow, so that in the end it is difficult to detect lingering traces of “civilization” in either Marlow or Kurtz.
Chinua Achebe, in contrast, is a native of Nigeria. Things Fall Apart traces the downfall of a proud African man, Okonkwo, whose world is destroyed when Europeans “colonize” his village. Okonkwo is man of high standing in his village, famous far beyond his home for a legendary feat of wrestling. He is a man to be feared, but his actions displease the gods, drive him from his home, and leave him powerless against the whites.
Kurtz and Okonkwo have many characteristics in common. The manager of the African station where Marlow first disembarks describes Kurtz: “He is a prodigy…. He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else” . He is one, probably in Conrad’s eye, the type of person called “a man’s man.” Kurtz is charismatic, with the type of natural leadership that other men instinctively recognize. As Marlow journeys up the river in search of Kurtz, he comes to know the man more and more. Kurtz, at first, is little more than a mystery, a word to be whispered more than a name to be spoken aloud.