Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Joseph Conrad’s colonial fable Heart of Darkness has infected TS Eliot, been excoriated for racism by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and transplanted to Vietnam by Francis Ford Coppola is now out the form of a graphic novel.

Artist Catherine Anyango reveals how richly-detailed drawings reflect the dense style of Joseph Conrad’s savage colonial story.

Now the book has been reinterpreted as a graphic novel in whose monochrome pages Conrad’s exploration of power, greed and madness plays out as disturbingly as ever.

Catherine Anyango, whose drawings are peppered with David Zane Mairowitz’s adaptation of the text, had her doubts about tackling the Polish-born novelist’s most famous work.

Those reservations had more to do with the original medium than the enduring controversy over Conrad’s views or the familiarity of Heart of Darkness.

“I wasn’t sure initially if it was a good subject for a graphic novel as the writing is so dense and the style of it is partly what attracts me to the book,” she said.

“As I knew we couldn’t keep most of the text in, I tried to make the drawings very rich in detail and texture so that immersing feeling you get, especially when he describes the river and the jungle, was carried across.”

Anyango was determined not to allow the horror of the book’s subject matter to overwhelm her drawings. “I wanted to draw the reader in with seductive imagery, and then show them that even in the most beautiful of settings, terrible things can happen.”

There was also Coppola’s 1979 epic to contend with.

“I was too terrified to watch Apocalypse Now,” the Kenyan-Swedish artist said. “Partly because I didn’t want to end up with any similar visuals and also I had been warned that something nasty happens to a cow … Apocalypse Now is huge and well, apocalyptic, but Heart of Darkness is a much quieter story.” (Ahem!)

Anyango, who grew up in Kenya where she went to a British school, wanted to steer a course that was as true as possible to the original so that her version did not sink under the weight of too much intellectual baggage.

“When I was dealing with the book, I was focused solely on the particular events of the Congo, rather than colonialism in general,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to tell the history of colonialism either, but to situate this particular narrative in a way that people might ask: what on earth was the attitude of that time that these things could happen?”

To reinforce the geographical and historical immediacy of Conrad’s tale, the graphic novel is interspersed with excerpts from The Congo Diary – the journal Conrad kept of his 1890 voyage up the river.

Anyango’s research also led her to the story of a man from a village in the Upper Congo called Nsala. She came across a photograph of him sat on a step contemplating the hand and foot of his daughter, which had been cut off by guards sent to his village by the Anglo Belgian India Rubber Company. The men, ordered to attack Nsala’s village for failing to provide the company with enough rubber, devoured his wife and daughter, leaving only the child’s hand and foot.

“I put him on one page, and similar portraits on others, so the Congolese characters have resonance at least for me, even if they remain stereotyped because of the existing narrative,” she said.

In her efforts to ensure the authenticity of the uniforms she drew — the protagonist, Marlow, is given a cap with a prominent Belgian lion badge — Anyango was shocked to discover how markedly Belgian perceptions of the occupation of Congo still vary.

For some, it is a shameful episode in the country’s history, while others still view it as a benign experience despite the evidence uncovered by recent histories such as Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, which laid bare the barbarism inflicted on Congo.

The artist found that Belgium’s colonial deeds “seem to have vanished into history, with the [country’s] education system not dwelling on anything but positive aspects of the colonial rule”.

That may not be not wholly surprising: at her school in Nairobi, Anyango did not learn about Britain’s colonies.

It is this creeping colonial amnesia — not to mention a catalogue of recent and current events — which, she argues, give Heart of Darkness both its relevance and its universality.

“It’s about the idea of entitlement; how through the ages we enforce our feelings of entitlement in whatever way that age will allow — from Leopold II owning the Congo as a private possession to the corporations involved with blood diamonds. The effects of entitlement have not so much gone out of fashion as out of sight.”

Dr Keith Carabine, who teaches literature at the University of Kent and chairs the Joseph Conrad Society, agrees that Kurtz, the ivory trader whose misplaced idealism has putrefied into savagery and madness, has become an archetypal figure.

“Heart of Darkness is the most important book in the last 100-plus years not because it’s the best, but because it anticipated how 20th century leaders with visions of bringing light and creating new models for humans beings – Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot, Mao – all ended up,” he said. “When disappointed by the response of the very groups they wanted to save or help or transform, they, like Kurtz, wish to (and actually do, of course) ‘exterminate all the brutes!'”

Of the Edwardian novella’s continuing relevance, Carabine is unequivocal. “If Bush and Cheney and the neocons had read Heart of Darkness and understood it, they would not have invaded Iraq under the absurd utopian illusion that the Iraqis were gagging for democracy.”

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness published as a graphic novel David Zane Mairowitz (Author), Catherine Anyango (Illustrator)

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! is probably Faulkner’s greatest and most difficult novel covering the rise and fall of the Sutpen dynasty and a great allegory of the rise and fall of the Old South.

The book told through three interconnected narratives tells the life story of Thomas Sutpen. The story simultaneously covers the rise of the Old South. The narratives are not straight forward and present a constant disturbing challenge to the reader (Dyslexics beware!). But if the one does not close the book in despair the rewards are great indeed.

The mood of the storytelling alone is worth the price of admission here. The long flowing sentences are marvels and testaments to Faulker’s skill as a writer. The narrative drive makes reading the book almost like reading an epic Greek tragedy. We get multidimensional views of Sutpens life from several townspeople and also across generations.

Complete this and you would have certainly accomplished something. You don’t so much read this novel as you become lost in it. Jump in get your feet wet and prepare for some of the most intense Southern gothic that you are ever likely to read.

First time readers of Faulkner would probably want to test the water by dipping your toes into As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury first.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Anthony Burgess a Clock work orange

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a engaging, disturbing, and thought provoking book that was first published in 1962. This is a powerful piece of literature today as it was back then.

A Clockwork Orange satirizes extreme political systems that are based on opposing models of the perfectibility or incorrigibility of humanity. Written in a futuristic vocabulary invented by Burgess, in part by adaptation of Russian words, it was his most original and best-known work.

Set in a dismal dystopia, it is the first-person narrative of Alex, the protagonist, who has a passion for classical music and is a member of a vicious teenage gang that commits random acts of brutality. Alex is almost innocently committing violent crimes with his friends for he is not trying to be bad, he just is. He likes violence, and that’s the way he is.

Alex’s gang has a mutiny and sets a stage for him to be arrested by the police, Alex is sentenced to 14 years in prison. But then the opportunity to change presents itself to Alex – in the form of state-sponsored psychological rehabilitation for his aberrant behavior involving mind altering visual therapy with audio background of his favorite Beethoven (EGAD!) and he can’t help but take the offer. How could it be?

Alex is transformed through the behavioral conditioning into a model citizen, but his taming also leaves him defenseless and incapable of listening to classical music or performing acts of violence…

A Clock work orange first came out in the 60s, and the American version lacked the last and 21st chapter from the original story. When it was republished, the book had the 21st chapter. With the last chapter or without it, the book will have an entirely different feel to it. The old copy represents the horrible realization that bad minds are always bad and then the newer version (improved American edition?) leaves the reader with hope.

Hope for Alex, and hope for oneself. Change is possible, the book says, no matter what sort of person you are.

Is being good truly good if it is not by choice? Is it good to be bad, if that is what one chooses?

A Clockwork Orange is truly a great work, one that will appeal to people for different reasons and affect them in completely different ways. But it will affect them. A must read for any thinking mind.

Anthony Burgess a Clock work orange

The potrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce

A good place to start with Joyce. His works are about as challenging as they come in the literary world. Keep “Ulysses” or “Finnegan’s Wake” once you are done with the potrait. Not that it is easy to get along with though it will be very rewarding to the persistent ones. “Portrait” is certainly not a light read. Joyce’s meandering narrative and curvatious prose can be confusing. One could quite possibly find one self reading a sentence about five times in order to figure out what one has has just read.

All its wordy content aside, “Portrait” is an essential read because the story of Stephen Dedalus carries so much resonance. One can relate pretty easily to his search for answers. Stephen faces existential questions that should ring true for any young person coming from any culture at any time.

He tries to find satisfaction by giving in to his lust, and when that doesn’t suffice he jumps to another dimension in seeking fulfillment through religious devotion. In the end, however, neither of these extremes provides answers he’s looking for. Stephen’s story demonstrates one unfortunate fact of life: when you’re on the quest for the meaning of it all – there are no easy answers.

Ultimately, as Stephen tells his friend Cranly, he decides that his solution is to “express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can,” even if it means making mistakes or being spurned by society. In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce sketches some important brain fodder that have since become prominent in literature, notably noncomformity, self-expression, coming of age, and the nature of religious belief.

“Portrait” was written with plenty of intelligence and tonnes of soul, no surprises as to why it’s still read after all these years.

The potrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce

Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman

Here lies a biography that Syd deserves. Insightful, intelligent and sensitive.

A must read for Syd fans – the author Rob Chapman dealing with the mysteries of perhaps pop’s greatest enigma. Starting with Syd’s childhood in Cambridge to the pinnacle of success in Pink Floyd and his downward spiral into obscurity. The book does examine the possibilities that Syd had schizophrenia…. it is well established that Syd was a sound synesthete (hears colours) and that fed directly into his music.

The book title ‘A very irregular head’ is spot on and how Syd referred to himself in his last ever interview with Rolling Stone in 1971.

A must have for music fans.

Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head By Rob Chapman