The Rings of Saturn

2009-04-28, , , Comments

Roi des Belges, the ship Conrad used to travel up the Congo

On board The Nellie waiting for the turn of the tide, Marlow entertains his companions with the tale of a mission he undertook as an employee of a Belgian trading company, traveling up the Congo river. This entertainment, the framed story in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, quickly becomes very dark indeed, as Marlow presses on through disease, destruction and death, increasingly preoccupied with tracing the elusive Mr Kurtz, until eventually, when it seems he can go no further, he comes to a clearing. Looking through his glasses he sees the slope of a hill on which stands a house. There was no enclosure or fence of any kind, says Marlow, but there had been one apparently, for near the house half-a-dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls. The occupant of this house, a harlequin figure, a jester at the court of King Kurtz if you like, also appears in Terry Jones’ fluidinfo blog, and it was this blog article which sent me back to Conrad, his character Marlow, and his terrible journey.

The unnamed harlequin figure Marlow encounters seems unaffected by the madness around him and Terry Jones finds similarities between his attitude and that of an entrepreneur, quoting Marlow … The glamour of youth enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months — for years — his life hadn’t been worth a day’s purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity … words I found interesting in the context of the fluidinfo blog, which I have followed since hearing Terry Jones speak at PyCon UK a couple of years ago.

fluidinfo logo

Terry Jones is obsessed with connections and with organising the internet — an investigation which begins with the realisation that organising is the wrong word. Library style portals pioneered in the early days of the web by the likes of alta vista and yahoo! — these facades have crumbled, broken up by their brittle hierarchies and the inefficiency of dictionary search. In their place an army of robots follows links and crunches data, maintaining google’s ever growing index. Yet even this empire will fall. Already the cracks begin to show: google urges us to organise, to use canonical resource locators,; instead, we reduce and redirect. Quotation and association lie at the heart of the web and better tools are being invented for labelling, sharing and shaping the flow of information. At the conference these were the ideas which Terry Jones conveyed to me and others in that enclosed room in the basement of the Birmingham Conservatoire, ideas which seemed novel at the time, yet which now seem to have gathered momentum. I hope his company, Fluidinfo can exploit his vision.

It came as something of a shock, though, to see the connection between Terry Jones and Joseph Conrad. How can Marlow’s harlequin remain unscathed by his circumstances? Because he is young and a fool. Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowksi, the Polish-born seaman, who would later become Joseph Conrad the great English writer — Korzeniowksi experienced first hand the full horror of the entrepreneurialism which led to gross exploitation of the Congo; and by coincidence, when I read Terry Jones’ blog post, I had just finished re-reading WG Sebald’s masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn, a book which touches on the life of Korzeniowksi amongst many other things. Like Marlow’s story, WG Sebald’s book centres on a voyage, in this case one undertaken by the author on foot through Suffolk in 1992, a date close to the birth of the web. Like the modern day blogger, Sebald quotes, pastes in images, connects. Unlike most bloggers, Sebald has the genius to assemble these parts into something beautiful and profound.

Sebald had hoped his walk would dispel the emptiness which takes hold of him whenever he has completed a long stint of work, but, walking for hours on end through the countryside, he finds himself preoccupied with the traces of destruction, reaching far into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. He finds Suffolk to be thinly-populated and declining fast. The North Sea has been over-fished and eats into the coastline. Blighted towns suffer from poverty, unemployment and neglect, while once great houses decay, their gardens becoming overgrown, their owners becoming eccentric, then mad.

Today there is no trace of it

Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowksi, Sebald writes, became an employee of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo, an organisation whose legendary profits were built on a system of slave labour which was sanctioned by the shareholders and all the Europeans contracted to work in the new colony. On reaching Matadi, a desolate settlement (as Marlow later describes in Heart of Darkness), Korzeniowksi comes on a place where those who were racked by illness, starvation and toil had withdrawn to die. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees, says Marlow. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly.

Korzeniowksi fell ill and would continue no further, though it would be some months before his return to Europe, and from then on protracted bouts of despair would alternate with his writing; but Marlow continues up-river, finally arriving at the clearing described at the start of this article, where he meets the young man whose spirit, to Terry Jones, has so much in common with entrepreneurialism … I saw my mistake, says Marlow. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing — food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen — and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids — a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

When I grow up I'm going to be...

You’ll find The Rings of Saturn filed under fiction but in fact it’s a circular journey which combines autobiography, biography, and history into a strange and moving whole. It is a book which defies categorisation but that won’t stop me from tagging it: compelling, profound, recommended.