The Rescue, by Joseph Conrad

Conrad must have taken Chinua Achebe’s criticisms to heart when he came to write The Rescue, for he seems to have curbed the “xenophobia” and “thorough-going racism” which first endeared us to Heart of Darkness. – Well some of his characters have, at least; others, curiously have not, presumably because Conrad was, by this point in his life, mad or confused (like Dennis Hopper in Paris Trout, or the dog in White Dog).

The hero of The Rescue is a man called Lingard, who has turned his back on his own people and become embroiled in the affairs of the local Malays, their internecine conflicts and their continued fight for independence against the colonial power. These Malays are represented by two characters, Hassim and Immada, who possess every virtue; while it is the white man, the representative of the colonial European – an Englishman, no less – Mr Travers, who shows all the vices. Mr Travers is, in fact, the architypal member of the colonial ruling class as we’re accustomed to seeing painted by Kipling: he blunders into things, not knowing what he is doing, is contemptuous of and has no interest in other cultures, and fundamentally believes he is superior to everyone around him.

Lingard has, in the end, to make a choice between the two: between returning to his own kind, or continuing to deny his roots. (OK, it’s a bit more complex than that: there’s a question of love involved too, and some people are going to die on one side or another dependent on his decision).

In Heart of Darkness, as Achebe points out, the Africans just babble incomprehensibly, because Conrad – being a racist – denies them language. In The Rescue, on the other hand, careful to avoid offence, Conrad has the Malays conversing perfectly normally and sensibly with Lingard (he’s apparently been living there a long time and has “learnt their language”), whereas to the other Europeans (who’ve only just arrived and haven’t yet learnt – or don’t seem bothered to learn – their language) what they say appears to be merely a babble. Conrad is clearly here struggling to reject his own racist past, constantly switching back, when he can’t help himself, to his instinctive view.

Now, I shall make a hypothesis on how an aspect of Conrad’s life influenced his work: Conrad himself, having had his mother and father murdered by a colonial power they were fighting against, lived as an exile within a land of otherness (England) with whose people he sympathised and whom he tried to help by his works.

[Hmm, this wasn’t entirely the review I was going to write before reading that Achebe essay. Of course, Achebe might maintain it was only Africans towards which Conrad was racist (sc. saw as primitive), whereas Malays he didn’t. (He does seem to be saying this). Perhaps. After all, Conrad was a much-travelled man and had seen many civilisations. Perhaps, if he’d gone to Papua New Guinea or taken a trip down the Amazon, he might have felt the same about the people there. Or perhaps, like Kipling, the views expressed are merely the “accepted” views, the views of a character (Achebe mentions this, and dismisses it – claiming there’s nothing in the text which denotes they are not Conrad’s views as well) – I don’t know, I’ve not read the book in fifteen years. Or perhaps the Africans are indeed, like the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, merely expressions of “otherness”, useful for his artistic purpose.]


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