I often read books that I read about, and today the book I am reading about is called Blood River. It is by a man named Tim Butcher, who decides to travel (a few years ago) overland along the Congo river, retracing Stanley’s path.
This is a story that would, in most other contexts, be one of adventure and nature and Man vs Wild. For the Congo, though, all of these pale into comparison with the story of Man vs Man, this being the Heart of Darkness, the ‘broken heart of Africa’, in which, as recently as a decade and a half back, two wars were fought – the First and Second Great Wars of Africa – that together killed more people in the world than any war since World War 2. Traveling through the Congo, Tim Butcher encounters, not hippos and elephants and pygmies (though the Congo was famous for all of that), but rapacious warlords, corrupt minor officials, and gun-toting rebels. Everywhere he is in a state of terror, completely out of his depths, with nothing in his 20-year career as war journalist preparing him for the horrors of Congo.
I know the story of Congo – from Leopold’s days when his rubber company would cut off the hands of slave laborers who did not bring in enough rubber, to Laurent Kabila, whose assassination marked a turning point in the Second Great War. But the few excerpts of the book that I read disturbed me. It was not that Congo was ‘stuck in the past’ – Congo has degenerated, and while 50 years back it was linked by roads and railways and had a small but enthusiastic middle-class of teachers, lawyers and doctors, it is now a completely war-torn, aid-dependent country. The roads have been eaten by the bush, the trains have stopped running, and everyone – educated or not – fears for their lives.
I struggle to imagine the world that Butcher paints, and I realize that there is a streak of cruelty and sadism in Man that fear, threat and greed bring out. This is universal. Conrad spoke about it first in the Heart of Darkness. How can you make sense of a world, he asks, where human life has been so devalued that the only reality remaining is power? Conrad’s Kurtz understands that, and when he understands it, there is an epiphany of the soul in him, and he discovers in himself the Warlord in us all, power-crazy, absolutist and ultimately without vision beyond survival.
The Kurtz of Apocalypse Now is hardly different. Amongst a population of Vietnamese and Cambodians who have been so oppressed by the War, whose mere survival is a daily struggle, and who have nothing to cling on to that reminds them of their humanness, Kurtz discovers the only meaning that remains in such a life is the struggle for power.
And, most poignantly, the book that drives home this point so well for me is a book I read several years ago in a single sitting – Lord of the Flies. A group of British schoolboys, marooned on an island, deteriorate from civilization, into a semblance of it, into tribal instincts of hunting, killing, ritual and murder. Lord of the Flies is one of my favorite books – it makes me think. We organize ourselves into little social units, knit by bonds of laws and conventions, taking great comfort from seemingly inviolable social norms, not realizing that the only reason that society works, that civilization works, is because there is enough of an abundance of resources to guarantee our survival. Take that away and I suspect we will see the world for what it really is: a world of hunger, power, sickness, death, superstition and misery, where there is no struggle more sacred than the struggle for survival.
…And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid.
– Sufjan Stevens