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Heartfelt horrors: Africa, racial difference and the quest for moral enlightenment in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart.

At first glance, South African journalist Rian Malan's hugely successful 1990 book of memoir/literary journalism, My Traitor's Heart, would seem to have little more in common with Heart of Darkness than the presence of the word "heart" in its title. My Traitor's Heart is a clear, factual, and accessible work, an investigation of seven political murders that took place in South Africa during the 1980s, which explicitly takes issue with liberal conventional wisdom about apartheid. Heart of Darkness, by contrast, is a work of fiction; while it certainly offers insights and commentary on Belgian imperialism, these perceptions are so painstakingly "qualified ... with provisionality" (Said 27), so filtered through multiple narrators (Brantlinger 278), and so highly ambiguous in metaphor and style (Brantlinger 286) that they have allowed for more than a quarter-century of scholarly debate merely on Chinua Achebe's famous claim that Conrad was a "racist" (Achebe 257).

There are other, perhaps more important, factors which caution against the drawing of easy parallels between the works. First, Heart of Darkness is in many ways the quintessential narrative of Africa written by an outsider: both Conrad and Marlow know nothing of the Congo beyond what they have read in newspapers and books, and both return to Europe immediately after their river journeys. My Traitor's Heart, by contrast, is the story of an exile's homecoming: Rian Malan, a draft dodger who has been living in Los Angeles and writing music reviews for alternative newspapers, heads back to South Africa to write his book.

Second, although Malan is clearly aware of Heart of Darkness, it is far from clear that Heart of Darkness is even a conscious influence on his book, let alone a structuring presence as it is, to use two very different examples, in Naipaul's A Bend in the River or Salih's Season of Migration to the North. It is true that the penultimate chapter of My Traitor's Heart receives an epigraph from Conrad's novella, (1) but this is the only one in a book laden with more than a dozen. For most of the book's 425 pages, Heart of Darkness seems, on first reading, only tangentially relevant to the politically detailed stories of ideological conflict in townships and racist hate crimes. And at moments, such as at the end of the memoir when the saintly agricultural development worker Neil Alcock is posthumously deified by the Mhlangaan clan, Malan seems determined to resist any possible parallels: he states that "Neil Alcock had become a god--the first white god in Africa, as far as anyone knows" (425), without any mention of the Kurtz myth.

However, on closer inspection, the similarities between the works become clear. To begin with, Malan's journey, superficially so different from Marlow's, is actually quite comparable when one takes into account the fact that My Traitor's Heart inverts conventional representations of familiarity and foreignness, and it is South Africa, and in particular black South Africa, that is realized in the memoir as an "other" landscape: horrific, incomprehensible, and otherworldly, like Marlow's Congo. Both works take their narrator-protagonists on journeys into places of "deep darkness" (Malan 409)--darkness that raises profound existential questions about the protagonists' values and identity. Finally, both Heart of Darkness and My Traitor's Heart climax with the discovery of white people who have chosen to live in "wild places" on terms that involve a close engagement with African culture, who die at least partly as a result of what Douglas Kerr calls the white man's "going wrong" (18), and who offer the protagonists powerful moral insights as a result of their experiences. Where Heart of Darkness and My Traitor's Heart do profoundly differ--and where Malan is apparently rewriting the Heart of Darkness story to fit his own beliefs and preoccupations-is in the nature of these moral insights. Heart of Darkness's vision is profoundly nihilistic, pessimistic and, I would argue, ultimately subversive of racial categorizations, while My Traitor's Heart offers love as a way to bridge essentialized cultural differences.


My Traitor's Heart, like Heart of Darkness, is divided into three sections. In terms of the governing quest myth or narrative in both books, (2) section one in both cases deals, roughly, with the prelude to the journey of discovery; section two deals with the voyage itself; and section three deals with the encounter with or investigation of the white man who has "gone native," and with the conclusions the narrator draws from this experience.

Book I of My Traitor's Heart opens with a chapter of family history of the Malan clan, telling how Malan's ancestor, Jacques, came to South Africa in the seventeenth century and proceeded to found a dynasty of wine farmers who would later become pioneers, lawyers, and politicians. At first glance, this chapter is both an unnecessary prelude to the quest narrative and a departure from the Heart of Darkness story: in Heart of Darkness, we know nothing of Marlow's family background and little of his childhood. However, the chapter quickly focuses on one of Malan's ancestors, Dawid, an eighteenth-century wine farmer who fled into the wilderness of present-day Namibia to be with his black mistress, and then returned years later to lead a proslavery rebellion in the Eastern Cape. For Malan, this story is a "myth made flesh" (16):
   The man who abandoned his birthright for the love of a black
   woman had become what would one day be called a white
   supremacist.... Indeed, the prosecutor singled Malan out as a
   man "of the most dangerous sort"--one of those "who have been
   the greatest part of their lives among savages, and are men of the
   most depraved morals." (26)

This myth is, of course, a familiar one to readers of Heart of Darkness: the white man who starts off "racially enlightened" (Malan 21), "disappear[s] into Africa," acquires a black mistress, and then appears to be "transformed, as all white men who went there were transformed" (21) into someone "morally depraved" and viciously racist. (3) Malan's opening chapter thus provides an early signal of what will be the major argumentative and narrative trajectory of his memoir: a rereading and updating of the Kurtz myth to explain the South African political situation. Throughout My Traitor's Heart, Malan will keep referring to the Dawid Malan myth by way of illuminating white South Africans' impulse--which, he acknowledges with winning frankness, is also his own--"to put the black man down" (29).

The next chapter is a long one summarizing the author's adolescence and childhood, with particular attention to his experiences of black people. As Malan tells it, his early life was spent in "generic white suburbs where almost everyone subscribed to Life and Reader's Digest, and to the generic Western verities they upheld" (62). The only exotic or disruptive presence in this world was that of the black Africans in the backyards of the suburban homes who "put their beds on stacks of bricks ... to thwart a ground-hugging, night-prowling gremlin called the tokoloshe," donned Crusader robes with white sashes and shepherd's crooks, and "danced in circles around fires" (43). Malan tells us that these were all "signs of Africa, but almost all of us were blind to them" (43).

Much as the boy Marlow in Heart of Darkness "had a passion for maps" (11) because they were "blank spaces," mysterious and therefore "inviting," Malan is fascinated by these human beings whose lives and thoughts are obscure, and who are reduced to their exteriority, their most visible cultural differences. He makes a number of attempts at entering this mysterious territory, such as befriending servants and workers, painting black liberation graffiti on a roadside embankment, and singing in a blues band. However, these initial attempts are false and ridiculous, standing in relation to Malan's later, more substantial explorations of black South African culture much as the Eldorado Exploring Expedition in Heart of Darkness, who lacked an "atom of ... serious intention" (44), stands in relation to Marlow's more penetrating upriver journey. The proof, for Malan, of the superficiality of these initial attempts to bridge the racial divide is his horrified reaction when he loses his virginity with a black woman: "I was overpowered by the smell of her ... and terrified, utterly terrified" (60) of her blackness.

Malan could, he tells us, have stayed "in the white suburbs, cosseting my illusions ... like the other white liberals" (83). In mytho-narrative terms, this is what Joseph Campbell calls staying "within the pale of [one]'s society" (58) and in the "world of common day" (30)--the region inhabited, for instance, by the listening sailors in Heart of Darkness, who until they hear Marlow's tale are ignorant, ordinary men "each moored with two good addresses.., a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another" (68). Malan's "call to adventure" (Campbell 30) out of this realm of the mundane and the everyday--the equivalent of the moment in Heart of Darkness when Marlow spots the map in the shop window and sets out on his journey--occurs when he gets a job as a crime reporter for the Johannesburg Star. This was, Malan tells us, a job that "put me in contact with people most white liberals never met, and took me to places they never saw" (83).

As a crime reporter, Malan is less disturbed by the ordinary acts of violence and robbery he is forced to investigate and write about--crimes which he is able to make sense of by viewing them as "little parables of Marxism in action, skirmishes in the great class war" (83)--than he is by a "second category" of crimes for which he has "no theory at all" (83). These "inexplicable" crimes, which mostly take place in the black ghetto of Soweto, southwest of the city, include the killings and dismemberment of black people in order to obtain organs for use in traditional African medicine, and a horrifyingly violent vigilante killing of a boy accused of stealing a car battery. Malan is unsatisfied with the standard liberal explanations for such offenses, which focused on the frustrations and despair induced by apartheid, and wonders if his growing apprehension about Soweto isn't a response to a danger more elemental.
   In my imagination, Soweto came to resemble Europe in the Dark
   Ages, a place where humble people barricaded their doors at
   darkness and trembled through the night while werewolves
   howled outside. It was not an entirely fanciful vision. (87)

The comparison of Soweto to Europe during the Dark Ages recalls, of course, the evolutionary language of Heart of Darkness, where the trip up the river was like "traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world" (48). The description of howling werewolves also recalls both the "outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking" that Marlow hears in the jungle mist (61) and Malan's description of the "howling wilderness, full of wild beasts and hostile savages" (20) into which his ancestor fled in the eighteenth century. As Frances B. Singh has written, in Heart of Darkness "Marlow implies that his voyage is a voyage through the dark backward and abysm of time ... into ... the utterly savage state of being that existed before civilization tamed the unconscious" (270). However, like Marlow's "glimpse into psychic uproar" (McClintock 51), Malan's view of Soweto seems "much less an attribute of any approximate African culture than a projection onto the African of ... a feature of the colonial mind" (McClintock 51)--for example, when Malan drives past Soweto men walking home from the railway station, his own self-consciousness and fear prompt him to imagine without any evidence that they have hostile intent towards him, that they recognize him as white, and to "thank God [he] was inside the steel exoskeleton of a fast car" (88).

Where previously he felt calm and self-satisfied in his anti-apartheid stance, Malan now begins to "yaw" from the contradictions of being a white liberal and a crime reporter. In mythic terms, this "yawing" corresponds to what Campbell calls "the road of trials" where the hero's ego is put to the severest of tests and all previous certainties are disrupted. According to Campbell, the challenge for the hero on the road of trials is to "put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable" (108). For Malan, the intolerable rears its head in the Soweto riots, when a progressive white doctor who had dedicated himself to serving black South Africans is stomped to death. Terrified of blacks' "indiscriminate rage and nihilism," believing that it is "just a matter of time" before he is killed too, Malan decides to flee into exile in the United States, where he will end up living for eight years, rather than face this "charnel house" (87) of horrors.

Malan's flight is obviously a structural departure from the Heart of Darkness narrative: as if Marlow, on his trip to the heart of darkness, had initially taken fright at the howls in the wilderness and retreated, before scraping up the courage to head back into the jungle. However, in the larger narrative trajectory of My Traitor's Heart, it is little more than a detour--a fact reinforced by Malan's decision to spend only a brief ten pages describing his years in exile. Malan's characterization of his years in the USA can perhaps best be summarized by Joseph Campbell's observation that when the hero refuses the "call to adventure" his "world becomes a wasteland of dry stones" (59). It is interesting to note that the terms in which Malan contrasts his life in South Africa and the one he enjoys in the United States mirror Marlow's description of the difference between life in Brussels and life in the Congo. In America, Malan tells us, "[M]y soul was desiccated. There was nothing to do but get drunk, get laid, and make money, and no hope that there would ever be more to it than that" (96). Compare this to Marlow's view of Brussels: "I found myself ... resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery ... to dream their insignificant and silly dreams" (102).

Unsurprisingly, Malan is discontented with this life and feels incomplete, just as Marlow's story would have been incomplete had he never reached Kurtz and "the culminating point of [his] experience" (11). To get back to South Africa, Malan sends off a proposal to a New York publisher to do a nonfiction book on South African political murders. This is, for him, a way of returning to the horrifying mysteries he began to confront during his days as a reporter. The language Malan uses to describe this project explicitly recalls the central metaphor of Heart of Darkness: he tells us that the questions his reporter's job put him in a position to ask were the "the questions that cut to the very darkest heart of the matter" (Malan 102-03; my emphasis). In the midst of the great anti-apartheid uprising of the mid-1980s, Malan climbs on a plane and flies to Cape Town, determined to "seek a resolution of the paradox of my South African life in tales of the way we killed one another" (103)--a resolution that will both mirror the ending of Heart of Darkness, and depart from it.


Much as Heart of Darkness initially focuses on colonialist violence, and then penetrates "deeper" into a moral darkness that is apparently more universal, Malan's investigation in his second section of seven political murders that took place in South Africa during the 1980s also begins with two classic "white racist" violations before proceeding to incidents that seem to have a more metaphysical resonance.

The first of the white "hate crimes" discussed by Malan is the killing of Dennis Mosheshwe, the common-law husband of Paulina Msimang, a domestic worker on a small plot north of Johannesburg. When Mosheshwe beats his wife one Sunday for perceived infidelity, she runs for help to her white employer, who is having a barbecue with a neighbor, Augie de Koker. After Dennis Mosheshwe calls Paulina's employer a "fucking Boer" (130), the whites decide to teach Dennis Mosheshwe a lesson in racial humility, and they abduct him, beat him to within an inch of his life, and then continue their barbecue as he dies. At the later murder trial, the presiding judge finds that Mosheshwe has "'provoked' his own torture-murder" (137), and he gives Mosheshwe's killers remarkably light sentences.

Malan does nothing to ameliorate the shock impact of this story, and in his narration of it he plays up the horror and callousness of white South African culture. "Look carefully, for it is a uniquely South African image ... All these strong, suntanned white people are standing around a fire, stuffing meat into their mouths with their hands while a hog-tied black man squints at the sun through blood and moans for water in the background" (134). (4) What disturbs him as much as the violence itself is the equanimity with which white culture accepts it: "Dennis Mosheshwe died ... [of] a brutal beating of the sort whites have been administering to blacks since the day we set foot on this continent" (138).

The image of black people suffering meaningless violence while white people continue as if nothing untoward is going on is emblematic of Marlow's experiences in the first section of Heart of Darkness, the part that Conrad implicitly acknowledged as being "anti-imperialist" when he wrote to his left-wing friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham after the publication of Heart of Darkness's first installment, "So far the note struck chimes with your convictions--mais apres? There is an apres" (116). As numerous critics have noted, Marlow is a forthright critic of the callousness, waste, brutality, and absurdity of Belgian imperialism; (5) especially notable throughout Heart of Darkness is the harsh irony with which he renders images of European imperialism such as the French man-of-war that fires "incomprehensible ... into a continent" (20) and the chain-gang "criminals" that are victims of an "outraged law" that came to them "an insoluble mystery from the sea" (22). Marlow's sarcastic tone when he talks about the "high and just proceedings" (22) of the chain gang is very close to Malan's when he paraphrases the judge's racist reasoning in the Mosheshwe case. And the moans of the tortured African that so disturb Marlow at the Inner Station (37) are strikingly reminiscent of Mosheshwe's moans for water at de Koker's barbecue.

Malan's next case also illustrates systemic colonial injustice and has a mundane, familiar quality for readers familiar with the civil war that erupted on South Africa's township streets during the 1980s. A young black boy, Moses Mope, and his friends are on their way together to church choir practice when they are stopped by white police officers and accused of being anti-apartheid comrades. Terrified, they run away; all escape except Moses, who is beaten and then trampled to death in an alleyway by a drunken white policeman. A police constable is charged with the murder, but gets off because of inconsistencies in the state's case.

As with the previous murder, Moses Mope's death does not seem to strike Malan as in the least bit "inexplicable"; rather, it depresses and outrages him as an example of the cost of white supremacy. In this respect it is comparable to the crimes committed by the white settlers (excluding Kurtz) in the Congo, who seem less satanic or seduced by the wilderness than in the throes of "a rapacious and pitiless folly" (HOD 23) which destroys the people and environment of the Congo. Self-consciously allowing Mope's death to stand for a whole category of racial killing during the State of Emergency, Malan writes that "[t]he choirboy stands here to represent the untold slaughtered innocents ... the black babies choked on teargas, toddlers crushed by armored cars, little boys shot on the way to the shops ..." (151). Although one suspects that many radical South African critics would, like Achebe in discussing Conrad's antiimperialism, dismiss Malan's liberal outrage here as "bleeding heart sentiments" (Achebe 256), his anger does seem sincere, and much as in Heart of Darkness it is important to bear in mind Marlow's apparently enlightened statements along with his prejudiced ones (Hawkins 168), Malan's comments here lend political and moral credibility to his account.

At the end of the Mope chapter, Malan, by way of transition, poses a political question that will be crucial to the rest of his memoir. "With the killers of Moses Mope and Dennis Mosheshwe on one side," he asks himself, "how could anyone but a monster not be on the other?" (152). What follows is a story that, like that of Dawid Malan's flight into the wilderness, both digresses from the central narrative of the book and sheds important light on it.

One of the major differences that Malan observes in the country upon his return is the existence of a radical white left, an entire subculture of "white Africans" who support the African National Congress, demonstrate against apartheid, adopt socialist views, and, as Malan sees it, make a point of listening to African music and wearing African beads and clothes "in the hope that it would somehow make [them] less white, less complicit" (166). For Malan, this is the only credible political alternative, given the ineffectiveness of the white liberal political opposition, and the racial exclusivity of the Black Consciousness movement. Nevertheless, Malan cannot bring himself to join this struggle, chiefly because, like Malan's own youthful attempts at making common cause with black people, its "nonracialism" seems inauthentic. Malan tells us about joining an absurd white political demonstration whose participants disperse politely when the apartheid police ask them to do so. He also notes the degree of de facto segregation that persists even in the anti-apartheid struggle: "[W]hen ... the killing started, there were no whites on the black side of the barricades. None. Ever" (170).

The attitude underlying this political analysis can be characterized as one of extreme pessimism about the possibility of any kind of interracial comprehension or joint political action. It is a philosophy that chimes with Conrad's vision of racial and cultural relations in Heart of Darkness. Pointing to the numerous sequences in that novella where Marlow shows remarkable ability to imagine Africans' perspectives from his own experience, only to immediately fall back on "representations of the Other that are one-sided and prejudicial" (Armstrong 22), Paul Armstrong has argued that
   Heart of Darkness is a calculated failure to depict achieved
   cross-cultural understanding ... Conrad is not certain that
   hermeneutic education or social change can overcome the solipsism
   dividing individuals or cultures, even as he is reluctant to
   give up hope that they might. (23)

In the same way as Marlow's experiences in the second two installments of Heart of Darkness all seem to point to "the unrealized horizon" of "[t]ruly reciprocal, dialogical understanding of the Other" (Armstrong 23), so Malan's remaining four murder investigations in book 2 of My Traitor's Heart all seem parables about the ultimate impossibility of mutual racial understanding in the South African situation. The consistent pattern is the sincere attempt to understand the motives of the killers, followed by the dismissal of all conventional progressive and sociological explanations and the resort to tropes of mysteriousness, cultural otherness, and inscrutability.

Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of each of these four cases. One, involving a black man who kills a white who happens to be an organ donor, and whose heart ends up in the body of a black man, receives little attention from Malan and seems included in the narrative purely for reasons of symbolic resonance. The case of the mineworkers who attack the police in the belief that their magical spells will protect them likewise receives little analysis and seems to fascinate Malan chiefly for its occult elements. The two cases that most clearly demonstrate the process that I am talking about are, first, that of the anti-white serial killer Simon Mpungose, and second, that of the political war between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO) in the townships near Johannesburg.

In the case of Simon Mpungose, who terrorized the white community of Empangeni, Natal, by breaking into several families' houses and smashing a hammer through the adults' skulls, Malan sits through Mpungose's trial and initially believes he has a reasonable, socially informed explanation for the black man's actions. Mpungose's testimony describes a man driven to an intense, uncontrollable rage by the injustices of apartheid--childhood starvation and floggings for stealing food, near death from overwork in a prison labor camp, etc. For Malan, all of this makes intuitive sense since "Simon's life had surely been shaped by forces I knew and understood" (205). However, when, after Mpungose's execution, Malan investigates further, he discovers another whole dimension to the killer's story, namely that he is the grandchild of a man who had a sexual relationship with his sister in rural Zululand at the beginning of the century, and that he grew up hated and rejected by other children and adults because of the traditional Zulu belief that Simon and all his immediate relatives would be cursed for life for their ancestor's sin.

A prosperous, educated uncle of Mpungose's named Mandla offers Malana fairly nuanced psychological description of Simon, emphasizing both his "harsh childhood [that] left Simon psychically transfigured" 9and his "transformation into a killer [that] was completed in apartheid's brutal jails" (219). Malan does not accept this explanation, however, preferring to take the belief in curses and spirits as a sign of Mpungose's radical and inaccessible Otherness:
   I found myself in a parallel world, a kingdom of unconquered
   consciousness ... In that world, there was no Simon. There was
   only Mnothho, the boy who could not become human. Who was
   the Hammerman? In the end, I couldn't say. (222)

There is a moment of truly Marlowesque pathos in Malan's narrative of ethnological investigation, where he seems to want to confess to Mandla that he is "lost" in all this talk of shades and punishment, and where he longs to "parse out the meeting point between common sense and an ancestral curse" (221). However, much as Marlow squanders his opportunity for reciprocal dialogue and subsequent anthropological understanding with his helmsman (Armstrong 32), Malan "didn't have the heart" (221) to ask Mandla about the curse, and instead he ruminates about the continuing role of witchcraft and traditional healing in black South African culture and concludes that South Africa simply lacks the "common religious and cultural mythology" to provide a national identity (235).

Malan's sixth and final "tale of ordinary murder" is about a series of attacks on AZAPO activists in the townships of Johannesburg, which included the fire-bombing of one activist's house and the abduction and presumed murder of several others. The identity of the perpetrators of these crimes is never in any real doubt: there is a volume of evidence, which Malan refers to, that links them to "comrades" aligned with the rival UDF. Malan's starting question, which seems reasonable enough, if perhaps rather naive about the nature of revolutionary uprisings, is, "Why should black radicals, in the midst of a convulsive struggle against a brutally oppressive ... regime, suddenly turn on one another ...?" (300).

What follows is a list of the conventional sociohistoric explanations for the UDF/AZAPO conflict. Malan gives a potted history of both organizations, culminating in the divisive visit of Senator Edward Kennedy in 1985, which was supported by the UDF and volubly opposed by AZAPO. Malan then describes a number of interviews with AZAPO activists that chiefly detail the incidents of violence themselves. At a certain point in his analysis, Malan appears to blame the UDF's political intolerance for the war against AZAPO, stating that "the resurgent Mandela movement billed itself as "the only authentic voice' of oppressed black South Africans" (323). Curiously, however, three pages later he appears to abandon this political explanation for a by-now-familiar position of profound incomprehension and uncertainty: "So who was doing the killing? Who was telling the truth? ... There were no clear answers, in the South African winter of 1986" (326). Contrasting his discoveries with the liberal media's simplistic view that the country's troubles can be blamed on apartheid, he states, in language that strikingly recalls Heart of Darkness, that "[t]he reality on the streets was darker, so much darker" (326).

As Malan describes it, this investigation brings him to a new point of pessimism, despair, and radical confusion as regards his country's problems. Describing a press clipping from the time of his investigations, of the burning in Sekhukuniland of thirty-two women suspected of using witchcraft to retard the freedom struggle, he states that "my brain yaws at South Africa's amazing reality" (328). Imagining a reader who is ready to lecture him on the evils of apartheid, he challenges, "Let's open my bulging files of ordinary murder ... and we'll annihilate the certainties in one another's brains" (330). The final pages of book 2 of My Traitor's Heart provide a veritable frenzy of images that for Malan sum up the "howling ambiguities" (334), strangeness, and horror of South Africa: an Afrikaner mass murderer shooting black people in Pretoria; a black man chopping his living daughter's arms off for battle medicine; UDF comrades burying an old man alive because he asked them to stay away from his son's funeral.

Just as Marlow, in section two of Heart of Darkness, is blinded by the mist over the Congo (57), Malan becomes metaphorically blind as a result of the shocking nature of what he sees. Talking about the tendency of returning exiles, people who have spent time "in the rational world" of Europe and America, to "blind" themselves as a survival tactic, he writes: "Blindness and lobotomy ... They were physical conditions in my country, in the winter of 1986. You could not afford to see everything ..." (Malan 334). As in Heart of Darkness, the realities that the protagonist observes are not only "unspeakable"--beyond language and thought--they are beyond perception itself.

It is "in such a state of mind" (334) that Malan sets out on his final murder investigation, the investigation that will help him, like Marlow, to finally make his "choice of nightmares" (Conrad, HOD 89) and achieve a sense of peace.


The setting for most of the final book of My Traitor's Heart is Mdukatshani, the home and agricultural project of Neil and Creina Alcock, which is located in the Msinga district in rural kwaZulu/Natal. When Malan arrives at the project, it is to investigate the shooting of Neil Alcock in an ambush by a Zulu hit squad.

Where Kurtz's Inner Station in Heart of Darkness is located in a literal wilderness at the furthest point of Belgian penetration, Msinga's wilderness is metaphorical, but no less extreme for Malan: "Msinga is wild, and yet it is not leaping with buck and lions.... It is a sprawling rural slum, infested with dope smugglers, gunrunners and bandits." (354). In a memoir filled with descriptions of strange and violent places and incidents, Msinga in many ways seems the "culminating point" (HOD 11), "the country's most bitter and old frontier" (Malan 375). First, the environmental destruction as a result of apartheid land policies is devastating. Malan describes "a vast sweltering valley strewn with broken hills, mud huts and tin-roofed shanties ... [where] it looks as though some mad god has taken a knife to the landscape" (339). Much as Kurtz's excessive appetite for ivory and "unsound" methods "had ruined the district" (HOD 83), Msinga is ruined by apartheid's excesses: "Whites couldn't bear to look at Msinga, because its devastation was to some large extent their own fault" (Malan 340).

Second, Msinga seems to be the memoir's "heart of darkness," the place most associated with the kind of incomprehensible and sociologically inexplicable war and violence that Malan has encountered in his investigations. Although apartheid may have something to do with Msinga's misery, Malan tells us, "Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro might not have done any better" (355) because Msinga is a place of war and "deep darkness" (409), where "[t]here was always fighting ... and there always had been" (358). As with the ANC/AZAPO conflict, Malan dismisses "several theories" about the presumably social and political causes of the violence in favor of "the word of an old white policeman who said he didn't know" (356).

Creina Alcock, Malan's source for most of the information regarding her husband's murder, is a Kurtz-like figure in all of this moral wilderness: frail, idiosyncratic, assimilated in the African environment, and full of mystical and moral insight. Like Kurtz, she lives in a rudimentary, dilapidated house surrounded by bush (Malan 340). Her face is "medieval," with "a high, broad forehead" and "[s]he [is] spectrally thin" (341). Compare this to Kurtz's "lofty frontal bone" (HOD 69), the fact that the wilderness had "consumed his flesh" (69), and his spectral appearance when Marlow pursues him into the jungle: "He rose unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth" (93). Like Kurtz, Alcock is "of formidable and fearful repute," regarded as having supernatural powers by the blacks and dismissed by her fellow whites as "insanely brave" (Malan 341); the latter phrase recalls the "unsound" Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Finally, like Kurtz, and like Malan's ancestor Dawid, "she and Neil ... seemed to have penetrated deeper into Africa than any other whites" (Malan 343), where they "spent two decades living among Africans, like Africans" (342).

If Kurtz is "a voice" full of "magnificent ... eloquence" (HOD 102), Creina Alcock is "a ravishing intellectual who graced her wisdoms with quotes from great philosophers and poets" (Malan 372). On their first evening together, when Malan is trying to persuade her of the sincerity of his questions about how to live as a white person in Africa, she quotes D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot and poses "a series of penetrating questions to him" (Malan 343). To Malan, she seems like "a sphinx" (343). Like Kurtz whose "stare ... was piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness" (HOD 101), Creina Alcock seems to have a privileged knowledge.

The similarity between Kurtz and Creina Alcock is not absolute: for one thing, Creina Alcock does not die as a result of her close proximity with Africa (although she is attacked several times after her husband's death and almost killed). Rather, it is her husband who dies and becomes a "god" when the Zulus welcome his spirit into the community of the ancestors at the end of My Traitor's Heart. But there is a more important difference between the Alcocks and Kurtz: neither Neil nor Creina Alcock participates in any "unspeakable rites" or shows a "lack of restraint" that would compromise what Marlow calls, with ambiguous irony, Kurtz's "soul ... pure and translucent as a cliff of crystal" (HOD 102). Although, like Dawid Malan, the Alcocks have crossed into Africa, it appears that they have not been "transformed" in the way that Malan's ancestor was, or in the way that "the wilderness ... sealed [Kurtz's] soul to its own" (69). As a result, the moral vision that Creina shares with Malan, while bleak and pessimistic enough in its own way, is considerably less complex and ambiguous than Kurtz's pronouncement in Heart of Darkness, and arguably My Traitor's Heart is, as a result of this, a far less subversive and unsettling book.

Neil Alcock is essentially a saintly figure in My Traitor's Heart, a man motivated, like the Kurtz who writes the "burning noble words" (HOD 72) of the report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, by the desire to help black Africans. An ordinary white South African farmer, he is drawn into the world of agricultural development when he decides one day to sell his surplus milk at cost to the impoverished black peasants near his home. When requests from hungry black people start pouring in from all over, Alcock founds an organization to distribute surplus milk to people, and becomes a national celebrity campaigning against hunger. When he neglects his own farm to the extent that he goes bankrupt, he lives for a time in his car delivering milk in the countryside and meets Creina, an idealistic young journalist assigned to write a story about him, who eventually decides to marry him. After a time of instability and unpredictability, sponsors buy him the land on which he builds Mdukatshani, and he and Creina move there.

The Alcocks' vision for Mdukatshani is laid out in their mission statement Msinga 2000--a document that would seem to have more than a little in common with Kurtz's report, with both its notable lack of specificity (Malan tells it was "less a blueprint for development than a dream of what Msinga might one day be" [Malan 365]) and its extraordinary ambition (Malan describes a Msinga transformed, in the Alcocks' vision, into a green utopia). However, unlike Kurtz, who instead of "exert[ing] a power for good practically unbounded" (HOD 72) becomes an evil, fallen "supernatural being," the Alcocks persevere with their altruism even in the face of extreme tests of their principles: stolen cattle, destruction of conservation areas by goats that trespass on their land, hostility from the nearby white farmers. As time goes by they even achieve some successes, the most important of which, for Malan, is that when the Alcocks' house burns down, hundreds of Zulus help rebuild it and give them money to buy things--a sign that "love" has "flourish[ed]" on the "country's most bitter frontier" (Malan 375).

Then war breaks out between rival clans, and when Neil Alcock organizes a meeting to try to bring peace, he is killed in an ambush by one of the clans on the way back home. Creina, devastated, feels as if "the whole of [her] life had been meaningless" (397). When Creina Alcock decides to stay, against the advice of friends, relatives, and the police, she faces even more tests of faith: an adopted son steals from the project, she is badly beaten in an armed robbery, and people continue to allow their goats to trespass on Mdukatshani's land. Creina, in a moment of frustration, kills a goat and injures two more; the owner replies with a death threat. Alcock pays restitution to the owner, only to open herself to bogus claims for compensation, accompanied by more death threats "entirely in keeping with the traditions of a brutal continent" (408).

For Malan, the message in all of this seems to be that his ancestor Dawid Malan and the Afrikaner frontiersmen were right to "extinguish the light of the Enlightenment because they found themselves in a place of darkness, where loving made for weak and doubtful men" (408). Just as Neil's love of peace made him vulnerable and Creina's decency has opened her to exploitation and blackmail, so by implication, racist white South Africans have been right to have been transformed into people like the torturer Augie de Koker because "if you were weak in Africa, you got fucked, and fucked again, until you could no longer stand it" (408). It is as if Kurtz's heads on their sticks and "unspeakable rites," instead of showing that he had "no restraint," merely illustrated what he had to do in the darkness to stay alive. The conclusion troubles Malan: "[The Alcocks] arrived in Africa years ahead of the rest of us, and it was hard not to see their experience as some sort of foretaste of what awaited the rest of us there" (413).

However, at the climactic moment of the memoir, the moment at which Malan seems ready to adopt the racism of his ancestors, Alcock offers him a different message, one that is worth quoting at length (she is talking about herself after the death threats):
   I had this sense of utter blackness, worse than when Neil had
   died. I thought ... I haven't got what it takes to live by Msinga
   rules.... [But then] I thought, if you're really going to live in
   Africa, you have to be able to look at it and say, This is the way
   of love.... To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to
   live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is
   the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total,
   obliterating darkness. (409)

There are several obvious parallels here to Heart of Darkness. First, we have what Henricksen calls the "Gnostic" imagery of "[t]he entrapment of light by darkness" (Henricksen 36), visible, in Conrad's novella, in the descriptions of the sparks of light over the Thames "stricken" by night. Second, there is the idea that the darkness in Africa is somehow also a universal darkness, as in the darkness over the Thames at the end of Conrad's novella. Third, we have the notion that human beings must somehow resist the darkness that surrounds them; in Heart of Darkness, Marlow tries to do so by "attend[ing] to ... the mere incidents of the surface" (49).

Arguably, the Alcocks' love is more successful at keeping the light alive than Marlow's work ethic, since Malan abandons his brief post-Msinga flirtation with totalitarianism (414), and since "it cannot be said that the Alcocks' love has gone unrewarded, in spite of all that has happened" (423). Where Heart of Darkness ends on an image of utter gloom and despair, My Traitor's Heart ends with a vibrant, optimistic scene of hundreds of Zulus performing a ceremony to welcome Neil Alcock into the realm of the ancestors. Although the cross-cultural understanding is ironic--Neil Alcock is, after all, dead--it is still more than is ever visible in Heart of Darkness.

In this sense, one might contend that My Traitor's Heart is more progressive in its racial politics than Heart of Darkness, since it does not see cultural differences as being quite as unbridgeable as Conrad's novella does. At another level, though, the dilution of Heart of Darkness's nihilism softens that novella's subversion, including its subversion of the racial and cultural polarities that it evokes. In Heart of Darkness, after all, the concluding image of the darkness over the Thames strongly suggests the ultimate indivisibility of the Thames and the Congo, of the darkness of Africa and that of Europe. As Saravan states, "The Thames as 'a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth' is connected with, and therefore part of, those uttermost ends" (284). In My Traitor's Heart, although Creina Alcock states that "[t]o live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa," Malan does not follow up on this idea, and there is still the sense that for him, living in the "dark Continent" is somehow fundamentally different to living elsewhere.

Likewise, the triumph of the Alcocks' love is exactly that--a triumph of their love in bringing them acceptance in Africa, not a real mutual victory of everyone together against the evil in the human heart. In My Traitor's Heart, the only choices that matter are those of white people: to love or hate, to be transformed by Africa or not be transformed. Black South Africans, unfortunately, remain the objects of this existential dilemma, to be reformed by miraculous love or repressed by old-style iron-fistedness.


(1) See MTH 394. The epigraph is from the description of the river voyage in Heart of Darkness: "We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there" (50).

(2) For an analysis of the mythic quest narrative in Heart of Darkness, see Feder.

(3) Cf. Kurtz's scrawled postscript to his "enlightened" treatise on race relations: "Exterminate all the brutes!" (HOD 92).

(4) It is interesting, in the light of Kurtz's "unspeakable rites" in Heart of Darkness, to note the suggestions of cannibalism and human sacrifice in this description.

(5) See especially the responses to Achebe by Hawkins, Watts, and Saravan.


Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Kimbrough 251-62.

Armstrong, Paul. "Heart of Darkness and the Epistemology of Cultural Differences." Under Postcolonial Eyes: Joseph Conrad After Empire. Ed. Gall Fincham and Myrtle Hooper. Rondebosch, South Africa: UCT P, 1996. 21-41.

Brantlinger, Patrick. "Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism or Impressionism?" Heart of Darkness: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Ross C. Muffin. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996. 277-98.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

--. "To Cunninghame Graham." 8 February 1899. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Ed. C. T. Watts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969. 116.

Feder, Lillian. "Marlow's Descent Into Hell." Nineteenth Century Fiction 53.2 (1955): 280-92.

Hawkins, Hunt. "The Issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness." Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 14.3 (1982): 163-71.

Henricksen, Bruce. "Heart of Darkness and the Gnostic Myth." Mosaic: A Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas 11.4 (1978): 35-44.

Kerr, Douglas. "Three Ways of Going Wrong: Kipling, Conrad, Coetzee." Modern Language Review 95.1 (2000): 18-27.

Kimbrough, Robert, ed. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. 3rd ed. London: Norton, 1988.

Malan, Rian. My Traitor's Heart. London: Vintage, 1990.

McClintock, Anne. "'Unspeakable Secrets': The Ideology of Landscape in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 17.1 (1984): 38-53.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1993. London: Vintage, 1994.

Sarvan, C. P. "Racism and the Heart of Darkness." Kimbrough 280-85.

Singh, Francis B. "The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness." Kimbrough 268-80.

Watts, Cedric. "A Bloody Racist: About Achebe's View of Conrad." Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 196-209.


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Author:Reteff, Glen
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Date:Sep 22, 2004
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