Popular Polish author Jacek Dukaj has rewritten Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the 21st-century reader. Intriguingly, his new version questions the limits of translation and the very idea of translatability of an experience by means of literature. But his biggest question is: in what way is Conrad's Heart of Darkness a VR experience, AD 1899?
Picking this book from a bookstore shelf can already be quite a confusing experience. While the cover features the name of Joseph Conrad in a place that suggests that he is the author, it also offers an ostensibly different title than the one which has clung to the book ever since its first Polish translation in 1930 (and since then there have been at least five other translations); So not Jądro… but Serce ciemności. While this is nothing special (books get new titles in retranslation after all), what’s more telling is the fact that the name of the author of the Polish version – Jacek Dukaj – is written on the cover (definitely not the usual practice with Polish book publishers) with exactly the same size of the font as that of Joseph Conrad.
And indeed, inside the book Polish reader will find not only a different Heart of Darkness but also an attempt at a different kind of writing, one that is probing the future of literature.
Predicting the death of Europe
Considered generally the most important Polish sci-fi writer since Stanisław Lem, Jacek Dukaj is also known as a profound thinker interested in the issues of technological singularity, virtual reality, and art in the time of artificial intelligence. Some of his most superb books like Inne Pieśni (Other Songs) or Lód (Ice), were successful attempts at creating a complex alternate reality – the former presented a world organised by orthodox Aristotelian physics, while the latter conjured a different vision of 20th-century history with ice-bound Poland being still governed by Russia. One of the last ones, and one of very few available in English, The Old Axolotl, was a vision of a post-apocalyptic future were after a catastrophe which has wiped out all organic life, the last of the humans live incarnated in hardware devices. Significantly, the book was released in a digital-only format...
As to Heart of Darkness, Dukaj’s fascination goes back to at least 1998 when he published a sci-fi short ‘Serce Mroku’, a retelling of Joseph Conrad's tale on an alien planet. But the book has stuck with him ever since the first reading.
Heart of Darkness is in my head for some 20 years now, and I can’t seem to get cured, but what is it, why, how? This is something I hope I learn, as I’m working on this text, writing and speaking about it.
As he states in a recent interview, his approach to the Conrad text evolved:
At first, the sensual impressions were the most important. The hypnotic power of this transfer of experiences… Now, what has come to the surface is the universalism of Kurtz’s existential discovery, its topicality – how accurately Conrad predicted the spiritual situation after the death of Europe in the 21st century.
In Kurtz, Dukaj finds hidden the most profound logic of the West, the logic of Europe as an intellectual project:
We are dealing here with the same magnitude of political and civilisational prophetism found in The Devils by Dostoevsky or in Nietzsche’s descriptions of the last people.
This said, let us take a look at the new book… Especially since, as Dukaj claims, ‘I’m not a translator, I am the author of Joseph Conrad writing Heart of Darkness for the 21st century reader’.
Techniques for experiencing the contemporary
This 21st-century Conrad is written in a strange idiom – the sentences at times are ostensibly short, occasionally even disposing of verbs, abounding instead in interjections and onomatopoeias. In these passages, often rhythmically organised too, everything seems rushed, hectic, as if in an attempt to imitate the feverish journey into the lush heart of the jungle.
At other times, the language can be overtly poetic, even to excess. Some grammatical constructions, on the other hand, strike one as downright awkward. At times colloquialisms prevail, and anachronisms are also introduced making the whole thing more contemporary (‘Corporation’ instead of Conrad’s ‘company’, ‘CEO’ instead of ‘director’). Another key difference is that unlike Marlow’s narrative in Conrad, under Dukaj’s pen the narrative has been consequently rendered in the present tense – making perhaps the whole experience more immediate.
It definitely makes for a strange and challenging text to read… As one Polish critic remarked, Dukaj ‘makes little not only of style, but also of the way the language works – in supposing that the accumulation of emotional means results in producing emotions’. While this could be true, depending on the reader, it seems that the reasons behind this awkward language are more grounded.
Perhaps the best way to understand Dukaj’s intentions with this new Heart of Darkness is to turn to the motto:
My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.
The phrase comes from Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, but the idea of making one ‘hear, see and feel’ is key to understanding Dukaj’s own take on Conrad. In the essay ‘Live Me’, published simultaneously with the Polish edition of Serce Ciemności (and now available in the anthology of essays and stories called Conradology), Dukaj explains his intentions as the author of the new Conrad text. ‘The best I can achieve is to present you sequences of sensations analogous to those which the original experience provoked,’ he claims.
This means giving today’s readers completely different word-keys – a different text – to provoke the same motions of the spirit that Conrad intended in his own time.
In other words, Dukaj’s words, ‘in order for the most important (that is, the intended experience by the author of the Heart of Darkness for its readers) to stay the same, one must – in regard to readers conditioned by other cultures, other lifestyles and emotional modes, and other sets of references in their heads – employ other means than the author did in his time.’
This radical reading philosophy treats text as only a means, a tool to create in the reader a certain experience - and in order to keep that experience intact Dukaj is actually willing to change everything. It’s clear by now that Dukaj’s work is not a translation in a traditional sense (nor is it an abridged, simplified version of the original), rather a kind of ‘reconstruction’ of the text‘s meaning (which Dukaj consistently equals with experience) in the reality of the 21st century. It could actually be called an ‘adaptation’ if that word was not reserved for translations from one medium into another. Dukaj himself seems to prefer the term ‘transfusion’, ‘transfer [of experience]’, or ‘deep translation’. Although the work of this translation takes place not between different languages but rather between the different sets of cultural references of its recipients.
A 19th-century VR experience?
The idea of text being only a means to convey or rather produce in the reader certain emotions and evoke a kind of experience (‘make you see, hear and feel’) can make us draw analogies with several new technologies, like virtual reality.
In fact, Dukaj interprets the original Conrad work precisely as an early attempt at creating a deep immersive experience, comparable to today’s VR. He calls Heart of Darkness a virtual reality experience before such a term was coined, from 1899 AD. In the story’s beginning scenes on a boat in the the mouth of the River Thames, Dukaj finds the conditions necessary for sensory deprivation (Marlow’s tale is told in almost total darkness with only a slight fluctuation from the sea) which today is used in technologies which allow deep immersion. This immersion is designed to make the reader (or listener, or user) identify with the narrator, or, as Dukaj puts it, ‘to live’ Marlow (who, on his part, says Dukaj, is trying to live Kurtz).
This logic leads Dukaj to interesting parallels with the newest technologies which, he claims, will supplant traditional literature – a technology that one day (probably sooner rather than later) would dispose of words altogether to transfer the experience directly to the mind of the user (rather than reader).
Dukaj’s Serce Ciemności can be seen as a step in that still distant direction.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 2 Jan 2017