A new anthology of short stories and essays celebrates Joseph Conrad on the 150th anniversary of his birth. What do these 21st-century versions of Conrad have to tell us about our world today?
Contrary to what the title of the book might suggest, Conradology is not a volume of dry academic writing, in search for some general science on Joseph Conrad. Rather, the book gathers an array of very different texts, commissioned in the anniversary Conrad Year, and inspired by his work. Among the writers from UK, US, and elsewhere, five authors are from Poland – which reflects an important aspect of Conrad’s family history, a fact that is further illuminated in the anthology.
As Robert Hampson shows in the foreword to the collection, Conrad’s impact on 20th-century world literature is an immense one. The list of writers influenced in one way or another by Joseph Conrad is long and varied, and includes names like André Gide and Thomas Mann, V. S. Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and W.G. Sebald. Conrad remains one of the most commented-on Western authors in the field of post-colonial studies, and his writing remains a point of reference for writers from post-colonial and peripheral literatures, to name only Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya or Juan Gabriel Vàsquez from Colombia.
Find out more about Joseph Conrad in popular culture here.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Conrad that emerges from the majority of these stories and essays is not the writer of the sea, the author of Lord Jim or Victory, which is perhaps his best known specialisation. In fact, of the ten short stories included in the book Conradology, only one, Paul Theroux’s ‘Navigational Hazard’, deals directly with the maritime topic. Set in the sea scenery of Southern Asia, the location of some of the earliest Conrad novels, it also emulates Conrad in taking on issues of honour and loyalty as its main topics.
But most other pieces in Conradology turn to Conrad as the author most relevant for today’s socio-political global situation. The Conrad that was concerned with colonial (corporate) exploitation, and recognised the threats posed by the early stages of globalisation and capitalism, with their natural aspect and outgrowth in the form of emigration. Namely, Conrad as the author of post- and neo-colonial classics like Heart of Darkness or Nostromo, but also as an insightful observer of terrorism and secret state, which he depicted in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes.
The legacy of Heart of Darkness is best exemplified in the stories by Farah Ahmed (‘The Helper of Cattle’) and SJ Bradley (‘Fractional Distillation’) which are both concerned with contemporary tales of the exploitation of Africa (only this time it’s not about ivory, but the petroleum industry and real estate investments, respectively) and contemporary colonialism as transnational business.
In a different, perhaps more remote, take on Heart of Darkness, Wojciech Orliński’s ‘Conrad Street’, we find ourselves (as if once again) on the ruins of post-apocalyptic Warsaw (a cruel joke indeed), only this time it’s the 21st century. In Orliński’s intelligently subversive vision, the country, following an outbreak of a strange disease which killed the entire white population, is now ruled by migrants from Latin America (with Spanish and Latin now official languages). Obviously since we’re in Poland, there’s a thriving patriotic resistance movement led by a group of mixed population, themselves descendants of migrants. So don’t worry, Polish insurgents are not dead! Orliński plays with Polish history and national traumas (the fear or phantasm of a nation being annihilated by the inflow of refugees) – and addresses the contemporary issue of a homogenous society.
Other topical global issues about powerful secret states and terrorism were picked up by Kamila Shamsie in her ‘A Game of Chess’. While the contemporary situation of immigrants (in this case, Polish immigrants) in post-Brexit Britain is addressed in Agnieszka Dale’s ‘Legoland’. Here the protagonist finds herself before an almost Kafkaesque trial made of Lego people. ‘Maybe I am breaking a law, a law that has not yet been written, and I’m a criminal now, in this country, in the eyes of your subjects,’ she protests in an attempt to understand her situation, a time of paranoia when every immigrant feels like they must explain and justify their very existence in a foreign country.
Immigration is an important aspect of the volume. An immigrant (Ugandan-Asian) working as a receptionist in a London hotel is the protagonist of Giles Foden’s ‘The Double Man: An Hotelier’s Tale’. We learn more about the contemporary reality of labour in Britain from the narrator, also an immigrant, only this time from Madeira.
The Conradian inspirations and references present in other pieces of the selection can be less obvious. Like Sarah Schofield’s ‘The Expectant Management’ which reworks Conrad’s maritime short story The Secret Sharer. Conrad’s story about a debutant captain who spots a survivor in water who then becomes his confidante (but is perhaps only a figment of his imagination), is here taken from the high seas to present-day London, telling the story of a woman’s miscarriage and its traumatic ramifications.
Meanwhile, the author Zoe Gilbert brings to light a different, less-known aspect of Conrad’s writing, that of an accomplished horror writer. In ‘The Inn of Two Witches – A Find’, Gilbert draws on Conrad’s own short story of the same title, and succeeds in eliciting in the reader some of the horror that was present in Conrad’s little masterpiece. At the same time, she informs it with a sense of humour absent from the original. In Gilbert’s story, like in Conrad’s piece, we have a mysterious manuscript, two ‘witches’ (one of them is Conrad’s widow), and a seance of evoking ghosts using an old smudged Ouija board. If you’re interested what Conrad would say to his wife from beyond the grave, you should definitely read this one!
Gilbert’s piece playfully picks up on aspects of misogyny present in Conrad. This thread – the absence of fully-fledged female characters in Conrad – is subversively present in Grażyna Plebanek’s short story ‘Mamas’. The Polish writer’s vision of a matriarchal government in an African state after a devastating war starts with a hope of a new matriarchal order but ends with a bitter show of pragmatism and cynicism in politics.
The three accompanying essays complement the volume in that they shed light on not only different aspects of Conrad’s writing but also different time zones, so to speak: the past, present, and future.
The ‘Guided by Conrad’ essay by Jan Krasnowolski, a Polish immigrant writer living in Great Britain, weaves together a family history (Krasnowolski is the grandson of the Polish writer Jan Józef Szczepański), his grandfather’s war experience, and a story of the Polish reception of Joseph Conrad. Szczepański who, as a member of the so-called generation of ‘Columbuses’, was born around 1920 and was entering adulthood when the war broke out. For him, like for so many of his peers who joined the Home Army and would later fight in the Warsaw Uprising, Joseph Conrad became much more than just a favourite writer – he became, as Krasnowolski puts it, a moral compass. With his ethics of honour and loyalty to even lost causes, Conrad helped these young people navigate through these dark times, even if that meant making tragic decisions at most.
Meanwhile, ‘Conrad, Capital and Globalisation’ Dr Richard Niland attempts to chart Conrad on the contemporary map of human studies, and finds him in the company of Nikolai Kondratieff (and his waves of economic cycles) and Karl Marx, among others, as an early critic of capitalism and globalisation.
The closing piece of the book, written by Jacek Dukaj, a popular contemporary writer of sci-fi and fantasy literature in Poland, reaches into the future. For Dukaj some of the literary devices which he finds in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be seen as an attempt to establish a new kind of experience, which for Dukaj is reminiscent of Virtual Reality.
Conradology was commissioned as part of the Joseph Conrad Year 2017.
Published with support from the Polish Cultural Institute, the Polish Book Institute, and the British Council.
- Editors: Magda Raczynska & Becky Harrison
- Authors: Farah Ahamed, SJ Bradley, Agnieszka Dale, Jacek Dukaj, Giles Foden, Zoe Gilbert, Jan Krasnowolski, Richard Niland, Wojciech Orliński, Grażyna Plebanek, Sarah Schofield, Kamila Shamsie & Paul Theroux
- Premiered: 30th November 2017
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Dec 2017