What’s stunning about Matt Kish’s illustrations for Heart of Darkness — one for every page of Joseph Conrad’s text — is how sunny they are. His modest palette comprises yellow, green, black, and white, with the occasional hit of red, orange, or blue. The novel, on the other hand, is tonally dark: sepulchral and miasmic. In his foreword to this new edition, recently published by Tin House, Kish explains that the choice of colors was his first decision and was informed by an early lesson that “it was folly to think that terrible things happen only in the dark.” To that end, Marlow’s journey into the shadowy, hallucinogenic heart of Africa is here cast under a sun that, as Kish puts it, shines “as brightly and hotly as it does on the happiest of days” (Much like Beckett’s ode to banality in opening to Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”).
Conrad’s novel, as far as I can discover, has never been accompanied by illustrations (or certainly not one for every page) other than a 1992 edition featuring eight abstract color etchings by Sean Scully, and in any case it is not the kind of story you expect to see with pictures. In 2011, Kish illustrated Moby-Dick, a far more visually generous text and one for which Kish produced playful and adventurous collage-like images. But for Heart of Darkness, the illustrations seem to hew more closely to a single theme, and Kish’s preliminary color choices offer a clue to his larger approach to a story that revolves around what Conrad, later in life, called “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.” His page-by-page ink and marker drawings don’t simply illuminate what is written every few paragraphs; rather, they follow a through line, tracing the physical and psychic horror wrought by colonialism. In doing so, Kish’s drawings are interpretive rather than merely illustrative.
Sometimes this comes through in his focus on the smallest detail, as when he picks a single sentence to illustrate. The big flies that harass Marlow in the jungle “did not sting but stabbed,” and Kish renders one as an armored beast whose spiky exoskeleton and barbed stingers conjure a grim torture. Elsewhere, the more visually thrilling textual descriptions are ignored for those that evoke violence and foreboding. On the second page of text, for instance, Kish does not visualize the pacific light of the water, the “gauzy and radiant fabric” of the river mist, but instead depicts the “ascetic” Marlow, whose face — empty eye sockets set inside a white skull — resembles a mask. Many of Kish’s figures, in fact, wear similar “masks”; in Conrad’s haunting, otherworldly landscape, they resemble phantom performers. Frequently, too, Kish’s white Europeans are drawn as strange amalgamations, toothy Frankensteins that combine Gahan Wilson’s doughy, macabre figures (particularly in his Classics Illustrated edition of Poe’s “The Raven”) and Philip Guston’s cartoonish Klansmen.
All are monstrous in appearance, alien creatures who reflect an equally alien landscape. “I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life,” Marlow exclaims of the violent spectacles that occur onshore during his trip down the river. His journey by boat is much akin to Dante’s guided tour of hell. Along the riverbanks, he spies untold horrors, “a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”; elsewhere, there is “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” Green is one of Kish’s predominant colors, which he uses to render the teeming plant life lurid, its tones acidic. Marlow observes that “going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings … It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Kish, in response, creates a mountainous creature composed of broad leaves and strange upward-drifting tendrils, its three eyes as round and unblinking as a fish’s. The wilderness itself becomes an actor in the story’s drama. And later, when Marlow first sees Kurtz, he watches as the natives who carry his stretcher vanish into the trees, “as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again” (as when, in Act 5 of Macbeth, the messenger sees Birnam wood — Malcolm’s soldiers hidden within it — begin to move).
Reality deteriorates as Marlow drifts further into Kurtz’s realm, and Kish depicts this as a descent into a hellscape — his grotesqueries becoming more demonic — while also heralding Kurtz as a Christlike figure ringed by ouroboric snakes. Early in the novel, and in Kish’s illustrations, the snake represents Africa’s untamed mystery; here, Kurtz symbolizes knowledge, though a dangerous sort: he is depicted as a skeleton, a model of savagery as well as its victim. For Marlow, he is a “Shadow—this wandering and tormented thing” and an “atrocious phantom.”
Only Kish’s illustration of the native woman, Kurtz’s African mistress, disappoints. Shown naked, with the outsize curves of a fertility deity, she is depicted without hands and feet, as if they have been amputated, with her arms and legs bound and her face covered by a mask. She is fleshier than any other illustrated character — and fittingly so, since she is the most vividly alive — yet she nonetheless appears as an object, a figurine perhaps. She is described as being “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent … tragic and fierce”; I imagined a woman more like Mati Klarwein’s teeth-bearing warrior from the Bitches Brew album cover.
Some pages later, as the steamer pulls away with Kurtz aboard, the natives gather at the shore, only to be shot for sport by the pilgrims. “And I could see nothing more for the smoke,” Marlowe concludes, and Conrad famously elides the scene of so much bloodshed with a blank line, which seems to suggest that the murderous act is something Marlowe can’t quite comprehend; its meaning is beyond his ability to describe the aftermath. The line space becomes a desolate place. That blank line, however, has been left out of this version. If Samuel Delany once bemoaned his students’ inability to interpret this white space as signifying “the unspoken and the unspeakable,” Kish recognizes the unspeakable horror implicit throughout Conrad’s book, and his illustrations give it form.
Heart of Darkness, illustrated by Matt Kish, is published by Tin House.