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  • Rewriting Darkness: Imperial Knowledge in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger
  • Susan Strehle

Barry Unsworth's Booker Prize-winning novel, Sacred Hunger (1992) deliberately recalls Joseph Conrad's famous novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). Speaking with interviewers, Unsworth has acknowledged that "Conrad was certainly a strong influence" on the novel (Podmore, see also Nicholl), which narrates a journey into Africa at the height of Britain's imperial age. To the European eyes of Conrad's Marlow and Unsworth's Matthew Paris, the African coast appears similarly deceitful, hiding its intentions behind a mask of uniform green. In Unsworth's novel, Africa appears to be "hidden" behind a "green wall," "unbroken, giving an immediate sense of subterfuge, of a deceitful sameness" (189). Marlow perceives Africa in similar terms: "the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things" (13); "the woods were unmoved, like a mask....[T]hey looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence" (56). In Sacred Hunger, a few crew members set off in a yawl for a station upriver, where Paris meets a mercurial young European factor, described as "very white in the face," who talked with "a febrile eagerness" (251). In Heart of Darkness, Marlow sees the harlequin as "very fair" with "smiles and frowns chasing each other over that open countenance like sunshine and shadow" (52-53). The central actions of the two narratives are closely parallel, as one European man sets out to find another who has "gone native" in the jungle, taking a dark mistress and engaging in seemingly unholy relationships with a community of Africans. The encounter leads to the death of both latter figures, [End Page 75] while the two former men return to Europe with no clear answers about the meaning of what they have seen.

Even so brief and highly selective a description will suggest that Heart of Darkness is an important intertext in Unsworth's postcolonial novel about the slave trade. Indeed, I will argue that Sacred Hunger rewrites Conrad's novella in order to probe similar human darknesses. Unsworth's novel is both a tribute to and a revision of Conrad, extending and complicating Marlow's narrative from a postcolonial position. Sacred Hunger rewrites Heart of Darkness from a different perspective on imperialism: not only anti-, and thus severely critical, like Conrad, of imperial abuses of power; not only after, and thus aware of the lingering effects of colonialism on liberated African peoples, as Conrad could not be; but also simultaneously both inside and outside imperialism and thus able to illuminate the authoritarian assumption of superior knowledge that emanates from imperial consciousness. Unsworth represents the single-minded and self-vindicating habits of thought that enable insiders to rationalize abuses of power as part of a divinely ordained design; he also shows the traumatic effects of these abuses on subaltern outsiders.

To establish the importance of the complex perspective in Unsworth's novel, it will help to revisit Conrad's through the significant essay on his "Two Visions" by Edward W. Said. Analyzing Conrad's view of empire in Culture and Imperialism, Said remarks that Conrad, a Polish expatriate, was "an employee of the imperial system"; despite his criticism of the "great looting adventure," he could neither imagine nor represent what lay outside that system:

Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so to speak, imperialist....Conrad could probably never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-European at the time. Independence was for whites and Europeans; the lesser or subject peoples were to be ruled; science, learning, history emanated from the West.


Since Western knowledge made alternatives to imperialism unthinkable, Conrad can bring only a "persistent residual sense of his own exilic marginality" (24) to bear in maintaining "an ironic distance" (25). Through "dislocations in the narrator's language," Conrad evokes the vision of an undefined and even unsettled world beyond the boat deck where Marlow tells his story; but though this unstable world hints at the inevitable end of imperialism...


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