Twelve Missives from the Roi des Belges
December 31, 2012 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Perched high up above the Thames in downtown London every month this past year a different writer has spent four days living in a replica of the Roi des Belges, the boat Marlow travels up the Congo in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Each author would write a short text during their stay "which explores London, rivers, the work of Joseph Conrad, or even all three." They would be visited on the last day by a journalist from The Guardian who recorded them reading their essay, poem or short story. Among the poets, historians and novelists were Adonis, Jeanette Winterson, Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje and Kamila Shamsie. These recordings, each prefaced by a short interview, are all available on the Guardian website, to stream or download. Below the cut there is a link to each recording, with a short description.

January: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Colombian novelist, delivers an essay about his relationship with Joseph Conrad's fiction and the man himself, but both have inspired his own writing.

February: Jeanette Winterson, who writes fiction and memoir, recounts her experience of watching the city and the river below her.

March: Sven Lindqvist, Swedish historian and reporter, writes about how he learned at a young age through books of the people on the wrong end of economic exploitation and genocide.

April: Caryl Phillips, novelist and screenwriter, describes the attraction of London to West Indian immigrants and their integration into English society.

May: Maya Jasanoff, American historian and Harvard professor, writes about rivers from a personal and historical perspective, and Conrad's personal and authorial journey up the Congo.

June: Michael Ondaatje, Sri Lankan born Canadian novelist and poet, recounts his own journey to London from Sri Lanka and explores the role of seafaring and river journeys in history and literature.

July: Alain Mabanckou, Congolese novelist, recites his essay about Conrad and the history of the Congo river.

August: Teju Cole, Nigerian-American novelist and essayist, relates the story of meeting V. S. Naipaul and writes about how Africans have been described by outsiders in writing.

September: Ahdaf Soueif, Egyptian novelist and political activist, writes about the history of resistance by oppressed populations.

October: Kamila Shamsie, Pakistani novelist, writes about female travelers and their invisibility in history.

November: Adonis, Syrian poet, recites a poem, translated into English by Khaled Mattawa, about the war that has enveloped his home country.

December: Colm Tóibín, Irish novelist, reads a short story inspired by the character of Marlow.

The short little descriptions reflect the content of the various texts poorly, as they are generally wide-ranging and mix contemplation with personal history. Listening to all twelve in order also gives a portrait of London changing through the seasons in a year that included both the Olympics and the Jubilee.
posted by Kattullus (7 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The larger project this series is a part of is called A Room for London, and includes a concert series that has been featured on MetaFilter previously. You can listen to the texts in isolation on the Room for London website but I prefer the Guardian podcast versions with the writer interviews prefacing each essay, poem or short story.
posted by Kattullus at 10:30 AM on December 31, 2012

I've read Heart of Darkness 4 times now and it wasn't until after reading King Leopold's Ghost that it really sunk in. HoD is a weird book and without a good understanding of the situation in the Congo and Europe at the time it's difficult to fully appreciate (IMO). The other thing that helped was this amazing audiobook version I found online read by David Kirkwood & Tom Franks (LoudLit 2007). It's better than anything available on LibriVox or Audible (IMO). These two things brought the story to a whole new level for me.
posted by stbalbach at 10:41 AM on December 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

When we read Heart of Darkness my junior year of high school, our culminating assignment was to either write a critical analysis of a particular theme from the book, or write a spine for a movie translating the themes to another river setting (watching Apocalypse Now was a homework assignment). Since the Merrimack River helped create kind of the only important thing in my hometown, I reset it, casting Kurtz as an evil salmon who had enslaved the Abenaki and forced them to extract mica and textiles from the river, who, by the time the narrating fish arrives, is dying of ick. I was really proud.

Anyway, in completing the assignment as ridiculously, I really grew to love the book and got really interested in the history of Belgian Congo and the current DRC/Rwanda/Uganda wars. King Leopold's Ghost was, like stbalbach said, was transformative, and makes a really interesting companion to Heart of Darkness and also Dancing in the Glory of Monsters which contextualizes the current Congo war. I'm looking forward to diving into these links.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:53 AM on December 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Heart of Darkness just won't go away. I ended up seeing The Book of Mormon the other day, and there it was again. I think though that I'm getting a little tired of all these stories about white fellows setting themselves up as gods somewhere up the river.
posted by washburn at 1:23 PM on December 31, 2012

I'm getting a little tired of lazy thinkers who can't help but attack some caricature of a work they've either never read nor likely understood and a celebration they care nothing of...
posted by Shit Parade at 4:11 PM on December 31, 2012

Jarvis Cocker broadcast a great episode of Sunday Service, his weekly radio show, from the Room for London. It's filled with excellent music (as always), some good history, and an improvised ('spontaneously composed') duet in which Jarvis reads passages from Heart of Darkness over a haunting, eerie cello composition.

Highly recommended.
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 9:21 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The boat is amazing. Some nights it had artists and concerts and all the rest, but for most nights last year you could book it just like a pretty expensive hotel room (it was something like £150/night, depending on when you wanted it for). You were only allowed one night per person, and it obviously booked out within minutes, but I was lucky with timing and managed to get it for a night in May.

As a normal person you're only allowed two people in there, and no guests - none of these glamorous cocktail parties and creative chats that the artists and writers had. But it's a gorgeous, gorgeous place to stay. Absurdly efficient use of space, huge windows, three different deck levels you can climb into (the very top uses a ladder that you need to hook over a beam, and there are big warning signs about not going out when it's windy). And the best bit is just the fact that it's all on its own right in the middle of London, on the edge of the river. You can hear clocks chiming and boats passing and the wind blowing; I could see the bus I normally caught to work passing by while I sat on the middle deck and drank coffee in the morning.

The lift to get up there was very, very slow because it runs right by a concert hall, and it turned out it was too noisy running at normal speed, so now it's the slowest thing in the world. It takes three or four minutes to go up maybe five floors, and there's no stair option. So that really adds to the sense of going into a strange different world.

And: there's a log book that you can leaf back through, and see what other people thought and did. Almost everyone found their night in the boat astonishing; a few people thought the wind was a bit noisy. Some people are a bit overexcited about it all; some people are deliberately mundane. (We wrote down everything we ate and a plot summary of the movie we watched, the extraordinary S Club: Seeing Double). It's a bizarre document, just a mishmash of people having had a really strange and compelling experience and feeling like somehow they have to live up to it or undermine it, and not really knowing what to write.
posted by severalbees at 4:24 AM on January 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

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