Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

The Sins of the Fathers: The Missionary in Some Modern English Novels about the Congo

Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

The Sins of the Fathers: The Missionary in Some Modern English Novels about the Congo

Article excerpt

Introduction

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), that archetypal novel on the presence of Europeans in the Congo, makes no mention of any general or specifically Christian religious activity. However, Portuguese missionaries had been present in this region since 1492; by 1853 Livingstone was envisaging a rivalry between Protestant missionaries and Catholic priests, and in 1888 the first Belgian missionaries directly linked to King Leopold's entrepreneurial plans arrived in what was then becoming known as the Congo Free State.1 Although Conrad never mentions the Belgian monarchy and government or its capital city, Brussels, by name, his main character and narrator, Marlow, implies that this is where he had received his assignment. This "continental" city reminds him of "a whited sepulchre" (Conrad 2003: 54). The reader is also struck by the sustained references to "pilgrims." Marlow uses only this name for the numerous small time traders and administrative staff attached to the concessionary companies he encounters during his stay there, although one of these traders is once described as a "paper-mache Mephistopheles" (Conrad 2003: 76). Coupled to Marlow's image of his first trip down the Congo river as "a weary pilgrimage amongst hints of nightmares," and of the station where he arrives as "some circle of an Inferno" (Conrad 2003: 60, 63), these references form a pattern of negative allusions in which the atrocities committed by the Belgian and other traders are described through religious and missionary metaphors.

Heart of Darkness is now generally acknowledged as the point of reference to which almost all subsequent (English language) Congo narratives have paid homage. I will return to that finding. But in discussing the novels of famous and prize winning modern authors such as Graham Greene, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Edric and John le Carre, I focus on their explicit portrayal of missionary zeal and how it reflects the images introduced in Conrad's work. A Burnt-out Case (Greene 1961), The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver 1998) and The Mission Song (Le Carre 2006) are all written with a post-independence Congo as the background, while Edric's The Book of the Heathen was written in 2000 but is set in the same period as Conrad's work. All four novels refer explicitly through their titles and/or in their main plot to the activities of missionaries working at mission stations funded by different Christian denominations. And in every instance, the missionary ideal is entwined with the ruthless endeavour of transferring the Congo's riches to imperialist interests--be they Arab, European, British or American.

Narrating the Congo

When Graham Greene published A Burnt-out Case in 1961, his reputation as a "Catholic" writer, and one who also used West-Africa as the scene for his moral explorations, had been firmly established.2 In this novel, set in the Congo in the period during and just after being granted independence, the main character is Querry, a famous European, probably Belgian church architect who has led a life of great personal and sexual indulgence. After the suicide of one of his lovers, and experiencing a complete breakdown of interest in his successful career, he leaves his old life and journeys to the Congo. There he boards a boat, which ferries provisions from the provincial capital Luc to an inland Belgian missionary station where he disembarks, but only because that is the terminal point. Querry's nihilism is slowly tempered by a growing involvement with the activities at the station--which is also a leper colony--and through his contacts with the crippled black convert Deo Gratias, the atheist doctor Colin and the charitable Mission Superior. But this road to redemption is blocked by Querry's unwilling and innocent entanglement in the affairs of the obsessive Belgian Rycker--manager of a palm oil factory--and his intimidated young wife, and because of the religious fanaticism and fancies of the junior priest Father Thomas. …

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