Over the past two decades, the critical writing on Joseph Conrad's representations of colonialism and imperialism, especially in the numerous publications that focus on Heart of Darkness, 1 has included some reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the perceived ambiguity of Conrad's historical and ideological position between the colonial and what is now called the 'post-colonial' world view. While some of the commentary presents Conrad as anti-colonial, there is still not sufficient recognition of the strategies Conrad uses to question colonialism. Several of these strategies are so subtle (and their irony so disguised) as to push Conrad into a colonialist position for some interpreters. 2
Many features of colonialism are re-emerging in a new guise almost a century after Conrad began writing. This development places us at a crossroad similar to that of Conrad's time, only travelling in the opposite direction, as governments lead their countries toward increasing militarism, and the much vaunted dismantling of nuclear arms facilities is matched by races in arms sales concentrated in various geographical areas of the globe. In the 1990s activity of this kind has been taking place in the South-East Asian and Pacific region, the same general region in which many Conrad narratives are set. This seems, then, an appropriate time to recall another of Conrad's short stories, less well known than Heart of Darkness, but one in which the sale of arms is the piece of plot mechanism that activates the narrative, and that ultimately returns it to the colonialist context from which its narrator's humanist gestures would patronisingly save it.
"Karain" is an early Conrad tale (c. 1897), published in 1898 in the collection titled Tales of Unrest.3 This collection also includes one of Conrad's earliest stories, "The Lagoon", a Romantic-exotic tale in the extreme. In both stories, set vaguely in a quasi-colonial outer frame, in which the apparent autonomy of the indigenous people would not stretch far beyond their own very small communities, a central Malay character tells white visitors a story of betrayal, a major Conradian preoccupation that will continue through many later novels and stories. Betrayal is among the themes of the two earliest novels, Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, but "The Lagoon" and "Karain" are the only Conrad narratives centred around betrayal on the part of 'native' and not European characters. In both texts the Malay's story constitutes the inner narrative, told in the first person, and is enclosed in an outer frame that must appear to take on the function of a mediating zone between a 'native' account, meant to be founded in a 'native' discourse and ideology, and the European - specifically the British Victorian - reader. That frame is presented in "The Lagoon" by an omniscient authorial voice, and in "Karain" by a character - narrator, one of the three white traders who visit the Malay chief's domain.
Although much has been said about betrayal and its relationship to Conrad's own situation as a Polish expatriot, this is not my central concern here. Instead, I want to focus upon the outer frame of this tale, and upon aspects of Romantic exoticism as they relate to the purpose of the Europeans' visits to Karain and to the role and ideological stance of the narrator, both as narrator and character. It is through these narratorial elements (rather than moral or ideological statements in the text) that the colonialist or post-colonialist position of the text can begin to take on cohesion and continuity.
The earlier of these two similar texts, "The Lagoon", is full of that same Romantic exoticism that Conrad later sets as a trap for his heroes in novels like Lord Jim, or in tales that adopt a self-consciousness closely related to Romantic irony as a means of debunking Romantic exotic adventure while continuing to indulge in it. Romantic irony was more than a Romantic form of metafiction; within Romanticism it was a site of tension between binary opposites, a way for writers to deceive 'reality' and achieve what they saw as a kind of objectivity by self-consciously acknowledging their subjectivity. Conrad manages to achieve a similar kind of involvement and detachment in several of his tales through his multiple narrators and his handling of memory as recollection and nostalgia. Another well-known Conrad tale, "Youth", is a prime example of this double game of debunking and indulgence. The difference between "The Lagoon" and "Youth" is that in "Youth" Conrad adds the Baudelairean touch of the address to the "hypocrite lecteur"; where the reader's complicity is stated directly in Baudelaire's "Au Lecteur", Conrad communicates it more subtly through his management of narrators in this tale.4 Marlow, in "Youth", indulges himself through nostalgia even as he mocks the idealism and quest for Romantic exotic adventure that 'inspired' his early years, and Conrad indulges the Victorian reader in the same way, at the price of a veiled accusation and a discomfort arising from Marlow's minute acts in the telling: slips of words, rapid and awkward movements between enjoyment and derision of his memories, and the gaps of silence. The reader shares responsibility for the text, becomes complicit with it.
The strong Romantic exotic element in "The Lagoon" is a major cause of the problems of language and style: the reader might well be back with Chateaubriand (or an unaware 'pastiche' of Chateaubriand), and "The Lagoon" could be called a mock Atala in its mixture of over-elaborate poetic description and over-simplified presentation of character and situation, particularly of Arsat, the central Malay character, with his 'noble savage' manner.5 And "The Lagoon" draws heavily on the exotic adventure tale so popular in the later nineteenth century. A brief look at any passage of this story is enough to register the extent of its contamination by the Romantic exotic discourse. In fact, Max Beerbohm's parody of Conrad's style, using this story as his model, has little to add in the way of elaboration and exaggeration, since the tale already verges on self parody.6
It was not until much later in our century, with texts like Edward Said's Orientalism, that the complicity of Romantic exoticism with colonialist attitudes was made explicit and fully articulated. Conrad could be said, at best, to have been groping towards such an awareness; Said claims this much for Conrad both in an early critical text and in a later article.7 But several of Conrad's narrators behave precisely in ways characteristic of a colonialist Romantic exoticism. In "Karain", and in keeping with the tendencies of his time, Conrad has the central Malay character, Karain, tell his story in a 'noble savage' language not very different from that of Arsat in "The Lagoon". But "Karain" is also the first Conrad narrative in which the outer frame surrounding Karain's own story is told by a participating character-narrator, the unnamed English trader who both introduces and liberally comments upon the inner story and its teller, Karain. Although he has been referred to as a Marlow prototype, this narrator lacks Marlow's perception and discernment; he has far fewer doubts and misgivings about his own approach to the world he enters. His presentation of the story - so benevolent and sympathetic on first appearances - gradually becomes suspect. His tendency to romanticise is brought into question, subtly at first, then more forcefully, and with it his reasons (and his companions' reasons) for being in that part of the world. The disquiet experienced by the reader is a reaction to both the unstable narratorial and the colonial positions adopted by the text.
The reasons why the narrator of "Karain" has come to Mindanao are not made clear until well into the tale. The three visitors have come to this "conveniently isolated corner of Mindanao" because they can "in comparative safety break the law against the traffic in firearms and ammunition with the natives"(p. 6). The narrator does not use the term 'gunrunning'. I chose it for the title of this article in a spirit of mock romantic adventure, precisely for its 'old-fashioned' connotations of heroic arms smuggling for lost causes in distant lands. A present-day term, like 'arms dealer', could conjure up disturbing images of first world exploitation of, and interference in, economically weak regions for its own political purposes, as occurred in the 'Gulf War'. The 'safer' and 'nobler' connotations that Conrad's narrator maintains throughout the tale keep the reader insulated from this kind of grim understanding of 'gunrunning'.
Whatever the reaction of the reader to these different terms, the narrator of "Karain" does not even speak of arms smuggling. With the exception of one or two euphemisms, he avoids the use of a noun altogether, and the above statement referring to "break[ing] the law against traffic in firearms and ammunition with the natives" is as far as he goes towards naming their activity. On the rare occasions when a reminder appears in the text, it invariably refers to the Romantic exotic adventure. No mention is made of any soul-searching or moral responsibility, only of the dangers of being caught in the act by roaming Spanish frigates. And at least one passage in the tale presents the notion, though it is vehemently denied by the European characters, that perhaps Queen Victoria herself, had she known of this 'bravoura', would have endorsed it. After all, it is in keeping with the 'greater adventures' of the colonial enterprise. She would no doubt have endorsed these activities more whole-heartedly than the manner in which the Englishmen solve the Malay chieftain's problem for him. Karain, who is haunted by the ghost of a friend he betrayed and murdered (the subject of the inner tale), is given by the Englishmen a jubilee sixpence on a ribbon to wear about his neck as a charm to ward off that phantom. Indeed Karain's expectation that a cure can only be provided by these European "non-believers" forms the climax of the story, as the three visitors cast around for a way to satisfy Karain and escape the momentary predicament in which his expectation has placed them. It is also the pivot around which the inner and outer narratives revolve, the point at which the 'native' and European cultures intersect and an understanding is arrived at, based as it is on what Christopher Gogwilt calls "cultural cross-purposes".8 I will return later to this point of contact between two tales and two cultures.
It is Karain who believes the arms smuggling to be quietly backed by none other than the head of state herself:
I fancy that to the last he believed us to be emissaries of Government, darkly official persons furthering by our illegal traffic some dark scheme of high statecraft. Our denials and protestations were unavailing. He only smiled with discreet politeness and inquired about the Queen. (pp. 14-15)
What the English characters would not permit themselves to think may be 'innocently' proffered by the 'shrewd' but 'unsophisticated' native protagonist. The structure of the text at this point contributes to this reading.
"Karain" is divided into six roughly equal parts (no subtitles, only number headings), and the above lines, which offer the second brief reference to the arms trade, occur in the second part. Only two other direct, very brief, references are made to the arms trade: once early in the third part, and then not until the end. The lines I quote here serve as a reminder that the arms trafficking of the three Englishmen is illegal and clandestine, and they indicate the depth of Karain's conviction that it is tacitly endorsed by officialdom. They also give some measure of the actual sophistication of Karain's mind in holding that belief, a sense of its being a conviction well founded in general likelihood, whatever may be the truth of this specific occasion. The white visitors' "denials and protestations" would have been equally "unavailing" in many places and times other than Karain's (or Conrad's). More often than not, illegal arms trading is quietly sanctioned by governments. But Karain's belief that the Englishmen are really carrying out the wishes of their queen is represented as belonging to a stock of characteristically simplistic native assumptions and naive misunderstandings concerning European 'civilisation' in general, and England and its queen in particular. In the context of post-colonial interpretation, however, the irony allows room for a very different reading whereby the 'native' understands much more than the Europeans, and plays up to their 'naive' expectations. The text continues along these lines:
Every visit began with that inquiry; he was insatiable of details; he was fascinated by the holder of a sceptre the shadow of which, stretching from the westward over the earth and over the seas, passed far beyond his own hand's-breadth of conquered land ... He multiplied questions; he could never know enough of the Monarch of whom he spoke with wonder and chivalrous respect - with a kind of affectionate awe! ... the far-off Queen whom he called Great, Invincible, Pious, and Fortunate. We had to invent details at last to satisfy his craving curiosity; and our loyalty must be pardoned, for we tried to make them fit for his august and resplendent ideal. (p. 15)
Karain's "insatiable" curiosity does not stop at the person of the queen but includes the notion of empire. Karain, too, desires a 'knowledge of the Other', but, notwithstanding the narrator's claims of friendship, there is no window into Karain's own view. The narrator and his friends clearly "invent" much more than the details offered to satisfy Karain's view of the world they come from. This fiction devised for 'native' consumption must be made to fit within the fiction of the 'native' as the European sees him, the native who cannot grasp the 'reality' of the West, a reality that proves itself by the end of the tale to be no less of a fiction.
The above is only one of numerous passages in which the reader's view of Karain is mediated by the narrator, who speaks as if he believes some form of cultural mediation is required of him. He must explain the local people to the British; the native Malay must be 'palatable' to the Victorian reader and still a 'native', and the narrator must be able to illustrate how he could, without scandal, become Karain's "very good friend"(p. 9). This phrase recalls an unusual moment in "The Lagoon", when the omniscient narrator drops the Romantic elaboration for a brief and ironic comment on the relationship between Arsat and 'the white man': "the white man liked Arsat ... not so much perhaps as a man likes his favourite dog ... but still he liked him well enough to listen and ask no questions" (p. 292).
Karain and his people are kept at a distance, in the domain of Other, by the manipulation of a "we"/"they" dichotomy that forms the basis from which the "he" for Karain can safely emerge after some time, and which permits only rare glimpses of the narrator in the first person singular. In fact, the narrator refers to himself alone no more than four times in the first twenty-five pages, or one third of the narrative, where he is screened and protected by a "we" so vague that it goes beyond the specific characters of the narrator and his two companions, 'ringing in' the readers of the text, offering a comfortable position from which to view the exotic, native panorama.
"We" is the very first word of Karain: "We knew him in those unprotected days when we were content to hold in our hands our lives and our property" (p. 1). No naming of characters; just pronouns with no possible referent as yet. But already the securely plural "we" grammatically 'governs' and semantically appropriates, through cognition, the lone object "him". With the verb in the past tense (implying that we knew him then, we do not know him now), that knowledge loses its immediacy and becomes mediated by memory which reinforces the appropriation (the memory belongs entirely to the one remembering), and sets at some remove the actual 'object' remembered. This builds upon the title of the tale which, in its complete form, reads "Karain: A Memory". The other attached clauses immediately refocus on "we" in "our" representation as romantic adventurers.
The second sentence gives the first glimpse of the narrator as "I", mixing report with confident conjecture: "I believe", "I hear", "I am sure that . . .". There follows a reference to reports in the "befogged respectability" of newspapers to "various native risings in the Eastern archipelago", a reference that does not reappear until the end of "Karain", so that these reports of "native risings" are hardly touched upon as content or even as contextual elements relating to the present situation, but are exploited as an entrance and an exit to the narrator's nostalgic recollections of the past.
It is with the third sentence of "Karain" that the exotic romantic description begins, of the sun shining on the waters of a Mindanao bay, a scene that may be glimpsed "between the lines", says the narrator, of those newspaper paragraphs. If we are not to trust the fictions of newspapers in their "befogged respectability", are we to trust the construction or re-creation of a reading "between the lines", a re-creation of which memory is the chief director? Or is this another Conradian clue of which his narrator is unaware, exhorting us to read between the lines of the tale in much the same way as the outer narrator in Heart of Darkness explains that for Marlow "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze"?9 What the narrator's recollecting and romanticising mind glimpses at this point is the group of people associated with the exotic setting and referred to merely as "they". In the middle of the second long paragraph it emerges that "they" are "Karain's people", so that only by way of "them" does the text return to Karain, who has not been mentioned, either by name or in the pronominal form, since the short opening clause "We knew him ... " But if Karain is at last distinguished as an individual with a name, it is not until the third of the tale's six parts that the pronoun "we" is broken down into the three individual Englishmen: Jackson, Hollis and the unnamed narrator. Until that point the pronoun "we" remains a useful position of security from which the narrator can deliver his observations and commentaries on the peculiarities of Karain.
Karain and his world are brought within the focus of a telescope that only "we" are able or permitted to use. They are cut off from the ordinary world (as the Europeans see it), and reconstructed as 'extraordinary', by the gaze of the European visitors. But this is something the narrator does not consciously acknowledge. He sees both Karain and the setting as naturally and geographically isolated, and he regards the intensity of light and colour, action and event, as caused by the brightness of the sun and the strangeness and exaggeration of the dress, manner, and comportment of Karain and his people. To express what he sees, the narrator keeps falling back on an image that reveals more about him than about Karain, even while it matches perfectly the impression he believes is created entirely by Karain and his setting. This is the image of the theatre.
In his article, Christopher Gogwilt refers to the self-consciousness of the narrator's descriptions of Karain and the bay where they find him. The exoticism, "taken to its furthest extreme", gives the impression of artifice, in turn a result of the narrator striving to reconstruct the past through nostalgic recollection. The Malay landscape of Conrad's earlier texts becomes, according to Gogwilt, "the remembered landscape of a mind attempting to recover some significant experience" and the "static and unnatural images" used "to describe natural phenomena" are among the "details that disorient the exotic scene".10 I carry Gogwilt's point further in maintaining that it is the sustained imagery of the theatre in particular, precisely as a cultural and literary convention, that highlights the exaggeration and self-consciousness of the narrator and the falseness not of Karain and the scenery but of his own position. This point is also made in a thesis on Conrad by Abd-alelah Al-Rifaei, who relates the falseness of the narrator's presentation of Karain's theatricality to the "we/they" divisions of the narration and to the problems of intercultural communication.11 My emphasis here is on the complicity of theatrical illusion, as the narrator perceives it, with the colonial view of the 'native' as Other, with the perpetuation of the colonial enterprise, and with his own engagement in trading arms as a central activity of that enterprise.
In nineteenth century literature, and especially in the French poetry and prose fiction of that period - a literature Conrad was well acquainted with - the theatre served as a thematic image representing artifice, convention and the unnatural. For the dandies and decadents of the time, like Baudelaire and Huysmans, this was perceived as more positive than negative. But Conrad appears to be using some of the conventions of decadence to indicate the impossibility of escape from convention. His humanistic narrator's choice of imagery demonstrates how the conventions of 'culture' (not only in the ethnographic sense, but also in the more traditional and restricted sense of the 'refinement' of the intellect and 'sensibilities'), far from being associated with enlightenment and tolerance - as they were by the eighteenth century 'philosophes' - or with any global sense of "human fellowship" (to use Conrad's own expression), go hand in hand with the discourse and conventions of empire. Theatre imagery joins forces with that of Romantic exoticism to appropriate that which appears as Other, by naturalising it through cultural convention, which nonetheless allows it to remain 'different' and even exaggerates that difference. As Said puts it, what is "circulated" by and within a culture is "not 'truth' but representations" that "rely upon institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding for their effects . . ."12 The narrator's use of theatre imagery translates into that same "will" that Said finds in Orientalism, that "intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world... "13
Intended for performance, the theatre legitimises the gaze. This is not only the aesthetic gaze that enjoys light and colour, dramatic gesture, composition, spectacle, but also the scrutinising gaze of the complacently superior European scientific discoverer (as exemplified by Cook) upon the exotic native. It is the gaze of cultural voyeurism. And the focus on its object is intensified through distance, so that the object becomes a microcosm at the end of the dark tube of a telescope, as in the theatre at the end of a darkened hall or opera glass.
In "Karain", as in so many other texts, Conrad distances himself from his narrator's attitudes, which appear themselves (at first) to be attitudes of detached impartiality, and for which the narrator congratulates himself. The theatrical imagery serves to communicate both Conrad's and his narrator's very different forms of detachment. The long reliance on the pronoun, "we", and the Romantic exotic lure, draw the reader in at first, and then disconcertion and uncertainty as to the narrator's motivation begin to take over, as the exaggerations build up and as responsibility for the grandiose spectacle is constantly laid at the feet of Karain.
The narrator states explicitly several times that the impression of theatricality emanates entirely from Karain himself, that theatrical illusoriness is produced, brought on by Karain, who "presented himself essentially as an actor"(p. 6) and pointed out his domain "with a theatrical sweep of his arm"(p. 3). For Karain, the bay where the traders drop anchor is "the stage where, dressed splendidly for his part, he strutted, incomparably dignified"(p. 6). Karain is always "ornate and disturbing"(p. 6); he is "clothed in the illusion of unavoidable success"(p. 7) and "treated with a solemn respect accorded in the irreverent West only to the monarchs of the stage"(p. 6). As this theatrical leit motif takes precedence, other, innocent-sounding descriptions and passing phrases begin to come across with their theatrical side highlighted. So, for example, the paddles of the canoes strike the water together "with a mighty splash that reverberated loudly in the monumental amphitheatre of hills"(p. 11). It is this amphitheatre that creates, for the narrator, the sense of isolation. From the Romantic-exotic view, Karain's domain, bounded by sea on one side and hills on the other, is at once "complete"(p. 4), and "immense and vague", a limitless and self-contained ideal world totally cut off from the actual world (pp. 6-8). It is therefore not to be trusted. Reality, for the narrator's 'Westerner', is best represented by ceaseless activity, especially trade (as in ammunitions trade), or other forms of economic activity. (This recalls Charles Gould's silver mining in Nostromo ). To Karain this ceaseless activity means the restlessness of the "unbeliever". With the notable exception of their arms trading, the visitors to the bay receive the strong impression that the real world is "shut out forever from this gorgeous spectacle" which the narrator describes as having "the suspicious immobility of a painted scene"(p. 8).
Conrad's narrator does appear to have some very vague notion of resonsibility for his attitude. While he claims that this theatricality creates a barrier between himself and Karain, he also throws into the middle of his statement a disconcerting and very telling phrase. He says of Karain:
There were at first between him and me his own splendour, my shabby suspicions, and the scenic landscape that intruded upon the reality of our lives by its motionless fantasy of outline and colour. (p. 11)
"[M]y shabby suspicions" comes right between the theatrical splendour of Karain and the theatrical backdrop quality of the setting, so that the narrator's suspicions are necessarily related contextually to his theatre image. Does this sentence refer to the theatricality, the painted scenery, as suspicious because he shabbily insists on regarding it so? Or does he hold suspicions of another kind concerning Karain and his world? Suspicions deepened by the theatricality that he perceives as pervading everything there? For there is another connection that the narrator does not voice, at least not explicitly: the link of theatrical unreality and illusoriness with that which is non-Western, that which is Other, foreign, or 'primitive'. The narrator is occasionally on the verge of picking out what is not consistent about his own perceptions, but he never goes all the way, does not cross that indefinable line to an articulated recognition.
At this point the theatre imagery joins with mirror imagery through association, the theatre as mirror being itself a classic literary convention. In the text it combines with the 'mirror of the Other' and the notion of affirming the self through the discovery of what is 'not self'. In this case 'not self' is equated with the 'exotic primitive', but it is also equated with the theatrical unreal, and these two views are telescoped together. If Karain is treated by his people with a respect "accorded in the irreverent West only to monarchs of the stage"(p. 6), the implication is that this respect need not be taken seriously by the 'Westerner', who occupies the 'real' world. Nor does it even have the status of theatre in European society, that is, as an index and manifestation of a 'high (or high-brow) culture'. Ironically it is regarded as the everyday, natural exaggeration of the simple primitive, the uncultured being. Thus Karain and his people can be referred to incongruously as "an ornamented and barbarous crowd"(p. 2). And if the narrator and his companions can deal relatively guiltlessly in arms with them, it is because the Malays are both "barbarous" and not real. "They" are not "us", and Karain, in spite of the narrator's claims to have spoken words with him that "take no account of race or colour" (p. 35), is not "one of us" (to use Marlow's famous words in Lord Jim); notwithstanding the narrator's awareness of his "own shabby suspicions"(p. 11), other aspects of the way he speaks about Karain indicate that "our" superiority and "their" inferiority have something to do with the practical reality of our existence and the exaggerated, ornamental and theatrical illusoriness of theirs.
Karain, says the narrator, "filled the stage with barbarous dignity"(p. 9), a phrase that calls to mind the earlier "ornamented and barbarous crowd", but that is also associated with the convention of the 'noble savage'; it connects the narrator's theatrical construction of Karain with both the typically colonialist image and the conventional literary representation of the 'native'. The narrator uses several other racist cliches, referring at one time to Karain's "sentences, ominous like hints and complicated like arabesques"(p. 6), which, like his attitude to the gun-smuggling as unofficially/officially endorsed, must surely be the product of Karain's "childish shrewdness"(p. 23). And so, within the narrator's protestations of friendship lie the undermining and subverting assumptions of his own culture. Karain could "negotiate more tortuously than any man of his race I knew"(p. 9), and had "a steadfastness of which I would have thought him racially incapable"(p. 23). The narrator even admits at one point to being "startled" and "amazed" to discover that for Karain, "his life - that cruel mirage of love and peace - seemed as real, as undeniable, as theirs would be to any saint, philosopher, or fool of us all"(pp. 60-61). But the narrator is especially wary of Karain's "concentrated lust of violence which is dangerous in a native"(p. 24). It is surely no mere coincidence that after giving a precise illustration of this "native ... lust of violence", the narrator concludes his argument (and Conrad the paragraph) with a reference to the European inventions for the destruction of human life: "We gave up remonstrating after this, and let him go his way to an honourable disaster. All we could do for him was to see to it that the powder was good for the money and the rifles serviceable, if old"(pp. 24-25). Having eased their own consciences with a little remonstration, the three Englishmen return to their normal livelihood - trade - that very activity that firmly maintains them in the world of 'reality'. This is the third and only other direct reference to the sale of ammunition before the end of the tale.
The ultimate subversion of the narrator's views of Karain and his world (a climax in the build-up of subversion) comes when his fellow trader, Hollis, produces the sixpence for Karain. He finds it in a box of mementos that include a silk ribbon, a photo, a glove, a packet of letters. The narrator recognises these for what they are: "Amulets of white men! Charms and talismans!"(p. 68). But 'native' ornamentation and superstition are rarely recognised as such by those within the social discourse or ideology that produces them, and these words perhaps represent the closest the narrator comes to understanding the position of reversal in which his own culture has been placed by Hollis's substitution of the sixpence for the swordbearer. Such a reversal he would refuse to accept, and he admits to a confused reaction to Hollis' act: "We said nothing. We did not know whether to be scandalised, amused, or relieved"(p. 69). Karain hoped to replace the dead swordbearer who had been his constant companion and had warded off the ghost of the murdered man. When he accepts the sixpence the signs of one discourse are being exchanged for those of another, and the sartorial, ceremonial and theatrical aspects of this gilt sixpence, to be worn with the silk ribbon, are directly reconnected with the wider context of imperialism and colonialism through the image of the queen and, ironically, the trivial trappings of empire. Trivial, but endowed with special meaning. This is not just any sixpence, but a jubilee sixpence, produced to celebrate fifty years of Victoria's reign. Empire worship is no less an act of religious faith than any other native rites and superstitions, as Marlow wittingly or unwittingly implies in his famous lines in Heart of Darkness ; in their heavy repetition and extreme imagery these lines appear to 'protest too much': "The conquest of the earth ... is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to ... "(my italics).14 All of which is precisely what Kurtz is later discovered to have quite literally done. In "Karain", Hollis' production of the jubilee sixpence rebounds on the narrator's entire representation of 'the natives', and only 'the natives', as given to the theatre of solemnity, rite, spectacle, ornamentation, and (could we not add, by virtue of the arms trade?) human sacrifice . . .
The narrator's theatre imagery is more than a literary convention. The construction of a cultural Other - usually one perceived as 'native' or inferior - as theatre, may well be a convention of human discourse everywhere; it is certainly a convention of present-day Anglo-Saxon cultural discourse, as was amply demonstrated in an Australian naval 'exercise' just prior to the 'Gulf War', when naval personnel appeared to have decided that the only way to learn about how Muslims pray was through mock imitation, with all the exaggeration and theatrics to represent the simplistically and naturally theatrical rituals of the Muslim at prayer.
Whether it is produced for the sake of comedy and mockery, and to reduce the customs of the 'Other' (in the above case the 'enemy'), to objects of ridicule and derision, or for the more subtly corrupt reasons of Romantic exoticism (which superficially carries positive appeal), this theatrical construction of the Other pre-empts any entry into that Other's world view. In this narrative its use also reinforces the colonialist, negative and Romantic-exotic connotations of the word 'native'. Used in this context, in reference to Karain and his people, this term is even deprived of its denotative meaning, since Karain himself is a foreigner, a Malay who has invaded this part of Mindanao and, with his followers - all outcasts like himself - has driven back the original inhabitants behind the hills. And this is precisely the reason why he is buying arms from the Englishmen, not - at least not originally and certainly not ostensibly - for purposes of freedom from Spanish colonial rule. Thus also the term "native risings", occurring at the beginning of the narrative and referred to again at the end, is similarly deprived of any possible 'legitimate' meaning related to self-determinacy of a people, and is left only with the negative and imperialist connotations of 'native unrest', especially given its locus of appearance in the story - a British Victorian newspaper.
It is by way of a crowning image in furnishing closure that the tale returns to the matter of arms trading (startlingly, given its rare appearance to this point). Even here the "traffic in firearms and ammunition with the natives" re-enters the text only by way of the new image and a few words of conversation that the narrator reports. As mentioned earlier, the image of the mirror is implied throughout the narrative in the way the theatrical representation of the Other is manipulated. At the end of the tale it emerges as a potent, overt image, introduced by an actual reflection in glass, and bringing together a number of the possible connections and implications of "Karain".
The last scene of this narrative takes place some years later in London, in The Strand, where the narrator runs into Jackson, the third member of the trio. As the two walk and talk, it is Jackson who stops suddenly before the window of a gunshop, an act explained by the simple clause, "He always had a passion for firearms . . ."(pp. 75-76). But it is the sight of the firearms displayed in the window that reminds Jackson of Karain and leads him to ask the narrator, "Do you remember Karain?"(p. 76). This echoes the narrator's words when introducing this scene: "But the memory remains"(p. 75). When Jackson goes on to state more explicitly, "[t]he sight of all this made me think of him", the narrator catches sight of Jackson's reflection in the glass: ". . . and I could see another man, powerful and bearded, peering at him intently from among the dark and polished tubes that can cure so many illusions"(p. 76). The theatre is left far behind, its only vestige in the word "illusions", which had already been used several times in reference to Karain, as in "the splendour of his stage ... the illusion of unavoidable success . . ." Now that illusion has come to include the 'theatre' of war (at least of war as it is often presented to and by those who are not in it), and in this case the illusion of revolt against the Spanish. (The colonial power must be ostensibly the Spanish, and not the British, in "Karain", just as it must be the Belgians, and not the British, in Heart of Darkness .)
In this final scene the word 'illusions' can be read in several possible ways, and not merely as the illusion of freedom from Spanish colonial rule as indicated by phrases like "He will make it hot for the caballeros"(p. 76). Nor is it merely Karain's illusion. The emphasis on remembering Karain by way of the gunshop also implies the illusion of memory, or more precisely, of the narrator's memory, his spurious reconstruction of the past, and the dubious role of nostalgia in developing the kind of Romantic-exotic representation of the Other that ultimately engenders more distance than empathy. In both time and space the narrator is comfortably situated - in the present, and at the centre of the British empire - to produce the narrative entitled "Karain: a Memory", and not have it questioned, especially since memory is a form of 'unreality' (in the sense of non-actuality and re-creation) whose embellishments are fully accepted if they conform to the current conventions of representation.
But Jackson's reflection in the window of the gunshop could also be perceived as a forewarning that Western man's (and I emphasise 'man's' here ... notwithstanding Conrad's reputation concerning his attitude to women), more specifically British Victorian man's, powerful and virile image of himself will be "cured" by these same polished tubes from which that image seems to peer. (The tubes are the actuality, the reflection is a superimposed image). In this case the "Nemesis" is not coming from the East, as Marlow suggests it will do in "Youth", but from the self. I find this a credible reading given the tale's emphasis on reflections and reversals, and given the narrator's earlier remarks that Karain "summed up his race, his country ... and, like it, he carried the seed of peril within"(p. 7). The distancing gaze that formerly scrutinised the 'native' through a theatrical or Romantic-exotic telescope is now reflected back upon the gazer from the barrels of the guns. But there is also the illusion (or the myth) of what, for the European, the guns themselves signify, which is not only concrete power through the physical machinery of destruction, but also, and especially, economic control. These are not, after all, firearms in use, but firearms displayed for sale. The illusion that neither Jackson nor the narrator perceive as such, but which the confluence of words and images permits the reader to reconstruct at this point, is the assumption that arms trading is an essential part of civilised human activity, and therefore of reality, while the 'native' customs and beliefs of Karain and his people, lacking that all-important "devotion to efficiency" (to use again Marlow's words in Heart of Darkness), are not real. By the same token, neither is their use of (or 'playing with') European weaponry, which in their hands only represents their barbarous theatricality.
Jackson and the narrator each recognise this illusion only partly. The narrator sees the reflection, senses in it something ominous which Jackson, with his "passion for firearms", is not aware of. Conversely, it is Jackson who asks if Karain's haunting by a ghost from the dead could be true, and it is the narrator who flatly rejects this possibility: "My dear chap," I cried, "you have been too long away from home. What a question to ask! Only look at all this"(p. 77). And there follows one of those frequent Conradian descriptions of the bustling life of London in all the 'reality' of its 'busy-ness' and its immediacy and familiarity. This London is also the centre of the empire's mechanical and material "unrest" (a favourite term of Conrad and part of the title of the collection in which "Karain" appears). For the narrator this "unrest" of material efficiency is also the "unrest" of life itself, but Jackson insists: "Yes; I see it ... it pants, it runs, it rolls ... but I'll be hanged if it is yet as real to me as ... as the other thing ... say, Karain's story"(p. 79). Jackson is the one for whom the 'West' may yet be a fiction, and therefore the one who has become subject to vague qualms about the plight of the man to whom they had sold arms. He is the one who says "they are fighting over there again. He's sure to be in it"(p. 76).
The narrator's final statement of "Karain" - "I think that, decidedly, he had been too long away from home"(p. 79) - makes plain his choice of position, even after, and perhaps because of, the disquieting and unsettling experiences that had formerly threatened to undermine his view. It also returns the text to the established or official position it would have to adopt if it were going to be published in the year of the jubilee celebration. Or at least so it must appear.
1 Although originally serialised in Blackwood's and then published as a novella with two shorter tales ( "Youth" and "The End of the Tether"), Conrad's Heart of Darkness has also been issued separately. The edition I refer to here is the Robert Kimbrough edition (New York, Norton, 1988).
2 See, for example, Benita Parry's Conrad and Imperialism:Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers (London, Macmillan, 1983). Several critical articles place Conrad in a transitional zone concerning attitude to imperialism and colonialism, though at different points along the continuum. Among them: Patrick Brantlinger, " 'Heart of Darkness': Anti-imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?" Criticism: A quarterly for Literature and the Arts, 27, No. 4 (1985), 363-385; D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, Developing Countries in English Fiction, as cited in Robert Hamner, "Colony, Nationhood and Beyond: Third World Writers and Critics Contend with Joseph Conrad," World Literature Written in English, 23, No. 1 (1984), 106-116; Peter Nazareth, "Out of Darkness: Conrad and Other Third World Writers," Conradiana, 14, No. 3 (1982), 178; and Edward Said, "The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World," Salmagundi, No. 70-71 (1986), 65-74.
3 Joseph Conrad, "Karain: A Memory", in Tales of Unrest, (London: Nash and Grayson, 1922). All subsequent references in my text are to this edition of the tale.
4 In noting this similar approach I do not mean to insist on a direct adaptation, although some argument could be made, and has been, for the strong influence of nineteenth-century French literature on Conrad's writing, both in content and in form. See Yves Hervouet, The French Face of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
5 I base this intertextual association on the general perception of Chateaubriand's Atala as a prototype of the nineteenth-century Romantic convention of the 'noble savage', and on the highly classical style of writing still found in Chateaubriand, especially the weighing of long phrases, breath groups and adjective groupings, which Conrad also adopts and tends to elaborate on. Details of these linguistic and stylistic similarities between Conrad's writing and that of classically influenced nineteenth-century French writers can be found in Hervouet's text (note 3 above).
6 Max Beerbohm, "The Feast", A Christmas Garland (London: Heinemann, 1950), pp. 129-34.
7 Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press, 1966), and "The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World", Salmagundi, No. 70-71 (1986), 65-74.
8 Christopher Gogwilt, "The Charm of Empire: Joseph Conrad's 'Karain: a Memory', "Mosaic , 24, No. 1 (1991), 80.
9 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Robert Kimbrough, ed. (New York, Norton, 1988), p. 7.
10 Gogwilt, 80 and 81.
11 Abd-alelah H. A. Al-Rifaei, "Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Discourse in the Shorter Fiction Of Joseph Conrad", Thesis Glasgow 1991, pp. 263-8.
12 Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1987 ), p.22.
13 Said, p. 12.
14 Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 10.
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