Poland’s Heart of Darkness

Relax, this isn’t going to be nearly as serious as the title suggests.

I just found out that Joseph Conrad (otherwise known as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) lived in Krakow as a teenager. I live in Krakow, and that means I can cobble together a cheap post composed of references to Conrad, rivers, and people gasping “The horror… ! The horror…!”

Joseph Conrad—the inventor of Apocalypse Now, the Starship Nostromo, and Habitat—was born somewhere in what is now the Ukraine in 1857 and very sensibly moved to Krakow in 1869. After messing about being a teenager for a few years he later went on to write a series of books that have been mercilessly boring other teenagers to near insanity ever since. Annoyingly he wrote them in English, so I was among those subjected to their narcoleptic powers. Exactly why he wasn’t able to restrain his endless ramblings about fate and guilt and duty and all of those other things that exam composers are so enamored of to Polish or some other language that needn’t have troubled 99 percent of the rest of the world we will never know.

In Krakow no one can hear you scream (damn it, wrong movie!)

The one thing that everybody knows about Conrad is that he wrote Heart of Darkness, which is incredibly dull, and that Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, which is incredibly cool, is somehow ‘based’ on it. Nobody with any sense has bothered to read Heart of Darkness beyond page ten, while none of the same people have failed to watch the movie less than ten times. The result is that everyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now thinks they know what Heart of Darkness is about, which they don’t and they’re much better off in consequence. The other consequence is that, somewhere, Joseph Conrad is rotating in his grave at a steady 700 rpm.

By the way, did you know that Alien (the movie that features the USCSS Nostromo—named for a Conrad novel) was released in the same year as Apocalypse Now? Makes you think doesn’t it… Makes me think about Ripley in her underpants anyway.

The River Bit
Krakow is a river city. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this already. The mighty Vistula flows through her in a delightfully none-too-broad, none-too-rapid, none-too-sluggish kind of way. There are swans, hardly ever eaten by the inhabitants, pagan wreaths thrown in by lovely maidens in mid summer, and a complete absence of olive green PBRs crewed by CIA assassins. In fact there’s a remarkable lack of boats of any kind. Sure, there are a few rusting hulks tied to the shore masquerading as ‘pubs’ and dozens of weird little craft designed to extract hard currency from summer tourists, but it’s incredibly rare to see an actual boat. By this I mean you almost never see privately owned pleasure craft cruising along the river going from someplace else to someplace else. In my typically perverse way I therefore conceived a scheme to cruise down the Vistula from Krakow as far as Warsaw, and maybe all the way to Gdansk.

A river runs through it (I may have to shoot my caption writer)

I didn’t get very far. As far as I can tell there is zero information on the interweb thingy about how possible this is. The best I was able to ascertain is that the Vistula is ‘navigable’ for some 900 km from the sea but that nobody has really bothered to do it since the days of the Hanseatic League 700 years ago. I’m intrigued. If I plonked, say, a 20-foot-long shallow-bottomed river cruiser into the Vistula just beneath Wawel Castle and headed north exactly how far do you think I would get? And if I headed south, towards the source, would I end up in a village full of skulls on stakes ruled over by Lech Wałęsa with a shaved head? It’s a tempting idea.

I’m here a year now… waiting for a mission… getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Polak squats in the bush, he gets stronger…

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18 thoughts on “Poland’s Heart of Darkness

  1. scatts says:

    Here you go! http://myronsrandomthoughts.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/alien_sigourney_1.jpg

    I watched and enjoyed Edge of Darkness and I’ve seen Conrad’s statue in Gdynia. Do I get brownie points?

  2. darthsida says:

    I read Jacek Dukaj’s Heart of Darkness (“Serce Mroku’), does it count?

    Question: how can anyone know “Apocalypse Now” is ‘based’ on Conrad? Given “nobody with any sense” bothers to take on the latter? Is it some urban meme spread by people without sense, then?

    PS Lech Wałęsa with a shaved head would do, his Samsonite powers are in his tache.

  3. JV says:

    You nutter – the film was not made by Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket was), and the book is not dull – unless you’re writing about it without having read it.

    Stick to writing about Poland.

  4. Michael B. says:

    Apocalypse Now was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, not Kubrick. And it was loosely based on Heart Of Darkness. And no, Heart of Darkness was not a boring book.

  5. me says:

    Island ,last year some germans made a nice vistula tour from krakow to warsaw


    maybe you should try it, too ;)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, the navigability of the Vistula is a real bother… Back in the 60’s and 70′ stere were regular boat rides up and down the Vistula over several of its stretches (see for instance the classic movie “Rejs”). But, the river carries a lot of crap (sand, stones earth, dead gangster bodies ;) ) and needs to be dredged a lot for craft to pass. dredging however = money, so not much boating is done…

    Last year (or the year before) though, a really fancy shmansy exclusive 5-star hotel boat made a cruise from Krakow to Gdansk. So it is possible even for bigger boats… but apparently it was a big pain in the you-know-what, so they didnt repeat it…

    And yes, heart of darkness is horribly, horribly dull. I have never managed to cross the 100 page mark. Having said that, I think Apocalypse Now is also intensely boring in exactly the same way as heart of darkness – both tales are a load of pretentious plonk…oh well… at least the vistula is nice ;)

  7. island1 says:

    Kubrick! Arse, that’s what you get for not concentrating.



  8. island1 says:

    Darth: People know because whenever the film is mentioned somebody inevitably says “that was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness you know” to which everyone else sagely nods and hopes that nobody is going to ask exactly how it’s based on Heart of Darkness. It’s a vicious circle of self-reinforcing ignorance that I believe was started by Coppola himself (or possibly Kubrick).

    PS So if we could somehow get out hands on that tache we could rule the world!

  9. island1 says:

    Scatts: That’s the ticket! Of course in 1979 we got to see that scene for a fleeting second and then had to make do with fevered memories, now you can look it up on the interweb thingy and gawp until you’re heart’s content… my how we’ve progressed.

  10. island1 says:

    JV: I thought I was writing about Poland.

    And yes it is extremely dull, and it doesn’t get any less dull when you’ve gotten to the last page.

  11. island1 says:

    Me: Four strapping young lads in an open boat taking lots of pictures of each other with their shirts off. But leaving that aside, it’s actually pretty cool.

  12. anglopole says:

    Oh, poor me! I must have had no sense at all as, not only did I read AND enjoy Heart of Darkness, but made quite a few references to it in my boring thesis about symbols, parables, metaphors, etc. ;) On the other hand, I wasn’t all that fascinated with Apocalypse Now…
    a good read, as usual Island! :D

  13. George Bush says:

    “It’s a vicious circle of self-reinforcing ignorance that I believe was started by Coppola himself …

    Uh, if Coppola, who directed the film, said he used Heart of Darkness to frame his tale set in Vietnam…. uhhhhhh.”

    And he also said he studied Werner Herzog’s “Agurire: The Wrath of God.”

    And Herzog said…

    And I say Conrad stole it from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” — Rollin’ down the River.

  14. George Bush says:

    Coppola and Conrad:


    Coppola and Herzog:



    And many more….

    Actually, Apocalypse Now was entirely original. Coppolla had no influences… His work completely stands on it’s own.

  15. Sylwia says:

    I think it’s impossible to have no influences unless someone avoided any kind of education, preferably living on an isolated island. Condrad preferred Słowacki to Mickiewicz. That’s enough reason to like him in my view.

    The 5 star boat hotel had problems to make it even to Warsaw from Gdańsk – the river wasn’t deep enough. As we remember from geography classes Vistula is broad, with many meanders, and tends to flood anyone who attempts to tame her. ;-)

  16. schaden freud says:

    Why are these Conradian conquistadores speaking in German?

  17. island1 says:

    Mr President: Thanks for the links. I was only kidding about the viscous circle.

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