The eight tourists killed in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest would, according to the travel writer Jan Morris, have been well aware of the dangers of their journey into "the darkest heart of Africa". Ken Wiwa offered a radically different interpretation of the same event. Sensational media coverage of this isolated incident, he argued, reflects nothing more than our own irrational prejudices about Africans: "It is the darkness in our hearts that the media and now the likes of the Interahamwe militia are manipulating". ("The darkness we see in Africa lives deep within our hearts", the Independent on Sunday, 7 March).
It was inevitable that a massacre in central Africa would compel observers to revisit imagery drawn from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. More noteworthy, perhaps, is that a century after he wrote it, Conrad's book has become an all-purpose resource for the social critic. Writing in the TLS, Melanie Phillips finds that the case of Fred and Rosemary West represents "a journey into Britain's heart of darkness" ("Britain's dark heart", TLS, 9 October 1998). A BBC documentary investigation of 25 October, focusing on race killings in the US, called itself Heart of Darkness. Julie Burchill recalls "the horror, the horror" of Sunday evenings spent dreading another week at school ("Beast days of my life", the Guardian, 12 September 1998). The music journalist Dave Simpson has his own unlikely encounter with the macabre, in the form of the Danish band Aqua and their "Barbie Girl" signature tune ("The horror, the horror", the Guardian, 18 September 1998). And Alex Garland, in his novel The Beach, even had fun at the expense of his anti-hero Richard, the only traveller who hadn't packed his Conrad and whose ignorance in conversation with a drugged-up lunatic threatens to lower the tone. "He stared with a slightly baffled, innocent expression, then chuckled. 'The horror,' he said. 'What?' 'The horror.' 'What horror?' "
Well, what horror indeed? The Swedish essayist Sven Lindqvist, in his recent book Exterminate all the Brutes (Granta, £5.99) sets about answering that very question. Written in the form of a travel diary charting his bus journey across the Sahara, Lindqvist wrestles with his emerging obsession with Conrad and the social and intellectual climate that inspired him to write about the Belgian Congo. The result is a voyage of discovery akin to that experienced by Conrad's narrator Marlow, in the course of his own fictional voyage up the Congo river in search of the maverick trader Kurtz.
Just as disturbing as the horrors visited on Africans in the quest for colonial profit, Lindqvist finds, are the grotesque myths that passed for science and anthropology at the turn of the century and which apologised for the brutality in Africa by arguing that "inferior" races were already condemned to extinction. Drawing directly on published accounts of the era, and weaving in biographical details on Conrad, Lindqvist shows how there was a remarkable congruence between the language employed by the colonial apologists and the language Conrad appropriated for the insane ramblings of Kurtz. Lindqvist concludes that the colonial racism of the Victorians was a precursor to the Nazi quest for Lebensraum and the extermination of the Jews.
All this is indeed horrible, as far as it goes. But Lindqvist has little to say on the significance of Conrad's tale itself. Conrad himself came late to the criticism of colonialism, and as Edward Said argues in Culture and Imperialism, the metaphors he brings to his subject are ambiguous. As a narrator, Marlow is certainly scornful of the veneer of respectability with which the colonial profiteers sought to disguise their work. On the other hand, he does not give us the sense that there is any alternative: the horrors are made to look horrible but inevitable. Conrad, according to Said, presents Marlow as an "inquiring western mind trying to make sense of an apocalyptic revelation". The narrative structure of the novel, he argues, confirms both Kurtz and Marlow as endowed with a superior, western understanding. So while Conrad is under no illusions about the horrors of imperialism, his attempt to make sense of those horrors within a "historicist vision" simply overrides the history of "others" and mimics the nature of the imperialist project itself.
Yet far from being blessed with a superior western understanding, Kurtz is - at least by the time the reader catches up with him - a broken man. And the horrors which have shaken Kurtz to his foundations appear to have a similar effect on Marlow. As his journey progresses, Marlow's "inquiring western mind" becomes incoherent, his descriptive faculties lost in a frenzy of meaningless babble about "unspeakable rites", "inconceivable mysteries" and "impenetrable darkness". All this helps to convey dramatic tension, but it also begins to cloud Marlow's judgement and confuse the reader. Rather like Alex Garland's protagonist in The Beach, we are entitled to ask: what rites, which mysteries, what kind of darkness? If Conrad is pessimistic about the consequences of imperial expansion, it is a pessimism not borne of any "historicist vision" but of a lack of any vision at all. When all the specificity of its colonial context is emptied of any meaning and rendered incomprehensible, what remains is a moral wilderness in which even the observer, Marlow, becomes blinded by the horror and forced into a series of grotesque, mystical generalisations about the savage secrets of the human soul.
Given the ambiguities of Conrad's parable, it is remarkable how contemporary observers are drawn to invoke the spirit of his work. Served up as an ironic squawk or to invoke an unfathomable moral vacuum, the Conradian refrain has become tired and vulgar. Kurtz himself had a robust approach to the suppression of vulgar cultural habits: "Exterminate all the brutes!"