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The horror, the horror!

EXTERMINATE ALL THE BRUTES by Sven Lindqvist, Granta Books pounds 8.99

Barbara Gunnell
Saturday 26 April 1997 23:02 BST

IN Sven Lindqvist's childhood home a whip stood next to the bookcase. The whip, wielded by his father, taught Lindqvist that when people take to violence they are seized with a madness "which carries them along and makes them unrecognisable". In the bookcase were the history books of his parents' and grandparents' era - tales of darkest Africa which made heroes of the brutal adventurers and colonialists of the late 19th century.

But alongside these overblown legends was also the testimony of a Swedish missionary, Edward Wilhelm Sjoblom, from which the child Sven first learnt of a place called the Congo where floggings, brutality and mass murder were practised, and where an "exercise in commercial expansion", as a report to the Royal Statistical Society later called it, seemed to have plumbed new depths of depravity. Sjoblom witnessed and recorded the inhumanity and horrors inflicted on Africans, including young children, by Europeans.

The Swedish missionary took his reports to London in June 1897, where the reformer Charles Dilke took up the case in reasoned articles in liberal magazines. Newspapers reported, learned bodies debated. There was, for a short while, a revulsion against the Belgian ivory and rubber trading regime. But Britons, woefully, and maybe wilfully, ignorant of the atrocities carried out even by their compatriots, soon tired of these accounts of mutilations and decapitations. The preferred news stories out of Africa were triumphalist tales of the railway-built-through-savage-territory genre. A personal visit the same month from Belgium's King Leopold II to Queen Victoria (and to King Oscar in Stockholm) soon restored normal service.

The public debate in London had, though, captured the attention of Joseph Conrad, who soon after began to write Heart of Darkness, his own bleak statement on the Congo. Lindqvist takes from the story the chilling line spoken by the deranged company agent Kurtz - "Exterminate all the brutes" - as the title and departure point of his own idiosyncratic investigation of European imperialism in Africa. Lindqvist's contention is that Conrad laid bare a European supremacist attitude to "inferior races" that imbues our culture and is part of our colonial heritage; that "exterminate all the brutes" is not a statement of madness, or extremism, but a sentiment to which, in different forms, Europeans had assented for decades. Even more bleakly, Lindqvist believes they have continued to do so.

But his intention is not essentially polemical. His book is primarily a tale of travelling, both a personal journey through dreams and childhood demons and a physical (and rather dull) journey through the Sahara. Unifying it is Lindqvist's painstaking search for meanings and sources for Conrad's bleak vision. This literary detective work provides some genuinely thrilling moments - as when Lindqvist discovers that on 17 December 1897, Conrad would have found in his regular paper (the Saturday Review) the account of a Captain Rom "who ornamented his flower beds with heads of 21 natives killed in a punitive expedition. This is the Belgian idea of the most effectual method of promoting the civilisation of the Congo."

The day after, writes Lindqvist, Conrad started Heart of Darkness, "the story in which Marlow turns his binoculars on Kurtz's house and catches sight of those heads - black, dried, sunken, the eyes closed, the result of their owner's motto: 'Exterminate all the brutes'. "

Lindqvist finds further echoes of the phrase in Conrad's contemporaries. H G Wells, in War of the Worlds, tells his readers not to judge the Martians too harshly for thinking they have a right to conquer the Earth and for perceiving humans as lower animals. "We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought ... on its own inferior races." The truth is, concludes Lindqvist, that there was barely a European who was not familiar with debates concerning the desirability or at least the inevitably of "extermination" of whole races - of Africans, or Native Americans, or Australian Aborigines - during that time.

This is bleak indeed. But is Lindqvist right that the central purpose of colonialism was extermination? What of profit, or trade, or cheap labour, to name only the least benign alternatives? And is he right to conclude that "the air ... all Western people [at the beginning of the century] breathed was soaked in the conviction that imperialism is a biologically necessary process, which ... leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races"? Should he treat a Swedish fascist group with such gravity as to quote in the flyleaf of his book the ugly and leaden message: "All Jews and negroes ought really to be exterminated. We shall be victorious. The other races will disappear and die out."

There is surely comfort for Lindqvist in his own research. For if Europeans were for the most part drunk with the notion that their supremacy excused extreme atrocities, then why would Conrad have found, and expected us to find, the news reports of white megalomania, the image of the heads on posts in the garden, so shocking? Kurtz's mad deathbed cry, "The horror, the horror!", is, after all, also Conrad's. Heart of Darkness might be criticised for being uncontrolled, or even itself bordering on madness, but it is certainly not the product of a sensibility at ease with such events.

Lindqvist has written a strange, unclassifiable volume: part autobiography, part history, part literary criticism, part dream diary, part travels with a laptop computer, without the invention of which it could probably not have been written at all. Lindqvist crosses the desert with his 100 disks ("a whole library that together weighs no more than a book") rather as a camel carries its own sustenance.

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