“An Outpost of Progress” — Joseph Conrad

“An Outpost of Progress” by Joseph Conrad


There were two white men in charge of the trading station. Kayerts, the chief, was short and fat; Carlier, the assistant, was tall, with a large head and a very broad trunk perched upon a long pair of thin legs. The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price. However, for some reason or other, the natives down the river had given him the name of Makola, and it stuck to him through all his wanderings about the country. He spoke English and French with a warbling accent, wrote a beautiful hand, understood bookkeeping, and cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits. His wife was a negress from Loanda, very large and very noisy. Three children rolled about in sunshine before the door of his low, shed-like dwelling. Makola, taciturn and impenetrable, despised the two white men. He had charge of a small clay storehouse with a dried-grass roof, and pretended to keep a correct account of beads, cotton cloth, red kerchiefs, brass wire, and other trade goods it contained. Besides the storehouse and Makola’s hut, there was only one large building in the cleared ground of the station. It was built neatly of reeds, with a verandah on all the four sides. There were three rooms in it. The one in the middle was the living-room, and had two rough tables and a few stools in it. The other two were the bedrooms for the white men. Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture. The plank floor was littered with the belongings of the white men; open half-empty boxes, torn wearing apparel, old boots; all the things dirty, and all the things broken, that accumulate mysteriously round untidy men. There was also another dwelling-place some distance away from the buildings. In it, under a tall cross much out of the perpendicular, slept the man who had seen the beginning of all this; who had planned and had watched the construction of this outpost of progress. He had been, at home, an unsuccessful painter who, weary of pursuing fame on an empty stomach, had gone out there through high protections. He had been the first chief of that station. Makola had watched the energetic artist die of fever in the just finished house with his usual kind of “I told you so” indifference. Then, for a time, he dwelt alone with his family, his account books, and the Evil Spirit that rules the lands under the equator. He got on very well with his god. Perhaps he had propitiated him by a promise of more white men to play with, by and by. At any rate the director of the Great Trading Company, coming up in a steamer that resembled an enormous sardine box with a flat-roofed shed erected on it, found the station in good order, and Makola as usual quietly diligent. The director had the cross put up over the first agent’s grave, and appointed Kayerts to the post. Carlier was told off as second in charge. The director was a man ruthless and efficient, who at times, but very imperceptibly, indulged in grim humour. He made a speech to Kayerts and Carlier, pointing out to them the promising aspect of their station. The nearest trading-post was about three hundred miles away. It was an exceptional opportunity for them to distinguish themselves and to earn percentages on the trade. This appointment was a favour done to beginners. Kayerts was moved almost to tears by his director’s kindness. He would, he said, by doing his best, try to justify the flattering confidence, &c., &c. Kayerts had been in the Administration of the Telegraphs, and knew how to express himself correctly. Carlier, an ex-non-commissioned officer of cavalry in an army guaranteed from harm by several European Powers, was less impressed. If there were commissions to get, so much the better; and, trailing a sulky glance over the river, the forests, the impenetrable bush that seemed to cut off the station from the rest of the world, he muttered between his teeth, “We shall see, very soon.”

Next day, some bales of cotton goods and a few cases of provisions having been thrown on shore, the sardine-box steamer went off, not to return for another six months. On the deck the director touched his cap to the two agents, who stood on the bank waving their hats, and turning to an old servant of the Company on his passage to headquarters, said, “Look at those two imbeciles. They must be mad at home to send me such specimens. I told those fellows to plant a vegetable garden, build new storehouses and fences, and construct a landing-stage. I bet nothing will be done! They won’t know how to begin. I always thought the station on this river useless, and they just fit the station!”

“They will form themselves there,” said the old stager with a quiet smile.

“At any rate, I am rid of them for six months,” retorted the director. Continue reading ““An Outpost of Progress” — Joseph Conrad”

“The ‘Gees” — Herman Melville

“The ‘Gees” by Herman Melville

In relating to my friends various passages of my sea-goings I have at times had occasion to allude to that singular people the ‘Gees, sometimes as casual acquaintances, sometimes as shipmates. Such allusions have been quite natural and easy. For instance, I have said The two ‘Gees, just as another would say The two Dutchmen, or The two Indians. In fact, being myself so familiar with ‘Gees, it seemed as if all the rest of the world must be. But not so. My auditors have opened their eyes as much as to say, “What under the sun is a ‘Gee?” To enlighten them I have repeatedly had to interrupt myself and not without detriment to my stories. To remedy which inconvenience, a friend hinted the advisability of writing out some account of the ‘Gees, and having it published. Such as they are, the following memoranda spring from that happy suggestion :

The word ‘Gee (g hard) is an abbreviation, by seamen, of Portugee, the corrupt form of Portuguese. As the name is a curtailment, so the race is a residuum. Some three centuries ago certain Portuguese convicts were sent as a colony to Fogo, one of the Cape de Verdes, off the northwest coast of Africa, an island previously stocked with an aboriginal race of negroes, ranking pretty high in civility, but rather low in stature and morals. In course of time, from the amalgamated generation all the likelier sort were drafted off as food for powder, and the ancestors of the since-called ‘Gees were left as the caput mortum, or melancholy remainder.

Of all men seamen have strong prejudices, particularly in the matter of race. They are bigots here. But when a creature of inferior race lives among them, an inferior tar, there seems no bound to their disdain. Now, as ere long will be hinted, the ‘Gee, though of an aquatic nature, does not, as regards higher qualifications, make the best of sailors. In short, by seamen the abbreviation ‘Gee was hit upon in pure contumely ; the degree of which may be partially inferred from this, that with them the primitive word Portugee itself is a reproach; so that ‘Gee, being a subtle distillation from that word, stands, in point of relative intensity to it, as attar of roses does to rosewater. At times, when some crusty old sea-dog has his spleen more than unusually excited against some luckless blunderer of Fogo his shipmate, it is marvelous the prolongation of taunt into which he will spin out the one little exclamatory monosyllable Ge-e-e-e-e ! Continue reading ““The ‘Gees” — Herman Melville”

Three Strong Women (Book Acquired, 7.24.2012)



Marie NDiaye’s novel Three Strong Women won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 and is now published in English translation (John Fletcher) from Random House. Their blurb:

In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful.

This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight.

With lyrical intensity, Marie NDiaye masterfully evokes the relentless denial of dignity, to say nothing of happiness, in these lives caught between Africa and Europe. We see with stunning emotional exactitude how ordinary women discover unimagined reserves of strength, even as their humanity is chipped away. Three Strong Women admits us to an immigrant experience rarely if ever examined in fiction, but even more into the depths of the suffering heart.


Steve Kemper Talks to Biblioklept About A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, His New Book About Explorer Heinrich Barth

Steve Kemper’s latest book A Labyrinth of Kingdoms tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who led a British-backed expedition into the central Sudan. While Barth’s name is not nearly as well-known as Livingstone or Stanley, Kemper makes a solid argument for a reappraisal of Barth’s neglected work. Barth explored Bornu and Sokoto, learned the ways of the nomadic Tuareg people, traveled to Timbuktu, and filled in many of the missing gaps that had been previously left to the guesswork of European geographers. Perhaps most importantly, Barth made numerous cultural connections in his time in Africa.

Barth’s story comes alive in Kemper’s capable hands; A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is erudite but never stuffy—at its core, the book is an excellent adventure story. Kemper’s first book, Code Name Ginger, traced the arc of invention and commerce by telling the story of the creation of the Segway transport. His work has also appeared journals like Smithsonian and National Geographic. To find out more about A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, check out Kemper’s blog .

Kemper was kind enough to talk to me about his book and Barth’s life in a series of emails.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is new in hardback from W.W. Norton on June 25th, 2012.

Biblioklept: What drew you to the story of Heinrich Barth? What made you want to write A Labyrinth of Kingdoms?

Steve Kemper: I got interested in Barth when I read a couple of paragraphs about him in Ryszard Kapuścińksi’s The Shadow of the Sun, a book of dispatches about Africa. In Timbuktu, Kapuścińksi notices a plaque on a house where Barth spent many months in 1853-1854, and he calls the explorer “one of the greatest travelers in the world” for his five years exploring the Sahara. He says that Barth survived death many times, including once by drinking his own blood. Kapuścińksi added that despite Barth’s accomplishments, he died young, unappreciated and almost forgotten. All of that sounded like the bones of a great story.

Biblioklept: Obviously, Barth’s tale is a great adventure story—but what are his greatest accomplishments?

SK: One of the reasons Barth isn’t better known is that he didn’t return with a headline accomplishment—the source of the Nile, a traverse of the continent, the location of a lost explorer. He did “discover” the Benue River and showed that it flowed into the Niger (that river’s major tributary) rather than into Lake Chad, and he settled the exact location of Timbuktu. But the reason that his work remains important to scholars is that he came back with reams of invaluable information and data about geography, anthropology, ethnography, and languages. He traveled across an immense territory and spent time with the major peoples of north-central Africa—Hausas, Kanuris, Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhais, Fulanis. The material he collected is still relevant. That can’t be said of most of Barth’s more famous peers. But then as now, headlines are more likely than scholarship to capture the public’s attention.

Biblioklept: North Africa, and the Islamic world in-general have captured more of the Western public’s attention in recent years though—what can we learn from Barth’s travels and experiences?

SK: Many things. First, that the region and the religion are not monolithic. Barth’s work (and my book) are full of a tremendous variety of peoples and cultures. Most Westerners—and I include myself in this, prior to writing this book—have a vague, fuzzy, and simplified image of the region that distorts everything about it—its many cultures, its complicated history, its complexity. Barth returned convinced that Islam was a great religion—not a popular view, then as now—but added that in some places it had been hijacked by thugs who used it as an excuse to pillage non-Muslims, or by fanatics, who used it as an excuse to kill or enslave non-Muslims. This still sounds familiar. But he also added that Islam wasn’t much different in this way from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. Barth met Muslim scholars and Muslim thieves, and tried to be clear about both. I could keep typing on this subject for a while but I don’t want the answer to get too long. I plan to write a couple of op-eds on the subject in time for the book’s pub date.

Biblioklept: In A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, you point out that Barth’s open-minded ideas were not well-received by his contemporaries, in part because these ideas conflicted with the emerging age of imperialist Europe. Is this also one of the reasons he hasn’t been canonized like other explorers?

SK: The short answer is yes, I believe so, though there are not straight lines connecting the two. But it seems clear that Barth’s ideas at least contributed to the reception of his work, along with Britain’s changing commercial and political goals, the interests of the public, and Barth’s own difficult personality.

Biblioklept: In what ways was Barth a difficult personality?

SK: During his journey and afterwards in England, Barth occasionally felt that he was being slighted by the British government or that his honor was being questioned (especially by one tormentor at the Royal Geographical Society). He was often right, but he reacted to these things with the touchiness of an anemone. An anemone’s touchiness is pretty to see; Barth’s was blunt and haughty and could even verge into petulance. His own strict sense of honor and proper conduct left him appalled at some of the machinations against him in England (and also in Germany). Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend wrote about him, “Heinrich is always too gruff and unyielding, and yet too modest and too imprudent. His pride doesn’t permit him to give in at the right moments. In the river of life he is a bold and persevering swimmer, but not a very agile one.”

Some of Barth’s difficulties stemmed from the fact that he was German, and the British liked their heroes home-grown. Some people in England couldn’t gracefully accept that the success of a British expedition had depended almost solely on a foreigner. (The British government funded the expedition, which began with an English leader. Barth was contracted as an independent scientist.)

Another part of Barth’s difficult personality stemmed from his sense of high calling. He truly did devote his life to science and the pursuit of truth, and he could be harsh when lesser mortals fell short of his standards.

It interests me that when he was in Africa, Barth showed far more patience and diplomacy than he did when back in Europe. In Africa, patience and diplomacy were often necessary to accomplish what he wanted and even to survive, but in Europe I think he expected better conduct and sometimes reacted poorly when he was disappointed.

Biblioklept: Barth’s story is one of culture and discovery, but it’s also an adventure story—can you share a favorite anecdote about Barth the adventurer?

SK: Tough question, since there are so many good ones, including death threats and narrow escapes. But I prefer the ones that reveal something about Barth. So: early in the journey, when he still considered himself nearly indestructible, he foolishly set off on foot one morning, with little water and no food, to climb a distant mountain. He soon ran out of water, got lost, and began to die of dehydration. Eventually he cut his arm and drank his own blood, which didn’t help. The following morning, at the caravan, the Tuareg guides told the expedition’s leader that no man could have survived the long Saharan day and night without water, but they agreed to search for him. Late that afternoon they found him, nearly comatose. The Tuaregs were amazed at his survival. They were also amazed the next day when, even though he couldn’t eat or speak, he rode seven hours with the caravan. This close call was a tough lesson, but Barth took it to heart and learned from it.

Another favorite, because it epitomizes how understated Barth always is about his adventures, occurred when he entered Kabara, a village on the Niger River not far from Timbuktu. Barth took up lodgings and was eating supper when a Tuareg warrior entered, glaring, and attempted to intimidate Barth into giving him a fine gift. Barth said he was eating and to go away. The Tuareg replied that he was a very dangerous man who was about to do something terrible. Barth writes, “After a very spirited altercation, I got rid of him.” I love the dry modesty of that. Imagine how Burton or Stanley would have handled it. After Barth expelled the warrior, 200 other men came in and silently eyed the stranger. Barth responded by staring back while lying across his smaller bags and protecting the bigger ones behind him. Very cool. Very Barth.

Biblioklept: I ran a blurb of your book the other day and a reader asked if the theologian Karl Barth might be a descendant of Heinrich’s. Any clue?

SK: I wondered the same thing, but haven’t come across anything that suggests they were related.

Biblioklept: You provide a fairly extensive set of end notes as well as a large bibliography for Labyrinth–clearly a lot of reading and research went into the book. Can you describe how you synthesized the information? What were some of your most important sources?

The principal source, of course, was Barth’s colossal book, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, which was originally published in five volumes and covered nearly 3500 pages. Other crucial primary sources were the extensive Foreign Office files in the British National Archives, which include dispatches from consuls, receipts, letters, and all the thorough bureaucratic documentation of the Victorian age. Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend, Gustav von Schubert, wrote a biography that I had translated; it provided many private glimpses of Barth.

The scholarship, of course, was invaluable, and I immersed myself in it to understand the era. Remember, I’ve spent the last 30 years as a journalist, writing about living people. I knew how to write narrative, but I had to learn how to do that with history. My goal with the book was to write an exciting, informative narrative that put readers inside the expedition with Barth, so all the scholarship is all folded into the action. I don’t quote many scholars in the text proper, because I didn’t want to intrude on the readers’ experience of the expedition. That’s all writer’s talk about technique and is probably more than your readers want to know.

Biblioklept: Actually, our readers seem to enjoy insights about writing technique, so I’m sure they’ll be interested in this stuff. (I’m interested, anyway). How long did it take to research and write the book?

SK: It’s hard to say, because I was also working on smaller jobs while researching and writing the book. The research just for the proposal was time-consuming, starting with Barth’s 3500 pages. Because I’m not a scholar of 19th century Africa or Europe, the background research took many months. The writing, including interruptions from other jobs, took about 9 months—probably 7 months net.

Biblioklept: What’s your next big project?

SK: I’m working on another book for W. W. Norton about another undeservedly obscure adventurer whom I stumbled across in my reading. An American this time, who lived the sort of epic life that’s no longer possible, on frontiers in several countries. I think I’ll keep his name to myself for the time being.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

SK: Yes, once, while in college—a paperback of several Sean O’Casey plays. It was also a library book, which I later realized compounded the crime, since I deprived others who could have gotten pleasure from it. I’ve since donated hundreds of dollars’ worth of books to libraries. Maybe I’ve subconsciously been seeking atonement.

Books Acquired, Sometime in the Past Two Weeks


Steve Kemper’s Labyrinth of Kingdom looks pretty cool. Here’s publisher Norton’s write up:

In 1849 Heinrich Barth joined a small British expedition into unexplored regions of Islamic North and Central Africa. One by one his companions died, but he carried on alone, eventually reaching the fabled city of gold, Timbuktu. His five-and-a-half-year, 10,000-mile adventure ranks among the greatest journeys in the annals of exploration, and his discoveries are considered indispensable by modern scholars of Africa.

Yet because of shifting politics, European preconceptions about Africa, and his own thorny personality, Barth has been almost forgotten. The general public has never heard of him, his epic journey, or his still-pertinent observations about Africa and Islam; and his monumental five-volume Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa is rare even in libraries. Though he made his journey for the British government, he has never had a biography in English. Barth and his achievements have fallen through a crack in history.


Kevin Kopelson’s Confessions of a Plagiaristnot really sure what to make of this one. Publisher Counterpath’s blurb:

In college, Kevin Kopelson passed off a paper by his older brother Robert as his own. In graduate school, he plagiarized nearly an entire article from a respected scholar, and then later, having met her and been asked if he would send something for her to read, sent that essay he had plagiarized from her work. This is not to mention the many instances in which he quoted others extensively, not passing their work off as his own, but substituting it for his own words when his words were what were called for. Until recently, such plagiarisms and thefts had been his most shameful secret, shared only with a trusted few. But then Kopelson—now an English professor and the author of a number of respected books, most recently 2007’s Sedaris—wrote an essay entitled “My Cortez,” which was published in the London Review of Books in 2008. It was a satirical literary confession, an exploration of Kopelson’s personal and professional life via his various acts of plagiarism. From that jumping off point and exploring also his other vices, Confessions of a Plagiarist is the compelling and clever retelling (not to mention renovation) of Kopelson’s life, one transgression at a time.


António Lobo Antunes (Book Acquired, 5.15.2012)


I’ve never read anything by Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes, so I was psyched when his novel The Land at the End of the World showed up in paperback. Here’s an excerpt from Larry Rohter’s review at the NTY:

Combat experiences are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: no two are alike, which may be why they often make for great novels, as Tolstoy also knew. The cause need not even be noble, since a hopeless situation and senseless violence can actually fortify a work of fiction. Certainly that is the case with António Lobo Antunes’s “Land at the End of the World,” set in Angola in the early 1970s, as Portugal’s ludicrous effort to preserve its African empire was meandering to an inglorious end. . . .

“The Land at the End of the World,” newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, was originally published in 1979, four years after Portugal’s withdrawal from Africa and the final collapse of America’s intervention in Vietnam. At that time it was interpreted as a comment on the inherent futility of those recent Western adventures in the third world. But read at more than 30 years’ remove from those events much of this account of what Mr. Lobo Antunes’s narrator calls a “painful apprenticeship in dying” would no doubt make sense to survivors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


“We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives

A late passage from our favorite section of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives–

It was then, when there was nothing left to do, when we had already written and photographed everything imaginable, that someone proposed that a few of us take a trip to the interior. Most, of course, turned down the offer. A Frenchman from Paris Match accepted. So did an Italian from Reuters, and me. The trip was organized by one of the guys who worked in the kitchen at the Center and who, besides making a few bucks, wanted to have a look at his town, which he hadn’t been back to in six months, even though it was only fifteen or twenty miles from Monrovia. During the trip (we were in a dilapidated Chevy driven by a friend of the cook, armed with an assault rifle and two grenades) the cook told us that he was ethnic Mano and his wife was ethnic Gio, friends of the Mandingo (the driver was Mandingo) and enemies of the Krahn, whom he accused of being cannibals, and that he didn’t know whether his family was dead or alive. Shit, said the Frenchman, we should go back. But we were already halfway there and the Italian and I were happy, using up the last of our film.
And so, without crossing a single checkpoint, we passed through the town of Summers and the hamlet of Thomas Creek, the Saint Paul River occasionally appearing to our left and other times lost from sight. The road was bad. At times it ran through the forest, what may have been old rubber plantations, and at times along the plain. From the plain one could guess at more than see the gently sloping hills rising in the south. Only once did we cross a river, a tributary of the Saint Paul, over a wooden bridge in perfect condition, and the only thing presenting itself to the camera’s eye was nature, nothing I would call lush, or even exotic, so I don’t know why it reminded me of a trip I made as a boy to Corrientes, but I even said as much, I said to Luigi: this looks like Argentina, saying it in French, which was the language in which the three of us communicated, and the guy from Paris Match looked at me and said that he hoped it only looked like Argentina, which frankly disconcerted me, because I wasn’t even talking to him, was I? and what did he mean? that Argentina was even wilder and more dangerous than Liberia? that if the Liberians were Argentinians we would’ve been dead by now? I don’t know. In any case his remark completely broke the spell for me and I would have liked to have it out with him then and there, but I know from experience that kind of argument gets you nowhere, and anyway the Frenchman was already annoyed by our majority decision not to go back and he had to let off steam somehow, not being satisfied by his constant grumbling about the poor black guys who just wanted to make a few dollars and see their families again. So I pretended not to have heard him, although mentally I wished him a monkey fucking, and I kept talking to Luigi, explaining things that until that moment I thought I’d forgotten, I don’t know, the names of the trees, for example, which to me looked like the old Corrientes trees and had the same names as the Corrientes trees, although they obviously weren’t the Corrientes trees. And I guess my enthusiasm made me seem brilliant, or in any case much more brilliant than I am, and even funny, to judge by Luigi’s laughter and the occasional laughter of our companions, and it was in an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie, excluding the Frenchman Jean-Pierre, of course, who was increasingly sulky, that we left behind those ever so Corrienteslike trees and entered a treeless stretch, only brush, bushes that were somehow sickly, and a silence split from time to time by the call of a solitary bird, a bird that called and called and received no answer, and then we started to get nervous, Luigi and I, but by then we were too close to our goal to turn back, and we kept going.
The shots began soon after the village came into sight. It all happened very fast. We never saw the shooters and the firing didn’t last longer than a minute, but by the time we came around the bend and were in Black Creek proper, my friend Luigi was dead and the arm of the guy who worked at the center was bleeding and he was whimpering quietly, crouched under the passenger seat.
We too had automatically dropped to the floor of the Chevy.
Continue reading ““We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives”

“The Unwanted” — Joe Sacco

Read Joe Sacco’s comic “The Unwanted” at The Guardian. As usual, Sacco approaches a complex problem at the human level in his story about African immigration to Malta. Go here for more on Joe Sacco, his journalism, and his fantastic books, Safe Area Goražde and Palestine.