Excerpts from ''King Leopold's Ghost'' by Adam Hochschild

''A few pages later, Marlow describes a spot where some starving railway workers have crawled away to die. Farther along the trail, he sees 'now and then a carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path, with an empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side,' and notes the mysterious 'body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead.' This is simply a record of what Conrad himself saw on the walk around the rapids to Stanley Pool.''

''Conrad stayed true to life when creating the charismatic, murderous figure at the center of his novel, perhaps the twentieth century's most famous literary villain. Mr. Kurtz was clearly inspired by several real people, among them Georges Antoine Klein, a French agent for an ivory-gathering firm at Stanley Falls. Klein, mortally ill, died on shipboard, as Kurtz does in the novel, while Conrad was piloting the Roi des Belges down the river. Another model closer to Kurtz in character was Major Edmond Barttelot, the man whom Stanley left in charge of the rear column on the Emin Pasha expedition. It was Barttelot, remember, who wen mad, began hitting, whipping, and killing people, and was finally murdered. Yet another Kurtz prototype was a Belgian, Arthur Hodister, fained for his harem of African women and for gathering huge amounts of ivory. Hodister eventually muscled in too agressively on the territory of local Afro-Arab warlords and ivory-traders, who captured and beheaded him.

''However, Conrad's legion of biographers and critics have almost entirely ignored the man who resembles Kurtz most closely of all. And he is someone we have already met, the swashbuckling Caption Leon Rom of the Force Republique. It is from Rom that Conrad may have taken the signal feature of his villain: the collection of African heads surrounding Kurtz's house.

''The 'Inner Station' of Heart of Darkness, the place Marlow looks at through his binoculars only to find Kurtz's collection of the shrunken heads of African 'rebels,' is loosely based on Stanley Falls. In 1895, five years after Conrad visited this post, Leon Rom was station chief there. A British explorer-journalist who passed through Stanley Falls that year described the aftermeth of a punitive military expedition against some African rebels: 'Many women and children were taken, and twenty-one heads were brought to the falls, and have been used by Captain Rom as a decoration round a flower-bed in front of his house!' If Conrad missed this account, which appeared in the widely read Century Magazine, he almost certainly noticed when The Saturday Review, a magazine he admired and read faithfully, repeated the story in its issue of December 17, 1898. That date was within a few days of when Conrad began writing Heart of Darkness.

''Furthermore, in the Congo, Rom and Conrad may have met.

''On August 2, 1890, Conrad, accompanied by another white man and a caravan of porters, finished his month-long trek inland from the coast. Five miles before his caravan reached the village of Kinshasa on Stanley Pool, where the Roi des Belges was waiting, it had to pass through the neighboring post of Leopoldville. These two collections of thatch-roofed buildings were only an hour and a half's walk apart. (They soon grew and merged into one city, called Leopoldville by the Belgians and Kinshasa today.) When Conrad's caravan, trudging along a path near the riverbank, passed through Leopoldville, the station chief there was Leon Rom. Conrad made no entry in his diary on August 2, and Rom's notebook, which in a calligraphic hand faithfully records any raid or campaign that could win him another medal, mentions no expeditions away from Leopoldville at that time. If Rom was on hand, he would certainly have greeted a caravan with European newcomers, for there were only a few dozen white men at Leopoldville and Kinshasa, and new ones did not arrive every day. What, if anything, spoken or unspoken, passed between Rom and Conrad we will never know. Rom's collection of twenty-one African heads lay in a different place and a different time, half a decade in the future, but when Conrad read about Rom in December 1898, it is possible that he made the connection to a young officer he had met in the Congo.''

''This aspect of Kurtz is yet another reason to suspect that, in creating him, Conrad was partly inspired by Leon Rom. Rom, we saw, was a budding entomologist. He was also a painter; when not collectiong butterflies or human heads, he did portraits and landsapes, of which five survive in a Belgian museum today. Most interesting of all, he was a writer.

''In 1899, Rom, by then back in Belgium, published a book of his own. Le Negre du Congo is an odd little volume--jaunty, arrogant, and sweepingly superficial. Short chapters cover 'Le Negre en general,' the black woman, food, pets, native medicine, and so on. Rom was an enthusiastic hunter who jubilantly posed for one photo atop a dead elephant, and his chapter on hunting is as long as those on Congolese religious beliefs, death rituals, and chiefly succession combined.

''The voice we hear in Rom's book is very much like the voice in which we might imagine Mr. Kurtz writing his report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Of la race noire, Rom says, 'The product of a mindless state, its feelings are coarse, its passions rough, its instincts brutish, and, in addition, it is proud and vain. The black man's principal occupation, and that to which he dedicates the greatest part of his existence, consists of stretching out on a mat in the warm rays of the sun, like a crocodile on the sand...The black man has no idea of time, and, questioned on that subject by a European, he generally responds with something stupid.'

''There is much more in this vein. When Rom describes, for example, the Congolese conscripted to work as porters, he says they enjoyed themselves splendidly. As a caravan sets off in the morning, the porters all bustle noisily about, each one eagerly wanting 'to succeed in finding a place in line of his choice, for example beside a friend with whom he can trade dreams of the previous night or elaborate the menu, more or less varied and delicious, of the meal they will have at the next stop.'

''At some point while he was in the Congo, Rom must have begun planning his book. Did Rom, finding that Conrad spoke perfect French, confide in him his literary dreams? Did Congrad see one of Rom's paintings on the wall at Leopoldville, just as Marlow sees one of Kurtz's? Or was it sheer coincidence that the real head-collector Rom and the imaginary head-collected Kurtz were both painters and writers? We will never know.

''There are several other tantalizing parallels between Leon Rom and Mr. Kurtz. In this novel, Kurtz succeeds in 'getting himself adored' by the Africans of the Inner Station; chiefs crawl on the ground before him, the people obey him with slavish devotion, and a beautiful black woman apparently is his concubine. In 1895, a dissapproving Force Republique lieutenant confided to his diary a strikingly similar situation involving a fellow officer:

He makes his agents starve while he gives lots of food to the block women of his harem (for he wants to act like a great Arab chief)....Finally, he got into his dress uniform at his house, brought together his women, picked up some piece of paper and pretended to read to them that the king had named him the big chief and that the other whites of the station were only small fry....He gave fifty lashes to a poor little negress because she wouldn't be his mistress, then he gave her to a soldier.

''What is significant is how the diarist introduces his account of the office: 'This man wants to play the role of a second Rom.'

''Finally, the murderousness of Kurtz seems to echo one other detail about Rom. When Rom was station chief at Stanley Falls, the governer general sent a report back to Brussels about some agents who 'have the reputation of having killed masses of people for petty reasons.' He mentions Rom's notorious flower bed ringed with human heads, and then adds: 'He kept a gallows permanently erected in front of the station!'

''We do not know whether Rom was already acting out any of these dreams of power, murder, and glory when Conrad passed through Leopoldville in 1890 or whether he only talked of them. Whatever the case, the moral landscape of Heart of Darkness and the shadowy figure at its center are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy.''

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