Joesph Conrad: The Outsider

Imagine, as a native English speaker, having a passable knowledge of French and German. Now, though, try to envisage being asked to write an article in Greek. Improbable? Inconceivable seems a more apposite adjective under the circumstances.

Writers, usually because of exile from their native land, have made such seismic shifts over the years. A recent example is the Czech Milan Kundera, many of whose marvellous works were written in French after several years of living in Paris.

One of the best examples of someone writing in English is Joseph Conrad, born in Ukraine to a Polish family. Growing up under the Tsarist autocracy, he was forced to learn Russian as a youngster, so those languages came well before English.

Conrad served on French merchant ships, so it is highly probable that he spoke some French as well. English, therefore, would have been (at least) a fourth language for him. Despite that, one can certainly count him as one of the finest novelists in the English language. He has left behind a hugely impressive body of work.

Heart of Darkness still causes debate. The great writer Chinua Achebe always deemed it racist. Far be it for someone of considerably less talent like me to argue, but I don’t agree. Yes, the work uses words we wouldn’t dream of using now, but so did Mark Twain, Harper Lee and many other authors of that era. I don’t regard them as racist. Any work is of its time and my view is that Conrad appears a great deal more sympathetic to Africans than the European colonialists about whom he is generally scathing.

Interestingly, I once lent the novel to an African colleague in Eritrea. He, with no prompting from me, said much the same as I have just remarked after he had read the novel and returned it to me.

It has always intrigued me that Conrad met Roger Casement in Africa. Both men had originally formed the opinion that colonialism would be a good thing in terms of the benefits that it would bring to the colonised.. Both soon took a very different view. It’s easy to believe that each exerted a certain influence on the other.

Casement would be knighted for his work in exposing the appalling conditions in the Belgian Congo. That knighthood would end, as did his life, when he became a convert to the cause of Irish liberation, no doubt affected powerfully by what he had seen and experienced of colonial oppression in action.

A personal footnote to this: as someone with a strong Irish background who went to school in England, I was not thrilled when Casement was casually dismissed as an English traitor. I suspect that I gave my history teacher something of a shock one day when, at the age of about fourteen, I put up my hand and said, “Not in Ireland he isn’t!”

Perhaps it’s that sense of being an outsider. Many of Conrad’s works revolve around such characters. In Heart of Darkness, all of the Europeans are, by necessity, outsiders. The sailor/narrator Marlow is an outsider and the mysterious Kurtz even more so.

The outsider is a character beloved of novelists. Virtually anyone who has written a book or even a story will have one lurking somewhere. Albert Camus even went so far as to give pride of place in a title to one. L’Etranger can, in its most simple translation, be interpreted as The Stranger, but a better translation is The Outsider. An outsider is more complex than a mere stranger; he or she has that air of mystery, the thing that sets them apart and very possibly a darker element. The Heart of Darkness does not necessarily refer to the continent of Africa.

For a sense of Conrad’s own sense of alienation and isolation, read one of his short stories, Amy Foster. A shipwrecked sailor from Eastern Europe, Yanko, finds himself alone and stranded in Kent. It is little coincidence that Conrad made his home in that county and it is hard to imagine that Yanko’s attempts to assimilate himself into a close-knit and suspicious community is other than a reflection of Conrad’s own struggles. Amy Foster is the simple, but kind-hearted girl whom Yanko will eventually marry, but even that relationship is marked by incomprehension and misunderstanding.

The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo rank among the greatest novels of all time, the latter widely regarded as his finest work. Any single one of these would be, quite rightly, regarded as a masterpiece by any author writing in the English language. To know that they are the output of a man who, born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, only acquired British nationality at the age of twenty-nine is something extraordinary.


There is nothing that Duck Holiday likes better than a classic novel (with the possible exception of a glass or two of very good quality beer). Eastern and Central Europe have produced their fair share of great writers and the time has come for a brief foray into the literary world.

These things are, of course, largely subjective. One person’s great novel is another’s unreadable bilge, but everyone has their own favourites and the following selection of works represent a mere handful of the preferences within the duck house.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857, in a Russian-occupied part of Poland. His Polish nationalist parents were persecuted by the Russians and died while their son was still a child. He left his native land when he was 17 and lived in France before joining the British merchant navy four years later. He was to spend some 20 years as a sailor.

Conrad, then, was a man who understood fully the concepts of colonialism and alienation. Not surprisingly, these facets loomed large in many of his novels and short stories (a wonderful example is to be found in his story Amy Foster, a deeply moving tale of the isolation of an Eastern European sailor stranded in England).

Nowhere better are the themes explored than in Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. Some modern critics have suggested that the novel is racist, but surely its message is the precise opposite. Conrad experienced first-hand the grasping brutality of colonialism – Belgian, in this case – during his own visit to the Congo in 1890. He was no imperialist; his own early experiences were to shape his outlook.

Conrad is a sardonic observer, all too aware that the so-called civilizing Europeans in Africa were little more than rapacious profiteers. Modern-day readers should bear in mind when the novel was written and place it in its proper historical context. Yes, there are words used that are completely unacceptable nowadays, but one should remember that they were current usage at the time. It is a grave mistake to apply 21st-century thinking to 19th-century literature (or, indeed, any other form of art).

With that in mind, Conrad’s work should be seen as radical, a work that challenges imperialism rather than reinforcing it. Nor should it be overlooked that Conrad was writing in a language that was not his first (nor second or third, for that matter). Heart of Darkness deserves its place among the classic works of 19th-century literature.

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Franz Kafka – The Castle

It is only a select few writers whose names leave an adjective behind – Kafkaesque in the case of Franz Kafka – and this fact alone tends to demonstrate the uniqueness and importance of such writers.

Kafka’s characters, like Josef K in The Trial, find themselves in situations they cannot comprehend and which are beyond their control. Likewise, in The Castle, the character known only as K (that letter again!) is left bewildered, caught in a labyrinth from which he cannot escape. He cannot gain admittance of the mysterious castle at which he is supposed to be employed, nor can he go home. His world is populated by bureaucrats and administrators whose sole purpose appears to be to make his life difficult. When we finally see inside the castle, we witness people moving documents from one place to another, only to move them back to their original position. Those of us who have passed some of our years as civil servants can only smile wryly.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died from tuberculosis in 1924. We are fortunate that his works still exist. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Max Brod, to ensure that all his writings be destroyed. Fortunately, Brod felt unable to carry out this request and The Castle, along with The Trial and several other works, was published posthumously.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Possessed

In 2001, The Guardian published a list of the 100 Greatest Works of Fiction of all time. A number of writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, were represented twice. William Shakespeare had three entries. The only four-timer, however, was Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Though born in Moscow, Dostoevsky spent much of his life in St Petersburg and his writing is irrevocably linked with that city. He also spent ten years in prison, a fate suffered by not a few Russian writers. He was, in fact, sentenced to death by firing squad, but this was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. It is extraordinary to think that had the original punishment been carried out, there would have been no Crime and Punishment, no The Idiot, no The Possessed and no The Brothers Karamazov.

The first of these is undoubtedly the best-known work, but The Possessed is a dark and powerful novel, one based on the true story of a young revolutionary murdered by his comrades. Dostoevsky was in a good position to understand the circumstances; it was because of his youthful revolutionary ideals that he was imprisoned in the first place.

Though Dostoevsky writes from the more conservative standpoint he adopted later in life, The Possessed should not be viewed as reactionary. It provides a chilling preview of 20th-century totalitarianism and anyone who has ever belonged to a small political party will recognise the factionalism and in-fighting that seems almost inevitable in such a grouping.

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Nikolay Gogol – Dead Souls

A rather gentler dispute between Russian and Ukraine than the current conflict concerns the writer Nikolay Gogol. Gogol was born in Poltava Province, now part of Ukraine, but in Russia when Gogol was born in 1809. Being of Ukrainian and Polish ancestry, Gogol could not be described as a truly ‘Russian’ writer and indeed spent much of his short life in Western Europe.

A troubled man who suffered both mental and physical problems, Gogol died at the age of 42, but left behind one of the great 19th-century works in the shape of Dead Souls. The souls in question are those of dead serfs, still current on census rolls, whose names are steadily bought up by the mysterious Chichikov. The idea is that the owners of the serfs will not have to pay tax on them and that Chichikov can present a long list of ‘his’ serfs to the authorities so that he can re-invent himself as a gentleman landowner.

If the plot sounds absurd, that is because it is. The cast of characters is no less absurd, full of chancers, conmen, windbags, fantasists and liars. The novel mixes down to earth reality alongside utter surrealism. Imagine Sterne’s Tristram Shandy being relocated to Russia and given a few further odd twists.

Gogol does not have the status of Dostoevsky, nor does he leave such a substantial body of work, but one can see the influence of Gogol on his younger contemporary in his scathing satire as well of his use of location.

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Robert Musil – The Man Without Qualities

Try to imagine Ulysses being transferred to Vienna, but spread over several months rather than a single day, take away a few of the bars, shift the characters up a few social notches and you might begin to form a picture of Robert Musil’s gargantuan work.

Born in Klagenfurt in 1880, Musil studied science and philosophy before embarking on a short-lived military career and pursuing a life in writing after the publication of his first novel in 1906. It is, then, no coincidence that the central character of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich, is (you’ve guessed it) a former soldier, scientist and philosopher.

After serving in the First World War, Musil devoted much of his life to his masterwork and indeed the book remained unfinished. Quite how far he would have taken it is difficult to imagine. The action – though there is not a great deal of ‘action’ – is set in 1913, with the great, good and not so good of Viennese high society trying to devise ways of celebrating the 70th jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef.

In the midst of it all, but somehow aloof, stands the hero/antihero Ulrich. The novel veers between satire, social observation, stream of consciousness and philosophical debate as ‘the man without qualities’ watches the intrigues, plots and one-upmanship revolving around him.

The book, not surprisingly, was banned by the Nazis and Musil managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938, living there until his death four years later.

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Milan Kundera – Ignorance

While this is not Kundera’s best-known work – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being would vie for the title – it is a book that has special significance for this writer. The novel was a central part of a dissertation in which the student was required to choose one work of fiction and one non-fictional work to compare and contrast literary styles. Kundera’s beautiful prose made the assignment much easier for this particular student.

Remarkable, then, that the original was written in French, Kundera’s second language. He was born in Brno, then in Czechoslovakia and now in the Czech Republic, but has spent much of his adult life in France. Thus there is something of an autobiographical feel to Ignorance, whereby Irena, a Czech émigré resident in France, returns to her homeland after the end of the Communist era. The result is a moving novel full of nostalgia, memories – both real and imagined – and, indeed, a certain amount of laughter and forgetting.

Like Joseph Conrad, Kundera knows only too well the pain of exile and like Conrad, is able to express all its attendant emotions in a language not his own.

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Kyiv: Europe’s Wackiest Capital

Onion domes

Onion domes

People often ask me why I like travelling to Eastern Europe. Thus far, I have managed to avoid the answer ‘Because it’s there’ in favour of a more considered response that involves three parts.

Firstly, if one considers Europe to the west of Russia, there are many places that can be reached in about three hours or less from the UK. Secondly, few parts of Eastern Europe are particularly expensive for the westerner. Thirdly, while many cities are becoming increasingly westernised, there is a distinctly different culture. All of these factors make this part of the continent appealing.

One such place is Kyiv. It could, even, be described as a bit odd, certainly to western eyes. This is intended as a compliment rather than an insult. It assuredly fits all three of the criteria invoked above, being a three-hour flight from Gatwick, inexpensive and with a style of its own.

The fact that Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet helps the western visitor to feel that they are somewhere different. It’s useful to learn the letters, as street signs and directions are all shown in Cyrillic. In fact, it’s better to use a Cyrillic map rather than one printed in Latin script as the latter will often show a translated version and it’s all too easy to be fooled. The Cyrillic alphabet is similar to the Greek and might look a little intimidating at first, but really, it’s quite easy.

If the Cyrillic alphabet is easy enough to comprehend, the same cannot be said for Soviet-style architecture. Perhaps architects were only allowed to design buildings after they had imbibed a certain quota of vodka. In the case of the Hotel Turist, the quota seems to have been almost as high as the hotel itself, which climbs to twenty-seven storeys. One should not be deterred by appearances, as the interior is far more attractive, the rooms are comfortable enough and the staff are helpful. One pleasing quirk – Kyiv has many – is that there are four lifts, two of which carry you to odd-numbered floors while the other two deal with the even numbers. Convention is also defied by having staff on each floor to hold room keys, rather than the main reception. The guest is left hoping that the person responsible for keys on their floor has not wandered away for a chat or an extensive toilet break.

A slight drawback is that the hotel is situated on the other side of the Dnepr river from the city centre. Another Kyiv oddity; there are no footbridges. This is not a problem, however, as the hotel is next to Livoberezhna metro station and metro journeys cost a few pence. Having a splendid view of both the city and the metro station from a twenty-third floor room, it was quickly possible to discern that metro trains run approximately every ninety seconds. Even with such incredibly frequent services, finding a seat on a metro train is a rare luxury, a testament to its popularity.

A journey from Livoberezhna to the city centre only takes a few minutes, though one should be prepared to double the journey time because the stations in the centre are so far underground. Reaching the top of the first escalator for the first time, you feel a sense of relief at having made it to what you assume is the summit, only to realise that there is now a second escalator of exactly the same proportion to negotiate.

Something else that can be seen from the hotel room, and indeed from most places in the city, is the Motherland Monument, a very large stainless steel woman wielding a sword and a shield. At over a hundred metres tall, the monument is not subtle. The statue is located in the modestly-named Park of Eternal Glory, amid a museum complex and as one approaches, there are strains of Soviet military music, interspersed with typical Ukrainian folk music, which has its own stirring qualities, dipping into a slow, mournful pace and suddenly bursting into vibrant life. As you progress through this area, you pass tanks, other military hardware and sculptures in Soviet-realist style. It’s all just another example of the sometimes surreal experience of Kyiv.

Motherland statue

Motherland statue

Kyiv, like many cities in Eastern Europe, has myriad green spaces and a stroll to the Motherland Monument can be incorporated into a full day of interesting exploration in and around the park. The park is the setting for Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv’s famous Monastery of the Caves, first settled in the eleventh century. A typical Orthodox church, with its golden onion-domes, stands above the site. The Botanic Garden is also nearby and a simple walk in the park is pleasant enough, with abundant birdlife to be seen. Woodpeckers and jays can be seen in the wooded parts, seemingly determined to live up to a Kyiv-style zaniness by chattering and screeching loudly in the case of the jays and battering manically on tree trunks in the case of the woodpeckers.



Football aficionados should pay a visit to the Dynamo Stadium, home of Dynamo Kyiv. Even if there is no match on during your visit, it’s worth seeing for the museum and the statue of the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy, native of Kyiv, coach of Dynamo and three-times coach of the Soviet Union team. If there is a game, prices will vary depending upon the opposition, but even the more expensive tickets will appear astonishingly cheap, certainly for those used to English Premier League prices. Any Arsenal supporters are also advised to take the metro to Arsenalna station, which is a ten-minute walk from the ground. A small cannon sculpture outside the station is a perfect replica of the London club’s crest. Visitors to Arsenalna can also claim that they have been to Europe’s deepest underground station.



Overall, Kyiv’s quirks, oddities and strangeness are endearing qualities. The city, for westerners, is very cheap and a good meal with a few drinks should be easily obtainable for ten pounds or less. You also stand a good chance of being presented with a free glass of vodka at the end of a meal and it is most impolite to refuse the offering. Beer drinkers will find a good range of beer styles, but should remember that beer tends to be quite strong in many countries in Eastern Europe. A ‘low-strength’ beer means that the beer is less than around 5% ABV, so a ‘light’ beer can, in fact, be something considerably stronger than a British best bitter.

There are certain foods in any country that everybody should try once. For example, it feels almost obligatory to taste burek in Balkan countries and in Ukraine, the dish to sample is borsch. Many people – mistakenly – think of this as merely beetroot soup. Borsch is soup that contains beetroot, an important difference. The beetroot is added towards the end of the cooking process to enhance flavour and colouring, but is not the basis for the soup. The ingredients can vary considerably and it is perfectly possible for vegetarians to enjoy a meat-free version. A small test to see if your borsch is of the right thickness is to place a spoon on top of the soup. If the spoon remains resting on top, then you have the good stuff.

Kyiv has some excellent museums and galleries to suit all kinds of cultural interest, but naturally comes up with something unusual. There are museums dedicated to water, bread, toilets and trolleybus tickets, although the last-named is actually a pub with a collection of trolley-related photos, tickets and posters around the walls. Disappointingly, however, the Museum of Bee Breeding appears to have closed down.

Finally, a question: Kyiv or Kiev? I have used the former throughout this article for the simple reason that it is the preferred Ukrainian version. This is the spelling that you see throughout the city, or at least the way it translates from Cyrillic. Kiev is the Russian version and it seems much more respectful to use the Ukrainian spelling. Ensuring that you emphasise the –iv in the second syllable should bring the reward of a smile and even, perhaps, another glass of vodka.