A Joseph Conrad for the 21st century? Edward Docx's new book The Devil's Garden explores a post-Heart of Darkness world.
Darkness still reigns unabated
Although it was written more than a century ago, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness remains something of a blueprint for man's capability for savagery and the corruptive, invasive power of imperialism. Eighty years later, Francis Ford Coppola adapted the novella for his Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, transposing to south-east Asia Marlow's trip down the foreboding River Congo in search of the rogue ivory trader Kurtz. In fact, any author who convincingly combines a sense of menace and dread in a darkly exotic setting (boat trip optional) is, these days, labelled Conrad-esque. This year, it's Edward Docx's turn. But the comparison is well earned.
"When you've written a novel in English about a man on a boat in the forest, you cannot help but have Conrad's shadow over you," admits the 39-year-old author of The Devil's Garden, his third book. "I did think about what Conrad's novel said, but the whole mystery you get in Heart of Darkness - about what they might meet up the river - doesn't exist any longer. We just go on Google Maps and see past the bend. All of that has gone, the colonial era is over. So my book is, in a way, the world 100 years later. I would say I mentally engaged with Conrad, rather than just rewrote him for the 21st century."
And it's a very different world which Docx's protagonist, Dr Forle, finds himself in. A scientist stationed in the Amazon rainforest, he is researching the ways in which ants destroy the glades, turning whole areas into what the local Indians refer to as Devil's Gardens.
All fairly harmless stuff. But the idyll is destroyed by the arrival of government officials who say they are bringing democracy to the native tribes. Their motives, though, are anything but laudable; instead, they are there to facilitate money-making schemes involving oil, logging, drugs, gold and rubber - and the camp sinks into violence, lawlessness and confusion. Forle damns himself by doing nothing, and the jungle becomes, as Docx puts it, a very poisoned Eden.
It's an intriguing change of tack for one of Britain's brightest young novelists. His debut book, The Calligrapher, was very much a comedy. In 2007 he won awards and enjoyed a Booker longlisting for the engrossing and often blackly witty family novel Self Help. The Devil's Garden is much, much darker.
"Yes, The Calligrapher was sheer joy. Self Help was part joy, part intensity, and this one was fully intense! I wrote a lot of it on a boat on the Thames: it was winter, pitch black, freezing, and I was trying to write a novel about the humid Amazon, about a guy who is witnessing the nihilistic collapse of the moral world. So yes, there wasn't a lot of fun there."
Docx didn't conjure up The Devil's Garden, mug of warming tea in hand, from the depths of his imagination. He first visited a place called Puerto Maldonado, a Peruvian forest-frontier town, in 2003, and heard about a scientist who disappeared in murkily grim circumstances. When he returned to Manaus, the river city at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, he found a place which was simultaneously progressing and regressing. Where, as he wrote in an essay recently, "there are hundreds of Indian groups from one end of the forest to the other - many of them now enmeshed in legal cases or 'integration projects' or other demoralising fiascos."
Adds Docx: "One of the advantages of doing fairly intensive research is that you build up a really fertile compost from which all the different ideas start to grow. And it becomes very clear when you're there that we are the needy ones in this relationship. All we are to the tribes is trouble and destruction. It is, to me, the most interesting place on earth in that sense: you've got the massive drug problem, which is, of course, our drug problem. You've got oil, which is what we're dependent on. There are all the environmental issues, which connect with our idea of paradise and this notion of fruit on the trees and fish in the river.
"In The Devil's Garden I really wanted to show that the people who really suffer are the local Indian tribes. The worst damage is afforded to them, not an emotionally cauterised scientist. On this subject I'm quite left-wing: wealth and power bring responsibility.
"The oligarchs in Self Help or the oil speculators in this book are not the kinds of people I want running the planet. Surely it must be possible for human beings to capitalise on all the good things that can come from profit without destroying people's lives."
And yet The Devil's Garden isn't simply a worthy diatribe on the devastation the industrialised world has wrought upon the rainforest.
It's very much a human drama, reflected in Forle's constant worries about the right course of action and, in the end, the whole point of his existence in the jungle. Docx says that he wasn't interested in making his narrator a hero as much as letting his readers work out what was going on through Forle's strange detachment.
"I'm going to refer to Conrad again, but the idea of an emotionally distant narrator - which I also love in Graham Greene, Albert Camus and JM Coetzee's work - really interested me. The joy of their novels is the difference between their apparent disengagement of their characters and the drama of what you can see actually happening. When you realise that this narrator is not actually telling you a great deal, that can become really exciting, because you know that there will be some kind of explosion of emotion to come. In Heart of Darkness it's Kurtz's 'the horror, the horror', and I wanted a similar 'there will be blood' feel to my book too."
This sense of foreboding is genuinely powerful and, though it would be spoiling it somewhat to reveal how it plays out in Docx's book, it's an unsettling and rather disorientating denouement which is consistent with a book with many different points of view and ideas. But it's Forle's inability to keep life how he likes it - at arm's length - which is his undoing.
Such interest in character and drama meant that Docx never really considered turning his writing on the Amazon into a longer non-fiction book. "My imagination naturally seems to work when I encounter the things that I did when I was there," he says. "I think I'm just interested in the story of a situation rather than the facts of it, and novels are wonderfully uninhibited like that."
And though it's tempting to cast The Devil's Garden as Docx's paean for a rainforest life that has essentially been lost, he won't give in to such easy conclusions either in the book or in person. The Amazon is a more complicated place than that. But he does suggest that we all have a psychologically unstable relationship with the jungle.
"People come to the jungle to find this green heaven. That marries with this idea that our innocence, our preformed human state untouched by the internet or industrialisation, is somehow there in the rainforest. I don't know whether that exists any more. But there is something ancient in our psyche which believes it must be there. That's why, to me, it's such a fascinating place."
And, perhaps, why it was so fascinating for Joseph Conrad all those years ago.