Suzanne Fields

If you had met him, you might think he "had kicked himself loose of the earth" and "knew no restraint, no faith and no fear." He was once perceived as "remarkable" and a man of great promise, but had descended into unspeakable madness in the heart of Africa.

That's how the novelist Joseph Conrad describes Kurtz, the white man who leaps into lunacy in the Congo and becomes the focus of "Heart of Darkness," the novel Conrad wrote at the end of the 19th century. His horrific descriptions, I discovered when I recently read the book again, fit Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

The black man who transformed himself from idealistic freedom fighter to ruthless tyrant destroyed Zimbabwe along the way. The authentic African hero who set out to do good for his people made a mockery of the dreams and aspirations of those people. He ordered the deaths of at least 86 of his countrymen and the torture of thousands of others for the crime of wanting to vote for someone else to lead the nation.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition, yesterday withdrew from the national election, scheduled for tomorrow, because Mugabe's escalating campaign of blood and intimidation makes a free and fair election impossible. "We cannot ask the voters to cast their vote when that vote could cost them their lives," he said. "The regime does not even want to pretend the election would be free and fair."

Kurtz -- Conrad gave him no other name -- would understand the corruption and violence. The fictional hero was himself larger than life, moving from idealism -- from believing he was a civilizing force -- to descending into the darkness of his own making in a carnival of barbarity. At the end of his life, he is surrounded by a circle of disembodied heads impaled on spikes.

Robert Mugabe, alas, is real enough -- a corrupt and vicious maximum leader who turned his nation from the breadbasket of a continent into a rotting wasteland. He lives in a "bubble of his own creation," observes Heidi Holland, who interviewed him for her book, "Dinner With Mugabe." He sees himself as right, never wrong. He made a hell of his country.

An analogy between fiction and real life is rarely precise, but a great novelist lends understanding of the evil that men can do. This is sometimes painful. "Heart of Darkness," accurate and insightful as it may be, has fallen prey to narrow prejudice, banned from many classrooms. If read at all, it's usually seen as a racist tract, even though the descriptions in the novel are no more racist than the news accounts of the Mugabe madness. Current opinion reflects what "is," just as Joseph Conrad reflected what "was."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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