Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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45 thoughts on “Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

  1. Despite the fact that, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber 🙂 , everyone knows that Juan Peron wanted to reduce British influence in Argentina (he failed – I had a lovely scone and pot of tea at a café there), the British role in South America, including helping to end slavery in Brazil, does tend to be overlooked. This sounds interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I love the idea of having a scone in Argentina! I don’t know an awful lot myself about the British in South America – our colonial literature tends to concentrate on Africa and India for the most part, or at least the stuff I’ve read anyway.

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  2. High praise indeed. Of all the Conrad novels you have reviewed, this is the one which appeals to me most. Would you recommend it as a good place to start with him?

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    • I certainly found it the easiest in terms of style – it meant I understood better what was going on (most of the time!). I found I could read it in longer chunks at a time. I’ve still only read a few, but definitely of the ones I have read, this would be my recommendation to start with. But he does require total concentration so pick your time carefully! I was lucky I read it way back before the slump began…

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  3. My undergraduate uni degree is in Spanish. So I studied Latin American history. The economic issues Conrad brings up here have been a really important part of that area’s history for a long time, and I’m glad he explores it here. It can be insidious, but it has just as much impact in its way as political domination. And it can be longer-lasting. I’m glad you enjoyed this as well as you did, FictionFan!

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    • Ah, then you’d probably find this one was treading familiar territory! I do think economic colonialism is worse in many ways. When we used to physically colonise and rule other places, at least we felt we had some level of responsibility for creating internal government and security mechanisms and so on, many of which the countries in question still use and depend on decades after independence. But economic colonialism merely takes and gives nothing in return.

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  4. Conrad is on the list of authors I really want to read, but I have been a bit apprehensive about his work which I’ve previously found quite inaccessible. This sounds like it might be a better entry point than either of the books I’ve tried to read before (The Secret Agent and The Heart of Darkness).

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    • I haven’t read The Secret Agent, so can’t compare them, but this is about a million times easier to read than Heart of Darkness, I think! It still requires total concentration, though, and for once I really find an edition with notes and a knowledgeable intro vital to help me when I get lost. He’s hard work, but I do think he’s worth it…

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  5. My thanks to you as well, FF, for a thorough explanation of a book I found impenetrable. I’ll dig into it next time with your review tucked in back, and I’ll get a copy with the Spanish glossary as well. Bravo.

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    • Haha, thank you! I freely admit that with Conrad I find an edition with notes, an intro and a glossary is pretty much an essential! But I did find this one easier, somehow – I think maybe because I’ve been reading quite a lot of colonial literature over the last few years, so maybe my mind is attuned to it now or something…

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    • Yes, indeed, that’s a perfect way to describe his work! And although his characters don’t always ring wholly true, he’s great at showing the adverse impact of colonialism on the coloniser as well as on the colonised. Fantastic writer!

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    • Although this is much longer and still needs full concentration, I found it so much easier in style than Heart of Darkness. It’s much more conventional in both structure and story-telling, although I still find an edition with notes to be an absolute essential!

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  6. Oh! I came here expecting a lighthearted Six Degrees post, but ended up with serious literary fiction! 😉 Anyway, I think Conrad’s books might be way over my head. I am glad you got on with this one so well, alway great to find new favourites. Perhaps at some point I will be brave enough to try one of his books and this one sounds like a good candidate.

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    • Haha, sorry about that! Didn’t get around to Six Degrees this month, I fear! I avoided Conrad for years so am totally surprised to have suddenly become a fan – I think it’s because I’ve been reading quite a lot of colonial literature recently, so my mind is more attuned to it now. But he’s definitely one of my favourite authors now. 😀

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    • Haha, don’t feel guilty! I must admit I’ve avoided Conrad most of my life, so I’m as surprised as anyone that I seem to have suddenly become his biggest fan. Just shows how our tastes can change over the years…

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  7. I didn’t get on very well with Lord Jim, mainly due to the writing style, so I’m pleased to hear you think this is more straightforward. If I do try another of Conrad’s books, it will probably be this one.

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    • It was such a pleasure that this one was told in a more straightforward style, without all those nested quotation marks and stories within stories, and so on. It still required my full concentration and I was glad to have an edition with plentiful notes and a glossary, but I found I could read this one more flowingly and in bigger chunks. If you do try it sometime, I hope you enjoy it!

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    • Gotta say that, from the little I’ve read, Heart of Darkness is by far the hardest of his books to read – it’s a pity it’s the one that’s always suggested as a starter. It was trying to read it years ago that put me off Conrad for so long – I’m glad I’ve finally managed to read some of his other, slightly more readable, stuff!

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  8. Well now I’m in a quandry 😳 One of your best books ever? Easiest to read of your Conrad’s so far? You had convinced me that I should try this in lieu of attempting a re-read of HoD. Then I note that this one is longer and all momentum to give it a go trickles away 😣… Maybe I’ll reconsider Conrad after I’ve got done with Dickens and Steinbeck… 😝 Quandry resolved!

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    • I tried Heart of Darkness in my youth and put myself off for decades! I can’t remember now why I decided to have another shot after all these years, but I’m so glad I did – maybe you’ll feel the same… 🙂

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