Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

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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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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

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One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

Book 62 of 90

The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Honour, once lost…

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As a youth, Jim dreamed of glory, sure that one day he would meet a challenge that would give him the opportunity to prove his honour to the world. But when the moment comes, an act of cowardice places him beyond the pale, despised by his peers and by himself. Driven from place to place with his story always catching up with him, Jim is eventually offered a position in Patusan, a small country on a remote Indonesian island, where he will be able to start afresh among natives who neither know nor care about his past. But despite the admiration and even love he wins there, Jim still carries his disgrace and guilt inside himself…

After introducing Jim and telling us a little of his background as the son of a clergyman trained to be an officer in the merchant fleet, the long first section tells of his fateful voyage aboard the Patna, a rather decrepit vessel carrying hundreds of pilgrims across the Arabian Sea en route to Mecca. Marlow, our narrator, first encounters Jim during the official inquiry into this voyage, so that we know from the beginning that something went badly wrong. Jim alone of the ship’s officers has remained to face the inquiry and Marlow becomes fascinated by this young man, whose actions seem so alien to his appearance.

“…all the time I had before me these blue, boyish eyes looking straight into mine, this young face, these capable shoulders, the open bronzed forehead with a white line under the roots of clustering fair hair, this appearance appealing at sight to all my sympathies: this frank aspect, the artless smile, the youthful seriousness. He was of the right sort; he was one of us.”

As in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is examining the effects of colonialism, not on the colonised, but on the colonisers. Through Jim, he shows that the Empire has created a change in how the British imagine the rank of “gentleman”: no longer a title simply describing the land-owning class, but now a word that has come to represent a set of virtues – courage, moral rectitude, fairness, chivalry, patriotism and honour. Despite the book’s title, Jim is no member of the aristocracy – he is one of the new middle-class breed of gentlemen, educated to these virtues and sent out to carry British values through all the vast reach of the Empire. So his disgrace is more than a personal thing – it’s a weakening of the image the British project as a validation of their right to rule. Where an aristocrat with family power and wealth behind him might fall and be forgiven, these new gentlemen have only these virtues to justify their rank, and to fail in them is to lose that status – to be no longer “one of us”.

The story of the Patna is wonderfully told. Marlow takes his time in revealing the fate of the ship, digressing frequently so that gradually he builds a fascinating picture of the transient world of the merchant seamen who serviced the trade routes of the various colonial powers. As he finally reaches the incident that changes Jim’s life so irreversibly and its aftermath, Conrad employs some wonderful horror imagery, again related more to the imagined than the real. Imagination seems central to his theme – Jim’s imagination of how he would react in a moment of crisis as compared to the actuality, the imagined virtues of the gentleman, the imagined role of the colonisers as just and paternalistic, if stern, guardians of their colonised “natives”. Even the fate of the Patna is more imagined than real, showing that honour and its loss is dependant on intent rather than effect.

The second section of the book doesn’t work quite so well. When Marlow visits Jim in Patusan some years later, Jim tells him of his life there, how he has found a kind of peace in this isolated place, among natives who have given him the honorific title of “Lord” as a reward for his bringing peace and prosperity where before there had been only strife. Even allowing for the imagined fable-like quality of the story, Jim’s rise to prominence in this society smacks a little too much of white superiority to make for comfortable reading, and his love affair with the woman he calls Jewel (white, of course, but not English, therefore not his equal) is full of high melodrama and exalted suffering. However, the knowledge that he can never resume his place in the world of the white man festers, while his terror remains that his new-found respect could be lost should his story become known or, worse, should he face another trial of character and fail again. After a rather too long drag through this part of the story, the pace and quality picks up again, with the final section having all the depth and power of the earlier Patna segment.

The quality of the writing and imagery is excellent, although I found the structure Conrad uses for telling the story makes it a more difficult read than it needs to be and requires some suspension of disbelief. Jim’s story is relayed to us as a first-person account within a third-person frame, as our narrator, Marlow, tells Jim’s story to a group of colonial friends after dinner one evening. This device means the bulk of the book is given to us within quotation marks, which can become quite confusing when Marlow is relating conversations, especially at second-hand between third parties. Repeated use of nested punctuation marks like “ ‘ “…” ’ ” can make the modern reader (this one at any rate) shudder, and I found I frequently had to re-read paragraphs more than once to be sure of who had said what to whom. The idea of Marlow telling around 75% of the story in one long after-dinner tale is also clumsy – the audiobook comes in at 16 hours, so I can only assume Marlow’s friends were willing to sit listening not just until dawn but roughly to lunchtime the following day.

Joseph Conrad

These quibbles aside, the book is a wonderful study of the British gentleman who, as a class, ruled the Empire – a character who appears in simpler forms in everything from Rider Haggard’s African adventure stories to Agatha Christie’s retired colonials. Conrad shows how this type was imagined into being, and how important it was to the British sense of its own identity abroad and its justification of its right to rule. If we are more virtuous than everyone else, is it not natural that we should be their lords? And having imagined ourselves in this way, what is left of us, as individuals and as cogs in the Imperial machine, if we falter, weaken and fail?

An excellent book, both in simple terms of the extraordinary story of Jim’s life and for the depth and insight into the Victorian Imperial mindset. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. Even more than usual, the knowledgeable introduction and notes, this time by Jacques Berthoud, aided considerably in placing the book in its literary and historical context and in clarifying my thoughts on its themes, thus helping to inform my review.

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

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(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

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

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