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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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….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-wood 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.

~Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

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….In 1564-5, cloth and woollens account for 81.6 per cent (by value) of all the exports from England – amounting to some £1,100,000 – and the largest proportion of the remaining 18.4 per cent is raw wool, followed by woolfells. This is why you will see so many sheep in England: more than eight million of them, twice as many as there are people. Having said that, these are not quite the animals with which you are familiar: they are very small. Average weights are gradually rising (through improvements in husbandry), from about 28lbs per sheep in 1500 to 46lbs in 1600, with the largest weighing 60lbs; but still these are tiny by comparison with modern ewes, which weigh 100-200lbs (a modern ram can weigh more than 350lbs). Much the same can be said for the cattle (about 350lbs in Elizabethan times, and 1,200-1,600lbs today).

~The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

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….On one side it was tied to the window grille of the church tower, on the other to a flagpole jutting out of the wall next to the window of the town hall where the reeve worked, which didn’t happen often, however, because he was lazy. In the window stood the young woman, who must have just knotted the rope – but how, we wondered, had she stretched it? You could be here or there, in this window or in the other, you could easily knot a rope and drop it, but how did you get it back up to the other window to fasten the other end?
….We gaped. For a while it seemed to us as if the rope itself were the trick and nothing more were required. A sparrow landed on it, took a small jump, spread its wings, changed its mind, and stayed perched there.
….Then Tyll Ulenspiegel appeared in the church tower window. He waved, jumped onto the windowsill, stepped onto the rope. He did it as if it were nothing. He did it as if it were only a step like any other. None of us spoke, none shouted, none moved. We had stopped breathing.

~Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (subsequently abandoned for being tiresome)

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….Indubitably a public school ‘chap’, [Charles Hamilton] Sorley nevertheless rejected Rupert Brooke’s war poetry as too clothed in ‘fine words’ and a ‘sentimental attitude’. Some of his own best verse fuses body and soul as he sings of the physical exaltation of running, or of being at one with the earth in battle. For Sorley the German troops are simply ‘blind like us’. One of his last poems is a verse letter to his Scottish friend John Bain, praising Homer, and there is probably an allusion to The Iliad in the tenth line of his magnificently uncompromising final sonnet, found in his kit when it was sent home from France after Sorley had been shot in the head by a sniper:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

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….She hauled the blind open again, turning Logan’s computer screen into an eye-watering blare of light.
….‘Argh….’ He backed away from it, squinting.
….‘Sitting here in the dark like a wee troll.’ She cracked the window open, letting in the diesel growl of buses and the seagulls’ mournful cries. ‘It’s no’ good for you.’ The tip of her e-cigarette/sonic screwdriver glowed as she sooked. A huge cloud of watermelon vape drifted its way around Logan’s head, glowing in the sunlight. ‘Come on then, what you doing?’
….‘Investigating.’ Logan held up a hand, blocking the glare from his screen. ‘Or at least I’m trying to.’
….‘I know that, you idiot; investigating, what?’
….‘People’s Army for Scottish Liberation. Apparently they had ties to the Scottish People’s Liberation Army, the Scottish Freedom Fighters’ Resistance Front, End of Empire, and Arbroath Thirteen Twenty. AKA nutters so extreme that even Settler Watch didn’t want anything to do with them.’
….Another cloud of fruity smelling fog. ‘It’s Womble-funting dick-muppets like that who give good old-fashioned Scottish Nationalists a bad name.’

~All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride

(NB I have no idea what ‘Womble-funting dick-muppets’ means, so if it’s as obscene as I fear, I apologise.)

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 236…

Episode 236

Considering I’ve only managed to finish two books in the whole of April so far, it’s astonishing that my TBR has only increased by 1 – to 215! Imagine how much it would have dropped if only those pesky book-gods hadn’t stolen my reading superpower…

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon – ‘should’ being the operative word…

Historical Fiction

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

I keep hearing great things about this series and a little trip to Mauritius will fit in well to my Around the World challenge. I’ve acquired the book and the audiobook, so am planning a full immersion – in the book, not the ocean!

The Blurb says: Captain Jack Aubrey is ashore on half-pay without a command — until his friend, and occasional intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin, arrives with secret orders for Aubrey to take a frigate to the Cape of Good Hope, under a Commodore’s pennant. But the difficulties of carrying out his orders are compounded by two of his own captains — Lord Clonfert, a pleasure-seeking dilettante, and Captain Corbett, whose severity can push his crews to the verge of mutiny.

Based on the actual campaign of 1810 in the Indian Ocean, O’Brian’s attention to detail of eighteenth-century life ashore and at sea is meticulous. This tale is as beautifully written and as gripping as any in the series; it also stands on its own as a superlative work of fiction. [FF says: Superlative? Gosh! 😲 ] 

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Fiction

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I’m still gobsmacked that I seem to have become a Conrad fan! I must say this one sounds as if it’s been written specially for me – bit of politics, bit of empire, exotic location. I would have used it for the Around the World challenge except that apparently it’s set in an imaginary country and, since I just used Ruritania, I feel I ought to fill my remaining slots with real countries! But I’m still tempted… if it’s good…

The Blurb says: One of the greatest political novels in any language, Nostromo re-enacts the establishment of modern capitalism in a remote South American province locked between the Andes and the Pacific. In the harbor [sic] town of Sulaco, a vivid cast of characters is caught up in a civil war to decide whether its fabulously wealthy silver mine, funded by American money but owned by a third-generation English immigrant, can be preserved from the hands of venal politicians. Greed and corruption seep into the lives of everyone, and Nostromo, the principled foreman of the mine, is tested to the limit.

Conrad’s evocation of Latin America–its grand landscapes, the ferocity of its politics, and the tenacity of individuals swept up in imperial ambitions–has never been bettered. This edition features a new introduction with fresh historical and interpretative perspectives, as well as detailed explanatory notes which pay special attention to the literary, political, historical, and geographical allusions and implications of the novel. A map, a chronology of the narrative, a glossary of foreign terms [FF says: like harbor… 🙄 ], and an appendix reprinting the serial ending all complement what is sure to be the definitive edition of this classic work

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Factual

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

I never confess to my audiobook TBR but there are books that have been lingering there for as long as any on my main TBR. I acquired this one in 2012! I’ve started listening to it already and it’s going well so far, but it’s too early to be sure… 

The Blurb says: We think of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) as a golden age. But what was it actually like to live in Elizabethan England? If you could travel to the past and walk the streets of London in the 1590s, where would you stay? What would you eat? What would you wear? Would you really have a sense of it being a glorious age? And if so, how would that glory sit alongside the vagrants, diseases, violence, sexism and famine of the time? [FF says: So what’s changed? 😱 ]

In this book Ian Mortimer reveals a country in which life expectancy is in the early thirties, people still starve to death and Catholics are persecuted for their faith. Yet it produces some of the finest writing in the English language, some of the most magnificent architecture, and sees Elizabeth’s subjects settle in America and circumnavigate the globe. Welcome to a country that is, in all its contradictions, the very crucible of the modern world.

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Vintage Crime

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Courtesy of the British Library. Carol Carnac is another pseudonym of the already pseudonymous ECR Lorac, who is one of my favourites of the authors the BL has done so much excellent work in resurrecting from obscurity…

The Blurb says: In London’s Bloomsbury, Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. Here is the victim, burnt to a crisp. Here are the clues – clues which point to a good climber and expert skier, and which lead Rivers to the piercing sunshine and sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps. [FF says: Eh? Where’s the rest of the blurb? 🤔 ]

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?