Saturday, February 13, 2016

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Nostromo: a Tale of the Seaboard (1904) is thought by some to be Joseph Conrad's best novel. I just finished listening to it, and I enjoyed it very much. The tone is perhaps too cool and distant, with none of the intensity of Heart of Darkness, but as a study of people and places it is marvelous.

Nostromo is set in the imaginary South American state of Costaguana, the history of which is largely based on that of Colombia. There are two political parties: the oligarchical Blancos, who talk constantly about constitutions and the rule of law, and the revolutionary Negros, who talk about democracy and the people. Nobody believes a word from either. I thought Conrad did such a marvelous job with this that I looked up his political background. Conrad was a Pole from a family very much involved in the Polish independence movement, but by the time he wrote this book he had been living in exile for 25 years. He seems not to have leaned strongly either left or right, which perhaps helps to explain his evenhanded treatment of Costaguana's revolutions:
He distrusted socialism—as leading inevitably to “Caesarism”—yet loathed capitalism; autocracy and revolution he saw as alternate faces of a base coin.
The setting is a seaside town, and Conrad always shone when writing about the sea. He was a merchant seaman for more than a decade before he became a writer, and I love his descriptions of the sea and how sailors think and feel about it. Most of the praise for Nostromo is heaped upon Conrad's rich characters. The title character is an Italian, a former sailor called "our man" by the elite of the town because he is of the people but seems an entirely reliable agent of the Blancos and their European friends. There are also several members of that elite, a notable Negro bandit, a doctor ruined by torture but brought back by a late-life, unconsummated love, and two fascinating English people, Charles and Emilia Gould. Mrs. Gould seems to be a particular favorite of other readers, although not of mine.

In an author's note that appeared in early editions of the book, Conrad explained the genesis of the story:
In 1875 or '6, when very young, in the West Indies or rather in the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land were short, few, and fleeting, I heard the story of some man who was supposed to have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full of silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the troubles of a revolution.

On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no details, and having no particular interest in crime qua crime I was not likely to keep that one in my mind. And I forgot it till twenty-six or seven years afterwards I came upon the very thing in a shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand book-shop. It was the life story of an American seaman written by himself with the assistance of a journalist. In the course of his wanderings that American sailor worked for some months on board a schooner, the master and owner of which was the thief of whom I had heard in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because there could hardly have been two exploits of that peculiar kind in the same part of the world and both connected with a South American revolution. . . .

Ultimately the sailor, disgusted with the sordid meanness of that impenitent thief, deserted from the schooner. The whole episode takes about three pages of his autobiography. Nothing to speak of; but as I looked them over, the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting; bits of strange coasts under the stars, shadows of hills in the sunshine, men's passions in the dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown dim. . . . Perhaps, perhaps, there still was in the world something to write about.
I think Conrad succeeded quite well in putting that sense of the surprising, interesting world on paper, and I recommend Nostromo highly.

1 comment: