Saturday, January 23, 2016

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.  He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice; for may he not bring the heaven down pitilessly upon a loved head?

There is a great story in the climax of Conrad's Nostromo: The title character, the "incorruptible" Capataz de Cargadores, or Head Longshoreman, is trusted with a ship full of silver smuggled out of the San Tome mine to prevent it from falling into the hands of various political-military factions.  Along with him is Martin Decoud, a young journalist and partisan.  They are intercepted by a militia ship, but they manage to unload the silver into a rowboat before their own ship is struck and sunk.  Nostromo returns to the port of Sulaco--the fictional town in the fictional South American state of Costaguana--but Decoud stays on a remote island with the silver, and only the two of them know that it isn't lying at the bottom of the gulf.

But, alas, there's much more than that to Nostromo.  There's hundreds upon hundreds of pages of political intrigue, some of it interesting, much of it confusing, and a cast of characters somewhere in the low hundreds.  Like in Heart of Darkness, Conrad is interested in the lingering effects of colonialism on the human psyche, but the narrow psychological focus of Kurtz and Marlow is widened here to include an entire state.  My understanding is that it's a very reliable depiction of South American politics, but that doesn't keep it from being frequently tedious.  It's never clear what the various factions are fighting for, except personal power, but perhaps that's the point.  The complexity of the narrative is amplified by the fact that much of the novel takes place through flashbacks (and even one flash-forward), and its chronology can be bewildering.

The central figure, Nostromo, is a poor, working-class man who is renowned among the political players of Sulaco for his reliability and judgment.  He's famous, for instance, for riding hundreds of miles through occupied territory and saving the beleaguered president from falling into revolutionary hands.  He is invaluable to the owner of the mine, and the railroad company, and the shipping company, and the parliamentary council, but being useful for the prestigious and wealthy never seems to result in the same kind of prestige and wealth.  Finding himself on shore again after the escapade with the silver, he realizes with a shock that he has let himself be a pawn, as if baptized into a new understanding:

The last act he had performed in Sulaco was in complete harmony with his vanity, and as such perfectly genuine.  He had given his last dollar to an old woman moaning with the grief and fatigue of a dismal search under the arch of the ancient gate.  Performed in obscurity and without witnesses, it had still the characteristics of splendour and publicity, and was in strict keeping with his reputation.  But this awakening in solitude, except for a watchful vulture, amongst the ruins of the fort, had no such characteristics.  His first confused feeling was exactly this--that it was not in keeping.  It was more like the end of things.  The necessity of living concealed somehow, for God knows how long, which assailed him on his return to consciousness, made everything that had gone before for years appear vain and foolish, like a flattering dream come suddenly to the end.

Nostromo's waking is a kind of burgeoning class-consciousness, unique in a novel where most of the lower class are faceless and unindividuated, mostly depicted as a natural phenomenon of violence and havoc, as personal as an earthquake.  These scenes have the kind of psychological spark that makes Heart of Darkness so thrilling, and so frightening, and stand, for me, in great contrast to the political intrigue that takes up most of the novel.  Perhaps it would reward a more patient reader than myself.  Maybe it deserves a second try--Jacques Berthoud once described it as a "novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before"--but I think not any time soon.

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