From the snows of Finland to the heat of Latin America. I decided to continue my streak of Conrads by reading his 1904 novel Nostromo. This was not, by any means, light holiday reading.
Nostromo (‘our man’) is named after one of the characters, the legendary ex-seaman and adventurer, current Capataz de Cargadores (head longshoreman says Wikipedia) of Italian descent, Giovanni Battista Fidanza. Even after finishing the book, I’m not entirely sure why the novel was named after him. Let me explain.
Sulaco is an imaginary coastal town in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. Conrad, as keen as ever to grab every opportunity to insert generously descriptive passages, sets the scene in the first paragraph:
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult by access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Plácido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.
This peace and calm away from ‘the trading world’ can’t last. For there is an enormous amount of silver hidden inside the snow-topped Mount Higuerota which, combined with the hot South American character, leads to greed, revolution, and eventually death.
The novel moves back and forth between various time periods, a revolutionary stylistic device in Conrad’s time. The majority of the book, and also its slowest-paced chapters, focus on describing the silver mine and the past and present of the Gould family, or more precisely Charles Gould, who has inherited the mine from his father, and his wife Emilia. The Goulds are originally from England and have lived in Sulaco for a few generations, though all the family’s children are still sent to the Old Continent for schooling. As far as I understand, and I wasn’t at all familiar with the topic beforehand, Charles’s father was originally forced to take on the mine as a loan repayment, and died burdened by it.
Charles becomes obsessed with the mine, and with the backing of a Californian billionaire called Holroyd turns it into a money-making machine used to fund the government of President don Vincente Ribiera. Charles’s wish is that it’ll ensure the building of democracy in a country fraught with political instability. Of course, the exact opposite happens. The story begins to pick up pace when General Montero and his brother Pedro begin a revolution in another part of the country. Ribiera escapes Sulaco, and one of his own based in a nearby port, Colonel Sotillo, joins forces with the Monteros. Sotillo knows about the silver and decides to sail to Sulaco to seize it with his troops—basically just a bunch of bandits—but Gould knows that Sotillo knows, and makes his move first. He enlists Nostromo to quickly transport a bulk of the silver out of the city by boat in the hope that he’ll catch a nearby ship to California where the silver will be safe. Failing that, the plan is to bury it on one of the small islands off the coast. In both cases, they have to act on the sly to avoid being detected by Sotillo.
There’s an absolutely wonderful passage in which Nostromo, together with the young and idealistic journalist Martin Decoud who insists on joining Nostromo, leave Sulaco in the pitch black and still night:
Martin Decoud called out from the lighter, “Au revoir, messieurs, till we clasp hands again over the new-born Occidental Republic.” Only a subdued murmur responded to his clear, ringing tones; and then it seemed to him that the wharf was floating away into the night; but it was Nostromo, who was already pushing against the pile with one of the heavy sweeps. Decoud did not move; the effect was that of being launched into space. After a splash or two there was not a sound but the thud of Nostromo’s feet leaping about the boat. He hoisted the big sail; a breath of wind fanned Decoud’s cheek. Everything had vanished but the light of the lantern Captain Mitchell had hoisted upon the post at the end of the jetty to guide Nostromo out of the harbour.
The solitude could almost be felt. And when the breeze ceased, the blackness seemed to weigh upon Decoud like a stone. “This is overpowering,” he muttered. Do we move at all, Capataz? “Not so fast as a crawling beetle tangled in the grass,” answered Nostromo, and his voice seemed deadened by the thick veil of obscurity that felt warm and hopeless all about them. There were long periods when he made no sound, invisible and inaudible as if he had mysteriously stepped out of the lighter.
Many of the book’s sections are excellent, and once you get over the first half also very exciting: Nostromo takes place, after all, amidst a revolution. Conrad also attempts at some romance: Decoud is in love with the daughter of don José Avellanos, one of Charles Gould’s friends and another prominent member of society, and Nostromo also gets his share of love drama. I say ‘attempt’, because these are, in my view, the weakest sections of the book, and particularly towards the end slide dangerously close to melodrama.
In his introduction (Oxford University Press edition), Jacques Berthoud says that Nostromo is “notorious as the novel which cannot be read unless one has read it before”, and I concur. His prose is so rich, and the transitions in time so many and occasionally also hard to spot, that it’s a struggle to make sense of the overarching story. In true Conrad style, his writing is of course wonderful, but demands a lot of the reader. When you put all these features together I wouldn’t say it was an entirely pleasing reading experience. However, I’m sure that a second read would open the text up to me in a whole new way and be much more rewarding.
Similarly to Heart of Darkness, we don’t ever get to see any of the events from the locals’, or the indigenous people’s, perspective in Nostromo. This is very much the story of rich and influential, in many cases also white, people—the conquerors. It’s quite remarkable how vivid Conrad’s depiction of South America is, considering he never went there. He seems to have done his research as well as anyone could in the early 1900s, for example by reading travelogues. That doesn’t mean Conrad’s text doesn’t come with a hefty amount of stereotype. If you’re willing to ignore that, you can enjoy a wonderful, multi-sensory trip to the land of hot music, exotic flowers, and poncho-wearing peasants.
Despite the struggle I will not abandon Conrad just yet: I’ve already bought the new Penguin version of The Secret Agent.
Oh, and what about the name? For me it was the silver that played the leading part, not Nostromo!
Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857–1924) was a Polish-British writer. He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe. Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works still contain elements of nineteenth-century realism.
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