Friday, May 23, 2008


Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Ah, what to say about Nostromo? Even in the last chapters, I was unsure of my feelings towards the novel. My liking or disliking it hinged on how it ended - it was that type of book. The first 200 pages or so (out of about 350) were terribly boring and murky and difficult. But I trudged through, and it suddenly became exciting. Out of the blue - action! A revolution! A boat full of silver escaping into the night!

This is a hard book to try to summarize, because so much happens. In general, the plot is this: Sulaco, a port town in Costaguana, an imaginary South American banana republic, is home to a very profitable silver mine run by westerners. There is a revolution, and the leader of the country (Ribiera) is overthrown by a man named Montero. The town fathers know that the revolutionaries will be heading their way because of the silver. They send Nostromo, a trusted Italian sailor known for his exploits, and Decoud, a reporter (whose life is in danger because of what he wrote about Montero and the revolution) on a boat with the mined silver ingots, trying to reach a ship that had left a few days prior. While on the boat, the two men discover a stow-away, Hirsch, a businessman from another city. He had hid on the boat earlier in the day out of fear of the revolutionaries. Montero's brother reaches the town over land, as does Sotillo who comes by boat after the silver. On his way to port, Sotillo runs into the little boat carrying Hirsch, Decoud and Nostromo. Hirsch is thrown overboard and gets picked up by Sotillo and tells him about the silver. Sotillo doesn't believe him. Decoud and Nostromo are able to get to a deserted inlet and burry the silver. Nostromo swims back to town, leaving Decoud with the silver. The rest of the story is of course what happens next, and is too complicated and detailed to try to explain.

There are a number of different subtexts and themes that probably can only be fully appreciated by multiple readings. One of these overaching theme is termed "material insterests". Nostromo, whose name is a butchered phrase meaning "our man" is obsessively concerned about what important people say about him, and has always been at the disposal of the "material interests." His jobs have included saving the disposed of Ribiera, defending the harbor from a riotous mob, and serving as "camp master" for the railway workers. One character, Teresa, poignantly states that he is "paid in words" - his reward is always praise, increased fame, a good reputation, etc. - never money. While he is eager to do anything to preserve or enhance his reputation, he seems annoyed that the owners of the mine have sent him on this life-threatening mission with the silver, and Nostromo is clear that he intends to make sure that he is well compensated when the silver is safe. He feels betrayed by those he trusted, a feeling that is only reiterated when he returns without the silver - everyone assumes that it is at the bottom of the sea - and they say, "oh well, the silver didn't matter." If it didn't matter, Nostromo thinks, why did you make me risk my life to protect it? In the end, the lure of the hidden silver is too much for Nostromo, and his greed for it eventually leads to his death in the end, as the novel takes an unexpected turn towards a love triangle between him and two sisters.

Joseph Conrad uses an unusual narrative technique in Nostromo. In the beginning the story bounced back and forth in time, and I was having trouble following along. But once I got it, it wasn't so difficult, particularly once Nostromo and Decoud left in the boat. Conrad tells the story from different points of view. For example: what happened to Nostromo and Decoud from time A to time B; next, what happened to Dr. Monygham from time A to time B. Then Dr. Monygham and Nostromo meet up, and we have a narrative from time B to time C. Following that, the story of Sotillo from time A to time C. Without warning, we are taken to Captain Mitchell giving a dignitary a tour around Sulaco a few years later (say, time S). Through this technique, the reader learns what happened overall during the revolution, who died, who succeeded, etc. and then we are plunged back into the narrative (at time C)...we already know what will happen thanks to Mitchell, and now we are going to find out how. Of course this at times makes for confusing reading, but it was interesting once I figured out what was going on. Off the top of my head, I can't remember a novel in which time is broken up like this without any apparent break (such as a chapter). Many novels jump around in time, but those changes are usually delineated in some fashion. Not so in Nostromo.

Joseph Conrad is a really interesting figure. He's actually Polish, and couldn't speak English fluently until his twenties...and he apparently spoke with such a thick accent that his acquaintances couldn't understand him. He occasionally became "hysterical, chattering and screaming like a monkey, [calming] himself by compulsively brushing his hair." He disliked Herman Melville "with whom, to his disgust, he was repeatedly compared" and was friends with Ford Maddox Ford, Stephen Crane, and my arch-nemesis, Henry James. He even wrote a whole article about the appreciation of James's work, in which he states, "After some twenty years of acquaintance with Mr. Henry James's work, it grows into an absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one's artistic existence." Yes, a sense of happiness ONLY WHEN IT IS OVER! Conrad's wife, Jessie, has been described as - I'm sure with love - Conrad's "lump of a wife" by Virginia Woolf and by H.G. Wells as "a Flemish thing from the mud flaps" (I love HG Wells. He said mean things about James as well. Was he the Capote of his generation?). Despite Conrad's delusional affection towards James (ok, maybe he was a nice guy, I don't know, but I enjoy taking punches at him) I still like him.

So, I think I liked Nostromo - I'm still not really sure yet. I know that I liked The Secret Agent better, but that might just be personal preference. Nostromo was a lot different than I thought it would be, in all aspects. I found it to be a difficult book, one that has so many layers that it calls for rereading to be truly understood. I don't know if I would call it one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature, but it was good.

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