The two men, unable to see each other, kept silent till the lighter, slipping before the fitful breeze, passed out between almost invisible headlands into the still deeper darkness of the gulf. For a time the lantern on the jetty shone after them. The wind failed, then fanned up again, but so faintly that the big, half-decked boat slipped along with no more noise than if she had been suspended in the air.
‘We are out in the gulf now,’ said the calm voice of Nostromo. A moment after he added, ‘Señor Mitchell has lowered the light.’
‘Yes,’ said Decoud; ‘nobody can find us now.’
A great recrudescence of obscurity embraced the boat. The sea in the gulf was as black as the clouds above. Nostromo, after striking a couple of matches to get a glimpse of the boat-compass he had with him in the lighter, steered by the feel of the wind on his cheek.
It was a new experience for Decoud, this mysteriousness of the great waters spread out strangely smooth, as if their restlessness had been crushed by the weight of that dense night. [...] The main thing now for success was to get away from the coast and gain the middle of the gulf before day broke. The Isabels were somewhere at hand. ‘On your left as you look forward, señor,’ said Nostromo suddenly. When his voice ceased, the enormous stillness, without light or sound, seemed to affect Decoud’s senses like a powerful drug. He didn’t even know at times whether he were asleep or awake. Like a man lost in slumber, he heard nothing, he saw nothing. Even his hand held before his face did not exist for his eyes. The change from the agitation, the passions and the dangers, from the sights and sounds of the shore, was so complete that it would have resembled death had it not been for the survival of his thoughts. In this foretaste of eternal peace they floated vivid and light, like unearthly clear dreams of earthly things that may haunt the souls freed by death from the misty atmosphere of regrets and hopes. Decoud shook himself, shuddered a bit, though the air that drifted past him was warm. He had the strangest sensation of his soul having just returned into his body from the circumambient darkness in which land, sea, sky, the mountains, and the rocks were as if they had not been.
In his excellent introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Keith Carabine quotes Conrad as arguing that the creative artist must cast ‘a wide, a generous net, where there would be room for everybody; where indeed every sort of a fish would be welcome, appreciated and made use of’. This is exactly what he did when writing Nostromo, in fact the word ‘generous’ seems to me particularly appropriate in all its nuances to the character of the novel, which is large, covers perhaps fifty years (although two periods are focused upon), includes characters from most levels of society compassionately presented (in the main) and presents life as tragic and ridiculous but alleviated by certain impulses.
Costaguana is a fictional South American country with a turbulent history of coups and political violence. On its west coast lies the port of Sulaco, and outside Sulaco is the San Tomé silver mine owned by Charles Gould and preserved from the greedy hands of politicians through the judicial use of bribes. Wearied by the corruption and instability, Gould and his fellow ‘Europeans’ in Sulaco throw their weight behind Don Vicente Ribiera’s bid for presidential power as he represents, for them, the nation’s best chance of a moderate and prosperous future. After eighteen months Ribiera is overthrown by General Montero and flees to Sulaco on a mule, pursued by his bloodthirsty opponents. Ribiera’s friends in Sulaco cook up a daring plot to secede the province from Costaguana by using the annual shipment of silver from the mine, due to be delivered to Sulaco for export, to buy support from foreign investors. As the Monterists close in, they must also find a way of contacting the loyal General Barrio to come to their relief if they are not to be butchered.
This is the central plot of the novel and it is a proper thrilling story, I mean really I was on tenterhooks after the initially difficult beginning. But it’s not the thrilling story which has given Nostromo, published in 1904, its reputation as one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It’s such a rich and fascinating novel that I’ve found it hard to write about – to the point that it’s actually about six months since I read it. And writing ‘stale’ is never good, so this is going to be a rubbish post.
(Lima de Freitas, illustration for Nostromo, Limited Editions Club, 1961; found on Books and Vines where you can see his other illustrations for the book)
Conrad’s ‘generous net’ holds such characters as the patient and gentle Emily Gould, fiery, austere Antonia Avellanos (whom Conrad claims to have loved), gossipy Captain Mitchell and the loyal old soldier Don Pépé – I could go on boringly listing them, but suffice it to say they complex and psychologically convincing – even Señor Hirsch, the cringing trader (whom Carabine argues is anti-semitically portrayed and I tend to agree), is given sudden and convincing dignity by the manner of his death. Conrad writes in the omniscient third-person, but in fact dips so deeply into the mind of whichever character is providing the perspective that there seems virtually no barrier between them and the reader. Moreover, his even-handed portrayal of opposing viewpoints – regarding the use of the silver, secession, idealism, foreign investment – makes it impossible to gauge who is ‘right’ and whose judgement Conrad shares. Indeed, many of the themes raised in the novel – colonialism and its aftermath, the relation between developed and less developed countries, racial conflict, the tension between idealism and pragmatism for instance – have been played out through the twentieth century and continue to haunt us now.
Further instability is provided by Conrad’s daring use of structure. At first, the skipping back and forth in time is confusing – and in fact tripped Conrad up too – there seem to be so many coups and unpleasant generals – but after fifty pages or so the narrative seems to settle and become clearer. Then, at the moment of greatest excitement, when everything hangs in the balance, Conrad ‘cuts’ to fifteen years later and Captain Mitchell telling a visitor to the Occidental Republic of all the dramatic events which occurred after the pivotal conversation between Dr Monygham and Nostromo. We thus ‘miss’ all the most exciting events. How ‘truthful’ Mitchell’s account can be, so late in the day it is told and so entwined with myth and self-congratulation it has become, is obviously impossible to judge. In fact, his descriptions of straightforward heroism are really at odds with what Conrad has been showing us. We have seen characters beset by doubt, self-interest, fear; reacting to the moment and indeed sometimes unintentionally acting against each other, changing their minds, seeking moral certainty in vain. We have also seen, and will continue to see, the gap between people’s thoughts and actions, and even more particularly, between reputation and actuality, as far as that can be ascertained in this novel. Reputation indeed acts as an extra viewpoint in the novel; its ramifications are felt in the actions of Nostromo and Monygham. In this use of structure and character to deny an authoritative point of view, Conrad surely anticipates modernist concerns with fragmentation and individual perception, albeit in a more conventional style.
The plot of Nostromo, taken by itself, could be the plot of an adventure novel; the triumph of Material Interests and the European faction a celebration of colonial values. Conrad never allows this. Certainly the Monterists are a hideous bunch without a redeeming feature among them, but Conrad gives more than enough hints that granting foreign companies such power as the Sulacans do will weaken the Occidental Republic and that the majority of the poor can expect no alleviation of their lot in a capitalist society. Nor will secession abolish the unease between the ethnic groups, whose differences are most starkly delineated in their economic states. The end is famously derided and does strike one as melodramatic after the rest of the novel but although I didn’t much care for it I think it is of a piece with Conrad’s continual even-handedness, generosity, cutting away of certainties – life does encompass the melodramatic after all, and it is to what the corrupted hero Nostromo has been reduced.
(Photograph of Joseph Conrad, copyright Hulton Getty; found here)