Visions of the New World: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in the canon of English literature: born in a small town of modern-day Ukraine to a Polish aristocratic father, Conrad’s family was exiled to northern Russia when he was just four years old. By the time he was eleven, he had become an orphan and was living with an uncle in Krakow. Five years later, he escaped military conscription by joining first the French, then the British Merchant Marine in what would turn out to be a twenty-year-long career as a seaman that finally came to an end in 1894. The following year, Conrad published the first of his seventeen novels, Almayer’s Folly. Today, his “Heart of Darkness” (1899) is cult, while The Secret Agent (1907) remains immensely popular. Nostromo (1904), however, is widely considered his most accomplished novel.

Nostromo is set towards the end of the XIX century, in a remote province of a fictional South American country, Costaguana, which has long been plagued with the conspiracy bug of revolutions and counter-revolutions. But in the “pastoral and sleepy” Sulaco, a coastal town by the Golfo Placido, geographically extirpated from the realities of the mainland through the impenetrable wilderness of the mountains that surround it, “Nothing ever happened.”[1] Until the precarious situation of the country is affected by the emergence and success of the mine of San Tomé, developed, by presidential decree, by the Gould family, who unwillingly have been awarded the concession. Under Charles Gould, an Englishman born in Costaguana, the mine attracts foreign investment, prompts the development of technology and infrastructure and even breaks the vicious cycle of short tyrannical governments (“it was an ordinary Costaguana government – the fourth in six years” (p. 76)) by funding the Ribierist revolution, which put in place a benign ruler who would lead the country in peace for five years under the watchwords “honesty, peace and progress” (p. 302).

In stark contraposition to the situation in Sulaco stands the figure of Nostromo, the most outstanding citizen in the whole province. Nostromo is an Italian orphan who reaches Costaguana at an early age and is raised by an old patriotic Italian couple, the Violas. Nostromo’s physical strength is mirrored by his personality traits and he quickly becomes the foreman of the cargo ship loaders at the harbor. His exceptional righteousness (he is known as “the incorruptible”), self-confidence and daring allow him to overcome any obstacle presented to him by an environment that has been shaped by a “story of oppression, inefficiency, fatuous methods, treachery and savage brutality” (p. 119).

51spujrhdblThese are the moral poles within which Conrad will develop his tale, and Charles Gould’s mine, along with the riches thereby derived, are the instruments he will use to shift, not only from one end to the other, but also to add levels of complication to the seemingly opposite positions. Charles Gould identifies at an early stage that “What is wanted here [in Costaguana] is law, good faith, order, security…” (p. 100), which, he thinks, he can instill through the progress brought about by a successful economic enterprise, i.e. the San Tomé mine. At the same time, his principled – ultimately foreign – attitude sets the stage for a situation in which “The Gould Concession had to fight for life with such weapons as could be found at once in the mire of corruption that was so universal as to almost lose its significance” (pp. 100-101). Indeed, the loss of significance is so widespread that it not only concerns corruption but the Gould Concession itself, to the point where, faced with the extreme conditions of a new revolution that threatens to seize control of the mine from the “foreign” hands of Charles Gould, he takes the steps necessary to destroy the mine, even in the knowledge that such action would have a negative affect on the whole country for generations. Charles Gould, the idealist, is thus ready to stand by his principles to the last consequences, even if they go directly against that which he set to achieve in the first place.

Nostromo, of course, suffers a similar progression (or, rather, regression) in the course of the story, as he moves from being a half-broke foreman, feared and admired at the same time, whose great wealth is his reputation, to discovering, in an allegorical episode of awakening, that he has been used and betrayed by the people in power – most of them foreigners – for the benefit of their cause. It is only at this stage, five chapters from the end, that “the incorruptible” finds in his anger, in his frustration, and also in his superstition, the craft – the guile – to swing a fortuitous situation in his favor, and his favor alone, smirching a personality that was far from perfect – his incorruptibility was always inspired by a Narcissistic vanity – but that was beyond the reach of the original sin that seems to have cursed Costaguana from the start: greed.

Conrad is often described as a “modern” writer, primarily for his conscious manipulation of the narrative structure of his novels. Indeed, Nostromo evidences a rather fluid structure in which anecdotes are told at different times and even from different perspectives, rather than in a unitary chronological order. Moreover, from the very onset, Conrad foretells the final destiny of Costaguana and Sulaco, while, simultaneously, he keeps the reader in the dark as to what will happen with Nostromo and the cursed treasure that plays such an important role in the story. This contrast creates an intriguing atmosphere that invites the reader to continue the narrative, to find out how things happen, regardless of whether what happens is known in advance.

Nevertheless, there is something distinctly XIX century about Conrad’s prose. Indeed, I would suggest that the most clearly defining characteristic of his style is his elaborate descriptions, meticulous to a fault. Conrad’s spoken English was never quite perfect, and this self-consciousness when expressing himself in what ultimately remained a foreign language is translated in his obsessive need to achieve absolute, incontrovertible precision, to the point where he often says too much. Similarly, Conrad’s implacable moral stance, equipped with a Victorian sense of superiority, and his almost-Romantic fascination with lofty, grand, universal ideals place him more firmly at the end of a dying tradition than at the start of the avant-garde. Nostromo’s 400+ pages are often intriguing, at times fascinating and in many cases entertaining; however, much of the more ethereal sections of the book are burdened with something that goes beyond, I would venture to assert, just an old-fashioned taste for propriety, scruple and “civilization.” What is more, there are specific moments, many of them associated with exchanges between lovers, which border on the corny.

And yet, Nostromo has one superior and highly relevant accomplishment which renders it an invaluable literary asset even today: in Nostromo, Conrad manages to capture the essence of the Latin American reality – a reality that has perpetuated itself for well over 100 years after the publication of the book. His grim vision of Latin America is not unique in Conrad, of course: “Heart of Darkness” has long been the subject of a controversial debate revolving around Conrad’s fragmentary and altogether negative vision of the “native” world of the short story. However, in Nostromo the delicate racial question is (probably unconsciously) avoided by nature of the complex and multifarious cultural and racial blendings present in Latin American societies – a situation that is accurately and expertly represented by Conrad in the distribution of the population of Sulaco. Moreover, the fact that Conrad only briefly visited the Caribbean coastline when he was a teenager means that Nostromo is much better documented than “Heart of Darkness,” where his personal experience certainly gains primacy over other aspects.

Be that as it may, Conrad’s vision of Latin America as a place where the political atmosphere is generally stormy, assailed by “endless civil strife, whose folly seemed even harder to bear than its ignominy,” a region governed by lawlessness, crime, rapacity and simple thieving (p. 177), where “the words one knows so well… Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavour of folly and murder” (p. 344), is based on something more subtle, something substantially more discerning, than colonial disdain and self-righteousness. Naturally, Conrad’s cynical view of the ruling classes in general can be sensed in the novel (“any government anywhere, is a thing of exquisite comicality to a discerning mind” (p. 152)). At the same time, historical antecedents of tensions between foreigners and locals also leave their trace in the details of the political life of Costaguana and Sulaco. Slightly more impressive, however, is Conrad’s perceptive eye in identifying the sort of tyrannical behavior in political and military leaders in Latin America (and also the Caribbean), such as his fictitious Guzman Bento, whose Army of Pacification carried for years “a diminishing company of nearly naked skeletons, loaded with irons, covered with dirt, with vermin, with raw wounds, all men of positions, of education, of wealth, who had learned to fight amongst themselves for scraps of rotten beef…” (p. 141). This passage could easily be taken from Greene’s The Comedians, from Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat or from XX century history books about Cuba, Venezuela or any of the many other countries with a violent recent history in the region.

But for this, too, Conrad would have found plenty of historical references to inform his novel. And yet, Conrad’s judgment becomes particularly acute when it comes to explaining why the reality of Costaguana is so different to that of European countries: “There is always something childish in the rapacity of the passionate, clear-minded, Southern races, wanting in the misty idealism of the Northerners” (p. 287), announces grandiosely the narrator of Nostromo. Thus, for instance, to the narrator it might seem childish that Guzman Bento “reached his apotheosis in the popular legend of a sanguinary land-haunting spectre whose body had been carried off by the devil in person from the brick mausoleum in the nave of the Church of Assumption in Sta Marta” (p. 71). The difference, of course, lies in that, to the Southerners, to the Costaguaneros, to Nostromo himself, there is nothing childish nor implausible about this legend. Just as there is nothing implausible (on the contrary, if there is anything, then there is something binding) in the legend which Conrad uses to open the novel, about two wandering sailors who once, within men’s memory, set out to look for the treasure that hid inside the mountain near Sulaco. They “were never seen again… are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure” (p. 40). In another bout of grandiloquence, the narrator of Nostromo explains how “there is no more evanescent quality in an accomplished fact than its wonderfulness. Solicited incessantly by the considerations affecting its fears and desires, the human mind turns naturally away from the marvelous side of events” (p. 357). Here, too, the narrator means not the “human” mind, but the Northerner’s mind. The mind of the Latin American, of the Caribbean, people, acquainted with voodoo, with Santería, with obeah and jumbees, look at the marvelous with credulity, and sometimes even with fear, but they do not look away.

In his important prologue to The Kingdom of this World, the Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier, explains that “for the marvelous to be truly so, it must come together with an unexpected alteration of reality (a miracle)” and it must be intrinsically linked with faith.[2] Nostromo, Italian-born and raised by Italians, is the most exceptional person in Sulaco by virtue of being different, other, foreign. But as soon as he allows his superstition to guide his principles, as soon as faith shifts his vision and turns him into a true Costaguanero, he is doomed to lose everything he has: his reputation.

Conrad, of course, does not share that vision and cannot partake of that faith – after all, he is a Northerner, through and through. Consequently Nostromo stands in diametric contraposition to the Latin American magic realism that became so famous in the sixties. Nevertheless, merely by having the audacity to evince the elements that would dominate the reality and the literature of the following century in Latin America, Nostromo deserves a place, not only in history, but on our bedside table. I invite you to grapple with it, and see who comes on top.

[1] Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, ed. with an introduction by Martin Seymour-Smith, Penguin Books (London, 1904), pp. 147, 63. All subsequent references will be taken from this edition.

[2] Carpentier, Alejo: El reino de este mundo, Argentina, Editorial Quetzal, 1980 (p. 11), my translation.






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