Conrad’s ‘Nostromo’: a choice of nightmares

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Conrad’s ‘Nostromo’: a choice of nightmares

Joseph Conrad image created in Shutterstock)

A stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

E. Housman

Several modern writers have noted how Conrad brought his European origins and political experience into Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904).  In a letter to Conrad, Henry James emphasized his Polish background, cosmopolitan insight and years at sea: “no one has known –for intellectual use—the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, authority that no one has approached.”  George Orwell agreed that Conrad brought the European novel into English literature: “I regard Conrad as one of the best writers of this century. . . . [He had] a sort of grown-upness and political understanding which would have been almost impossible to a native English writer.”  V. S. Naipaul, Conrad’s leading disciple, stressed his penetrating outlook and dark view of colonialism in Africa and South America: “I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of great peace—had been everywhere before me.  Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves.”  Scott Fitzgerald praised the silent, brave and impressive character, Nostromo: “He’s always made a haunting and irresistible appeal to me.  So I would rather have dragged his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written any other novel in the world.”

Between December 1874 and February 1877 the young Conrad took the three voyages from Marseilles to the Caribbean coast of South America that would inspire Nostromo.  Conrad’s fictional Costaguana (“Bird-shit coast”) is mainly based on Venezuela, with additional geographic details from the mountains in Chile, and the tropical weather in Panama and Mexico.  But he remained mostly aboard ship, spent only a few days outside Caracas and, he said, only “a few hours in a few other places on this dreary coast.”

In a new edition of Nostromo for Cambridge University Press (edited by Roger Osborne, 817 pp, £95), Hugh Epstein writes in a long and useful Introduction, “The origins of Nostromo can be traced to four aspects of Conrad’s life and times: his early experiences; his immediate situation as a novelist and man of letters in 1902; what he discovered about South America in his reading; and contemporary political events.”  Conrad was also strongly influenced by his close friend Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who’d spent many adventurous years in South America and had written several books about that tumultuous continent.  Many scholars have identified the books on travel, political and military history, and contemporary South American affairs that Conrad used in his novel.  Epstein notes, “As always, Conrad is eclectic and Nostromo extraordinary in its synthesis: it is as if Conrad had ten books open on his desk at once.”

This complex and difficult book had an unclear title that did not help its sales.  Few readers knew that Nostromo, a contraction of the Italian Nostro Uomo, meant “Our Man”.  Like Lord Jim, the title of Conrad’s previous novel, Captain Fidanza, the man’s real surname, would have suggested his faithful character and been more effective.  The geographical location of “the Seaboard” in the subtitle was also unclear.

Conrad worked on Nostromo, his longest and most ambitious novel, from December 1902 until August 1904.  In his memoir A Personal Record he described how he created the whole world of Costaguana: the mountains, the town and campo; the history, geography, politics and finance; the wealth of the silver-mine owner Charles Gould, the idealism of his wife Emilia, the cynicism of the journalist Martin Decoud, the bitterness of the physically tortured Dr Monygham, and the pride of Nostromo, captain of the stevedores, whose name “dominated even after death the dark gulf containing his conquests of treasure and love”.

Of this process, Conrad wrote: “It is difficult to characterize the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle—something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn.”

The Introduction to this edition does not mention Ford Madox Ford’s silent contribution.  He’d collaborated on two novels with Conrad, was a fluent writer and could easily imitate his master’s style.  Ford explained to the collector, who’d bought the manuscript of the novel, that he’d written sixteen manuscript pages of part II, chapter 5: “Whilst I was living in London and Conrad almost next door and coming in practically every day for meals, he was taken with so violent an attack of gout and nervous depression that he was quite unable to continue his installments of Nostromo” that had been contracted for T. P.’s Weekly. “I therefore simply wrote enough from time to time to keep the presses going—a job that presented no great difficulties to me.”

A vivid image in Nostromo captures the vulnerability of the people of Costaguana and the cruelty of their oppressors: guerrillas with “huge iron spurs fastened to their naked heels.”  All the main characters are corrupted and ruined, some killed, by the quest for silver in the San Tomé mine.  Conrad establishes the violent spirit of the country, so different from the placidity of the sombre gulf, by relating the anarchy and chaos of its history.  The opening chapter, with its startling description of the enlightened President Ribiera and his followers fleeing from the savage Monterist revolution, gives potent warning about the fate of progressive governments.  The brutal torment of the kindly statesman Don José Avellanos and the ghastly torture of Dr Monygham and the hide merchant Hirsch, are testaments to the imbecility of political fanaticism with which another dictator, Guzman Bento, tyrannized the country.  The history of Costaguana is written in blood and tears.  As the Liberator Simon Bolívar declared, “South America is ungovernable; those who have served her revolution have ploughed the sea.”

Nostromo continued Conrad’s attack on colonialism, which began in Heart of Darkness, and developed the themes of absolute power, individual responsibility and social justice.  In the novel the country and hero are cut off from civilisation, dominated by greed, exploitation and the quest for wealth.  Nostromo portrays the violent threat of nature, the sense of unreality, the moral darkness, the disintegration of humane values, the choice of nightmares and the redemptive woman, Emilia Gould.

Though a great supporter of the British Empire, whose colonialism he saw as relatively benign, Conrad was strongly opposed to American imperialism.  In the Spanish-American War of 1898, America won Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  By treaty in 1903 the “Yankee Conquistadores” gained control of the Panama Canal.  Conrad expressed his anti-imperialistic ideas in the novel through his hostile portrait of the American financier Holroyd, who puts up the money to start the fatal San Tomé mine.

Charles Gould pretends to be altruistic.  Despite the failure and warning of his father, he believes that colonialism combined with capitalism would solve all the problems of Costaguana.  His ambitions, summarised in his ironic declaration early in the novel, are twofold and opposed to each other: “What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security.  Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interests. . . . Money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder.  It’s justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people.  A better justice will come afterwards.  That’s your ray of hope.”  But a “better justice” never comes, and nothing but chaos is ever bound to come.  The security of the mine is dependent upon the political stability of the country, and history has repeatedly proved that permanent stability is impossible to achieve.  Emilia realises that her husband’s obsession with the wealth pouring out of the mine has crushed his feelings, and that she’s being robbed of both affection and children.

Martin Decoud, a sophisticated journalist recently returned from Paris, articulates the problems of the country.  He shows that European values cannot survive in the wilds of Costaguana.  He recognises the conflict between  the two worlds but cannot reconcile them: “There is a curse of futility upon our character: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, chivalry and materialism, high-sounding sentiments and a supine morality, violent efforts for an idea and a sullen acquiescence in every form of corruption.”  Decoud’s values are tested in the greatest scene of the novel, when he finds himself threatened by the overwhelming silence and solitude of the Golfo Placido: “It was a new experience for Decoud, the mysteriousness of the great waters spread out strangely smooth, as if their restlessness had been crushed by the weight of that dense night. . . . The solitude could almost be felt.  And when the breeze ceased, the blackness seemed to weigh upon Decoud like a stone. . . . Intellectually self-confident, he suffered from being deprived of the only weapon he could use with effect.  No intelligence could penetrate the darkness of the Placid Gulf.”

Overcome by the sense of human weakness as he struggles against the forces of nature, Decoud shoots himself and uses the silver to sink his body in the gulf.  His death and the missing ingots seal Nostromo to the treasure and make him its slave.  Conrad’s letter to the critic Edmund Gosse explained his creation of the main character: “Nostromo is a man suffering intensely all the time from an exaggerated amour propre.  I present him at first as complaining that, after he has brought the old American (rich enough to pay for a whole railway) from the mountains, he had not enough money in his pocket to buy himself a cigar, because his wages were not due till next week.  He is a man with instincts for magnificence.  His prestige with the great populace is the very breath in his nostrils.”

Nostromo’s exploits are legion.  He saves Ribiera from the mob, rescues the Viola family, carries Father Corbelan’s message to the wild Hernandez, brings Holroyd over the mountains, finds a doctor for the dying Teresa Viola and sails into the Golfo Placido with the silver of the mine.  But all these exploits divorce action from thought.  He is called upon, his reputation demands that he accept the challenge and he acts—instinctively and without reflection.  One character defines Nostromo with an old Spanish proverb: “A man ought not to be tame.”  In Conrad’s Victory (1915) the savage Ricardo, trying to capture the vulnerable Lena, tells her: “You are not tame.  Same here.”

The extraordinary change in Nostromo begins with his possession of the silver, and is symbolised by his Adamic awakening and rebirth into a new life at the ruined fort.  His physical and mental awareness occur simultaneously, initiate his thoughtful phase and confirm his belief that he has been betrayed by the hombres finos.  Deprived of reputation, Nostromo seeks compensation in wealth.  He has always lived amid splendid publicity, but waking up in solitude makes him feel destitute: “on a revulsion of subjectiveness, exasperated almost to insanity, he beheld all his world without faith and courage.”

Dr Monygham’s devastating pronouncement to Emilia Gould, prompted by his devotion to her and answering her husband’s self-serving exploitation of the mine, expresses the central  tragedy of the novel: the incompatibility of capitalism and moral values: “There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests.  They have their law, and their justice.  But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can only be found in a moral principle.”  Nostromo’s political perception, complex structure, vivid characters and ambitious themes make it Conrad’s greatest novel.

In his “Author’s Note” to the novel, Conrad, with a rare touch of humour, remarked: “my sojourn on the continent of Latin America (famed for its hospitality) lasted for about two years.  On my return I found (speaking somewhat in the style of Captain Gulliver) my family all well, my wife heartily glad to learn that the fuss was all over, and our small boy considerably grown during my absence.”

Speaking of Nostromo’s influence, Epstein mentions Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Guayaquil,” named after a port in Ecuador, that “interleaves history and fiction in a Conradian manner as the narrator recounts his failure to go to a library in Sulaco in order to make a copy of a letter by Simon Bolívar.”  Nostromo not only influenced Naipaul’s Guerrillas, but also his novel A Bend in the River, where the characters endure the horrors of Belgian colonialism and Mobutu’s independent Congo.

This edition does not mention the translation of Nostromo into film.  The superb director David Lean once planned to make Nostromo with scripts by Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt, and a Columbia Pictures budget of $44 million.  Marlon Brando, who’d played Emilio Zapata, would be the dictator General Montero; Basil Rathbone, Sotillo, the military commander who joins Montero; Paul Scofield, Dr Monygham; and Isabella Rossellini, Emilia Gould.  But Lean died of throat cancer in April 1991, six weeks before the film was scheduled to begin.  The television series that was made of Nostromo (1997), an effective 3½-hour adaptation, had the necessary time to dramatise the rich novel.  It also had an excellent cast: Colin Firth is Charles Gould; Albert Finney, Dr. Monygham; Brian Dennehy, Holroyd; Claudia Cardinale, Teresa Viola, wife of Giorgio, the old Garibaldino.  Shot in Cartagena, Colombia, it has a vivid setting, an exciting plot and convincing characters.

 

Jeffrey Meyers has published Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991), and introductions to editions of The Mirror of the Sea, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes.

 

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 92%
7 ratings - view all

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