Saturday, June 16, 2012

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo


Opening Passage:
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 of 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 Placido 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.

Summary: Sulaco is the most resource-rich province of the fictional country of Costaguana, home of the rich San Tomé silver mine. This mine was granted in perpetual concession to a Costaguanan of English extraction, Mr. Gould, who, knowing that it was an albatross around the neck, tried to get out of it, but could not. And, indeed, it dominated him the rest of his life as the corrupt Costaguanan government used it as an excuse to squeeze his fortune dry. The mine is taken over by Charles Gould, his son, and he with his wife, Mrs. Gould (we never learn her first name) set out to do good with it, to bring stability, order, and prosperity with it. In a sense they succeed. But plans never go quite straight in Costaguana, especially when tangled up with the complexities of silver, which, of course, is not just a metal but an idea, and an idea that can tangle everything up.

The book, through a very wide and beautifully drawn cast of characters, traces the course of idealism in its tangled and complicated interaction with material interests. There are many kinds of idealism, each as varied as the characters themselves, and they all become tangled in the complications of Material Interests, and especially in the mine as the consummate representation of those interests. Material interests need idealism to be justified, but they have a way of becoming indistinguishable in men's minds from the ideals themselves. Likewise, idealism needs material interests as its instruments; but material interests at the same time muddle one's mind and begin to enslave it, thus risking the ideal. And each, materialism and idealism, carry their own blind-spots. Thus the Author's Note sums it up well when it says that Sulaco is the background for men and women shortsighted in good and evil. Every significant character in the book suffers from this shortsightedness arising from the suicide pact, so to speak, between the material and the ideal in human life. For a Conrad novel things turn out remarkably well in the end; but no one breaks free from moral shortsightedness.

Favorite Passage: There are several possibilities, but this one doesn't give away much of the story, while nonetheless carrying it in its germ.

The father of Charles Gould, for a long time one of the most wealthy merchants of Costaguana, had already lost a considerable part of his fortune in forced loans to the successive Governments. He was a man of calm judgment, who never dreamed of pressing his claims; and when, suddenly, the perpetual concession of the San Tome mine was offered to him in full settlement, his alarm became extreme. He was versed in the ways of Governments. Indeed, the intention of this affair, though no doubt deeply meditated in the closet, lay open on the surface of the document presented urgently for his signature. The third and most important clause stipulated that the concession-holder should pay at once to the Government five years' royalties on the estimated output of the mine.

Mr. Gould, senior, defended himself from this fatal favour with many arguments and entreaties, but without success. He knew nothing of mining; he had no means to put his concession on the European market; the mine as a working concern did not exist. The buildings had been burnt down, the mining plant had been destroyed, the mining population had disappeared from the neighbourhood years and years ago; the very road had vanished under a flood of tropical vegetation as effectually as if swallowed by the sea; and the main gallery had fallen in within a hundred yards from the entrance. It was no longer an abandoned mine; it was a wild, inaccessible, and rocky gorge of the Sierra, where vestiges of charred timber, some heaps of smashed bricks, and a few shapeless pieces of rusty iron could have been found under the matted mass of thorny creepers covering the ground. Mr. Gould, senior, did not desire the perpetual possession of that desolate locality; in fact, the mere vision of it arising before his mind in the still watches of the night had the power to exasperate him into hours of hot and agitated insomnia.

Recommendation: The artistry of the book is, of course superb: the descriptions are vivid, the characterizations excellent, and Conrad's ability to tell the stories of a large number of characters in detail while still maintaining a clear and coherent plot is impressive. Highly recommended.

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