Saturday, April 18, 2009


A Tale of the Seaboard

Reading this book, I imagined it as a dark hulk steaming slowly and irrevocably toward a hidden shoal, while the author moved among the passengers and crew, holding up a lantern to illuminate their faces, one by one. The ending arrives with the force of a Greek tragedy.

The novel takes place in Costaguana, a fictional and politically unstable Central American country. Its greatest resource is the blood-soaked San Tomé silver mine, now the focal point of a revolution. Rebels attack Sulaco, a port near the mine, but are overcome at the last moment, allowing the province to separate from Costaguana and become an independent country.

Nearly everyone in the book is tainted by the mine's silver. It becomes a barrier in the marriage of Charles Gould, the administrator, and drives Sotillo mad with greed. It assists in the suicide of Decoud, who fills his pockets with ingots before shooting himself in the chest and falling overboard. Finally, it turns the heroic and incorruptible Nostromo into a skulking thief, resulting in the ruination of the only family he has known.

The book is thus a morality tale about the corrupting influence of material wealth, and a warning about the dangers of imperialism. (Costaguana is partially modeled on Panama, which separated from Columbia in 1903 with the encouragement of the USA. Nostromo was published the following year.)

While the novel is considered one of Conrad's best, it contains an amazing number of improbable events. For example, when Nostromo is charged with spiriting silver out of town to keep it from falling into rebel hands, he collides with Sotillo's ship, the very one he is trying to evade. Even more unlikely, a stowaway on Nostromo's boat is borne away clinging to Sotillo's anchor. These events, together with an unlikely last-minute love affair, contribute directly to Nostromo's downfall.

But that's not all -- several ironies underscore the improbabilities. Nostromo is a surrogate son to old Viola and his wife, and unofficially espoused to the older daughter Linda. Yet he ignores a deathbed request made by Viola's wife (fetch a priest) due to the urgency of transporting the silver out of town; and though he is not present, the woman's last words are addressed directly to him (save the children). Instead he uses Viola and the two girls as a cover for spiriting away the stolen silver, in the course of which he develops a sudden infatuation for the younger daughter, Giselle, and ends up being shot by old Viola, who mistakes him for another suitor, who just happens to be Nostromo's protégé.

There are more improbabilities, too many to be unintentional. It is Conrad stacking the deck against Nostromo, implying that no matter what he does he cannot escape his doom. The question then becomes, can we accept as accurate Conrad's portrait of human existence? Are the improbabilities merely an artistic shaping of events in order to contain his vision within the covers of a book? Or is the vision itself inaccurate, warped by Conrad's gloomy view of life?

Either way, the novel is a gothic edifice.