Nostromo is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.
First of all, the novel is not an easy read. Many times I needed to go back and revisit whole passages and even start chapters over again – and even then I still sometimes felt a little lost and would just have to trust Conrad to actually lead me somewhere, which he always did. Add in the fact the novel is dense with imagery (light and dark, sun and shade, black and white are some of the more obvious one, while others are much more obscure), and this is an all around meaty novel to sink your teeth into.
Nostromo is very dream-like, everything has a colorful, vibrant, out-of-focus haziness to it that dips back and forth in time, point of view, tone, and mood. Conrad most likely was trying to capture the essence of some South American jungle in all its complexity and savageness by intentionally being vague. Yet some of the best moments where when there was a clear sense of place and plot – the boat at night, most scenes with the doctor or Charles Gould – Nostromo in the end – and these moments feel like the stories what would have survived crossing the Atlantic back to Europe in the papers at the time. Everything else, however, is unclear, dangerous, even misleading.
The problem with all this is that while on the one hand this novel is a supreme work of art, it also suffers from exactly what it’s trying to accomplish. Because Sulaco is not clearly defined, we have a hard time feeling anchored anywhere and so have a hard time getting ‘into’ the story. Now perhaps after years of studying the novel and paying all one’s dues to in Joseph Conrad Society can we fully appreciate Nostromo, but for the normal reader the very things that make the novel brilliant also make in hard to really enjoy or even accessible.
However, this is still an amazing novel. I seriously believe much of how the west sees South America, especially her violent politics and social uncertainty, is due in no small part to Nostromo. Details such as the jarring scene of the emerald parrot or the doctor carrying the watermelon are such cliche images in film and fiction that it’s hard to believe they were ever invented or fresh. Yet here in a way is the birth of modern South America, for good or bad, here are the beginnings (in a way) of the coming magic realist fiction that that part of the world is still so famous for.
Maybe Conrad unfairly indicted all of steamy, passionate South America, or maybe he was close to the mark, I can’t answer all that. What I do know is that Conrad’s exploration of man’s greed, violent tendency, desires and failures are wonderfully captured here in Nostromo. I doubt I’ll ever read another novel quite like it.