Category Archives: Nostromo

Nostromo: Read from April 06 to 19, 2013

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.

96% done with Nostromo

Having never been left alone on a harbor island in plain sight of civilization and the love of my life all the while guarding a vast treasure of silver ingots that many a man and government would kill me ten times over to get their hands on, killing myself after only 10 days really does seem a bit … impatient.

However, the allusion of a noose in the image of total solitude as a ‘tense, thin cord’ is brilliant.

85% done with Nostromo

Meanwhile as Decoud is stuck on the Isabels with an actual curse, everyone is running around Sulaco hiding from ghosts, shadows, corpses, and the last words of a dying woman whom no priest was sent for.

Further off, in the jungles, men are fighting for some idea of revolution and democracy and even further away, in America and Europe, men await their profits from their debts.

Yet Decoud waits just out of reach.

77% done with Nostromo

I’ve always enjoy a story more when a writer doesn’t just spring a surprise on me (deus ex machina) but builds up the characters in full view of me but not from each other.

Had Nostromo just ‘turned up’ at the barracks before the doctor and the unfortunate victim, the story would have been almost silly – be we knew Nostromo was alive, how he stayed alive, and that he has other secrets from the doctor.

70% done with Nostromo

Dr. Monygham’s remembrance of Father Beron is really quite chilling. Even now, 100 years later and having become a cliche, the wicked priest who tortures calmly and asks quietly “Will you confess now?” does speak to the wickedness of men.

When Conrad speaks of primitive man’s morality being more ‘pure’ when killing each other, this scientific calmness of Beron is even more demonic in its modernity.

60% done with Nostromo

A lot of Nostromo consists of people with an agenda talking about other people with an agenda behind their back.

Maybe this is the penultimate symbolic meaning of the mine – everyone is digging to discover some riches either in the ground or in someone with an agenda (and money).

However, I do wish Conrad spent more time just putting characters in a boat in the middle of the night and letting the drama play.

48% done with Nostromo

In my opinion there are only two ways to handle symbolism in a story – either fully explore its every facet, uncover each and all of its meanings, cast it in every possible light, and let every word of the story not be wasted on anything else.

The other is to not use it at all.

Conrad does a nice job of the former and while reading Nostromo can be dream-like-confusing, it’s all for the sake of the story.

36% done with Nostromo

I’m going to assume that if one of the characters is a bandit we never see but only hear rumors of and another character possesses enough dynamite to ‘send half of Sulaco into the air’ then somehow these two facts will play an important role later in the novel.

Also, I’m glad Conrad took the time to explain how others talk about how best to take advantage of the Gould’s, even if it means ruining the country.

30% done with Nostromo

The way this story unfolds is very much like how the mail in Costaguana arrives over the mountain range – infrequently and censored by the government.

I do wonder what Conrad is getting at. He paints a fascinating, though stereotypical (by our standards) picture of South America, but the Costaguanarians are all corrupt and the English (the Goulds) are going to bring prosperity.

This gets tricky.

24% done with Nostromo

Conrad has this way of introducing a character before actually introducing them. He’ll start talking about someone before telling you their name and so you’re always sort of wondering who is who and what’s going on.

I find myself going back and re-reading passages to get my bearings but it does have the effect of feeling like I’m in a dangerous South American town and having no idea whom to trust.

16% done with Nostromo

Having spent the last few months with Russian lit., getting back to a novel written in my native tongue is like getting to eat a hearty meal cooked in my own kitchen after a long, wonderful vacation.

With the Russians there was always a translator between me and the author’s intent, but here with Conrad, even though English wasn’t even his native language I can revel in unpacking this novel’s hidden language.