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by Kenneth Ligda

“I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel”—F. Scott Fitzgerald.[1]
“The greatest novel in English of this century”—Walter Allen.[2]
“[O]ne of the finest of all English historical novels”—Terry Eagleton.[3]
“It is, in my view, the masterwork of that ‘puissant rêveur,’ as Gustav[e] Kahn once called Conrad….one of the few mastering visions of our historical moment and our human lot.”—Robert Penn Warren[4]

Joseph Conrad wrote Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard between 1902 and 1904, the year of its publication, in the middle of his “major phase.” Lord Jim (1900), “Heart of Darkness” (1899; 1902), and two collaborations with Ford Madox Hueffer were behind him; The Secret Agent (1907) lay ahead. The composition was, even by Conrad’s standards, a ghastly ordeal: “I see nothing, I read nothing. It is like a kind of tomb which is also hell where one must write, write, write.” He was beset by gout, depression, and financial collapse. The work grew from a projected short-story into his longest novel. When Nostromo appeared, first as a serial in T.P.’s Weekly (January to October 1904) and then, significantly revised, as a book, it failed to win critical or public approval. Rather, it initiated a losing streak which, stretching through The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911), was only broken by Chance (1913), his first major financial success. Even today, Nostromo is far from his most-read work, though it holds critical pride of place not only as Conrad’s greatest achievement, but among the front-rank of modernist novels, and as a key fictional study of post-colonial global capitalism.

Nostromo’s poor reception was due largely to its difficulty, a product not so much of its many characters or the complexity of the story itself, but of the plotting: “the book,” said The Times Literary Supplement, “is overwhelmed by machinery.” Nostromo begins in medias res and a great deal of the tale—the history of the land, the backstory and motivations of the characters, even the climax—is related through flashbacks and metadiegetic[5] retellings. This, combined with Conrad’s prose (though more restrained here than in “Heart of Darkness”) and his vast ambition to depict the totality of a diverse society in the grip of revolution, conspired to earn Nostromo “notoriety as a novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before.”[6] The actual tale, however, is not unduly complicated.

It is the story of a silver mine in the Occidental Province of “the imaginary (but true)”[7] Latin American country of Costaguana, and the crisis by which the province passes from the chaos of post-colonial misrule to the unquiet prosperity of Anglo-American imperial capitalism. Though the time-frame stretches from colonization and a Bolívarian War of Independence to a future of cosmopolitan modernization and possible Marxist revolution, the major action occurs over the space of less than a month, during which the Europeans’ puppet dictator is overthrown by a popular military leader and the province braces for invasion.

At the core of the novel is the attempt by two antithetical young men—Nostromo,[8] the Italian dockworkers’ boss and the most trusted of the Europeans’ laborers, and Martin Decoud, a “Frenchified…idle boulevardier” (151-52)[9] who works as propagandistic journalist for the puppet government—to smuggle a last shipment of silver out of the Occidental Province and thus ensure continued American financial backing. They fail but, by virtue of bravery, cunning, and dumb luck, the Province is saved. Declaring itself the Occidental Republic, it (with the help of the US Navy) hews itself free from Costaguana, and soon becomes prosperous and peaceful. All, however, is not well. The new country simmers with labor troubles, native Catholic priests clash with American Protestant evangelists, factions clamor for the invasion of Costaguana. The major characters have been either killed or emotionally undermined by the course of events.

The fate of the two key characters is particularly telling. Decoud and Nostromo succeed in burying their shipment of silver on an island; Nostromo returns to the chaos in the town and Decoud is left to await for his return. Back among the Europeans, Nostromo discovers that a freak naval accident has led everyone to believe that the lighter of silver has gone to the bottom of the gulf. Decoud and Nostromo become, by no intention of their own, the sole (and secret) possessors of a vast fortune. But, by the same token, the silver has now psychologically isolated them from their former society. Decoud, suffering from actual physical isolation, suffers first. Waiting in the silence of the island, the consummate Parisian dandy discovers that the raw, uninterrupted flow of his own existence is unbearable to him. Weighing down his pockets with four ingots of silver, he rows out to the middle of the gulf, shoots himself in the chest, and vanishes into the water.

Nostromo, a steadier and luckier man, lives on for years, cautiously allowing himself to grow wealthy off the treasure. His experience during the revolution have disillusioned him of the European aristocracy, but his new-found Marxism is undermined by his obsession with, in fact his enslavement to, the silver itself. He gained his character by laboring for reputation; he is now the most famous man in the Occidental Republic, and doesn't care. At heart he has become a stranger to all and, appropriately, is killed by his best and oldest friend, who mistakes him in the dark for someone else.

Decoud and Nostromo, like the book itself, are engaged through the first half of their stories in discovering the flaws and corruption of their society. Their experience prompts the question: "What else is there?" Like Kurtz, they kick themselves free of the earth only to discover that what is left of themselves is so insubstantial as to be subject to anything--to, for instance, silver. And their story is simply an elaborated version of the fates of most of the novel's characters. If Nostromo echoes one work of fiction more than another, it is The Pardoner's Tale, with all the human agencies canceling out and the treasure emerging as the sinister protagonist of the narrative. As Conrad took "the liberty to point out" in 1923, "Nostromo has never been intended for the hero of the Tale of the Seaboard. Silver is the pivot of the moral and material events, affecting the lives of everybody in the tale. That this was my deliberate purpose there can be no doubt."[10] On the first page of the novel, the narrator relates a Costguanese folktale, not unlike Chaucer's, of three men doomed by their hunt for the land's treasure. Conrad's great achievement is to have developed from this simple morality tale--which "The poor, associating by an obscure instinct of consolation the ideas of evil and wealth," have created--a novel of modern transnational exploitation, which remains true in spirit to the superstitious origins of the tale.

In its engagement with politics and imperialism, Nostromo is a logical bridge between Conrad’s earlier and later work. It is set (like “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim) within the realms of overseas empire, but Costaguana is post-colonial and the key players are, by culture if not always by birth, English, French, Italian, and Spanish, so that the situation that plays out resembles in some ways the European turmoil of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. As in earlier work, the plot is told largely from the point of view of the powerful, though Conrad’s deepening engagement with the revolutionary mindset is betokened by Nostromo himself, who is transformed from an ignorant servant of the capitalists into an Marxist: he becomes a self-aware, if not particularly intelligent, “Man of the People.”

Conrad’s attack upon imperialism is more muted than before, but finally more comprehensive. The half-century of Costaguana’s independence is characterized by such “oppression, inefficiency, fatuous methods, treachery, and savage brutality” (119) that Conrad can only with great difficulty avoid seeing Latin American self-rule as “opéra bouffe” (152). The Americans (inspired by the Monroe Doctrine and “a purer form of Christianity” [216]) and the English bring infrastructure and peace though the silver mine, “the most stable, the most effective force” that the country “had ever known” (314). Their theory, as articulated by the mine-entrepreneur Charles Gould to his altruistic wife Emilia, is that

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. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That's how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is 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. (100)

Despite their obtuseness towards the sentiment of the populace (they learn “with stupefaction” that their unprepossessing dictator has been deposed), the Europeans represent imperialism at its finest. Yet—in spite money, probity, and good fortune—they only save the Occidental Province by violently severing it from the rest of Costaguana and erecting a new ineffectual government. Worse, it is augured that “

There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency and is inhuman….[T]he time approaches when all that the [silver mine] stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back. (423)

Even at its best, imperial capitalism is oppressive and, as might be expected, introduces no better society than the class-tormented civilizations it springs from in Europe.

Costaguanese independence has been “une farce macabre” (the “guana” of the name seems deliberate[11] ). Anglo-American globalism is more orderly, but promises further unbearable burdens. Conrad has no faith whatever in the wisdom of a workers’ revolution. An acceptable social order remains unimaginable. Humankind, sprung from savage origins, has progressed only in hypocrisy:

[T]he easy massacre of an unsuspecting enemy evoked no feelings but those of gladness, pride, and admiration. Not perhaps that primitive men were more faithless than their descendants of to-day, but that they went straighter to their aim, and were more artless in their recognition of success as the only standard of morality. (327)

And yet the novel presents models of admirable moral action (in the persons of Nostromo, Decoud, and Dr. Monygham) and a selection of idealistic characters (Viola, an old “enemy of kings” who fought with Garibaldi; Emilia Gould, a philanthropist; and Antonia Avellanos, a patriot). The moral actions, however, are undertaken for the wrong reasons, and the ideals rendered more unrealizable than ever by the achievement of order and prosperity. This constitutes the key tragedy of the novel.

It is a tragedy snatched from the jaws of comedy. As in comedy, the social system—in this case, capitalism, and more precisely the reified spirit of the silver—preserves itself even though no single individual understands what is happening, what others are thinking and planning, or even their own intentions. The tone of Conrad’s narrator, by turns ironic and solemn, matches this ambivalence, as does the point of view. Gone is the first-person Marlow storyteller,[12] replaced by a narrator who is agile but not quite omniscient. Through limited narration and very liberal use of free indirect discourse, Conrad is able to represent the systematic, sometimes comic, always drastic misunderstandings through which the novel unfolds. In the background is the silver which, with waxing uncanniness, seems the only guiding intelligence of events.

The major stylistic innovation of Nostromo is the extreme use of flashback and anachrony (mostly analepsis[13]). There has been much discussion of the benefits Conrad does or does not garner from these jarring and demanding techniques. Ian Watt has pointed to the superb dramatic effects achieved, while Terry Eagleton suggests that the muddled time-sequence enacts the ineradicable grip of the past upon the forces of progress. There are two particular instances which are worth special attention. The first is the representation of trauma: a main character, Dr. Monygham, was broken by torture many years before the main action of Nostromo. We first learn of this as a vague rumor, and only with gradually augmented flashbacks—and only as Dr. Monygham steels himself to atone for having betrayed friends under torture—do we learn the full truth of the experience. The second narrative effect is a matter of historiography. The metadiegetic narrative which conveys the climax of the novel is told by the stolid, unperspicacious, frankly stupid Englishman Captain Mitchell who is obsessed with the grand (and false) sweep of history. In a way that Chinua Achebe might appreciate, Conrad thus satirizes the travesty of history being written by a singularly complacent and incurious victor.

Finally, we should not ignore the purely editorial advantages that accrue to Conrad through anachrony. In serial publication, backstory and reminders are extremely useful. In book form, the epic style of War and Peace was no longer feasible as it would have been in the days of the three-volume novel; the anachronistic method allows Conrad to condense centuries of history into a tale of the most exciting and significant few weeks. In any case, since Conrad originally intended a 35,000-word story, the classical historical narrative was perhaps impossible by the time he grasped the true scope of the work.

Nostromo helps us chart out the border area between the Victorian and the twentieth-century modernist novel. At its center is a Stevensonian adventure yarn, and pre-1900 literary trends (impressionism, symbolism, naturalism) are in clear evidence. Various trajectories to later modernism can, nevertheless, be traced. Nostromo is difficult and unconventional, and it remained unpopular with a mass audience (though not through any deliberate intention on the part Conrad). Tonally, the ornate scorn which Conrad lavishes on civilization and social conventions is well in advance of his English contemporaries (remarkably, Conrad was in friendly contact with H.G. Wells during this period).

Though the characters are not very “deep,” and much of the hermeneutic interest of the Marlow narratives is absent, the novel also entertains a characteristically modernist interest in psychology and mental states. Nostromo even features a neat example of self-reference: in his 1917 Author’s Note, Conrad wryly cites as his major source the History of Fifty Years of Misrule, an imaginary book written by one of Nostromo’s characters. Centrally, though, this novel is at the crux of epic literature’s transition from the reasonably coherent forms of Balzac and Tolstoy to the confounding sagas of Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Nostromo is path-breaking both for its representation of an entire post-colonial society engaged with global capitalism, and for its reworking of the historical novel in an age when traditional historiography, the omniscient perspective, and the idea of progress could no longer be taken seriously.

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship. Ed. Matthew J. Brucolli with Judith S. Baughman. Columbia: U South Carolina P, 1996. 87.
  2. Quoted in Introduction by Martin Seymour-Smith. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. New York: Penguin, 1990. 7.
  3. Eagleton, Terry. The English Novel: An Introduction. Malden, MA: 2005. 246.
  4. Warren, Robert Penn. Introduction. Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. New York: Random House, 1951. x, xxxix.
  5. I use several narratological terms drawn from Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. “Metadiegetic narrative” refers to a story within a story, in this particular case the retelling of events by one of the characters of Nostromo.
  6. Berthoud, Jacques. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. 97.
  7. Conrad, Joseph. A Personal Record: Some Reminiscences. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1924. 98.
  8. The character’s real name is Gian’ Battista Fidanza. “Nostromo,” the name given him by the other Europeans, is Italian “boatswain” (he was originally a Genoese sailor), but there is an apparently inadvertent pun on “nostro-uomo”—“our man.”
  9. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. New York: Penguin, 1990.
  10. Jean-Aubrey, G. Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters. Vol. 2 of 2. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1927. 226.
  11. There may, indeed, be some significance to the “guana” of the name. From 1879-1883, the War of the Pacific was fought between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile over the vast reserves of guano and saltpeter on the occidental coast of South America. The development of chemical processes had rendered these materials enormously valuable, so that these three countries (like Costaguana) abruptly found themselves possessed of great potential wealth. (Lord Jim features two mad entrepreneurs who propose to make their fortunes off a guano-covered island.) Conrad is, perhaps, making a parallel between excrement and money, reminiscent of Dickens in Our Mutual Friend. As to the actual origins of Costaguana, it seems to have been a composite of Venezuela, Paraguay, Chile (the huge mountains to the east), and Panama (where America had just intervened).
  12. A possible factor in Conrad’s move from the first to the third person is that Nostromo was, in Robert Penn Warren’s words, a “supreme effort of imagination” (ix)—in other words, he was writing about a land of which his first-hand knowledge was almost nil. What he understood of Latin America was largely from books and friends—which might explain the novel’s preoccupation with historiography.
  13. Anachrony refers simply to breaks from chronology in the telling of a story. It can involve either “prolepsis” (which looks into the future) or “analepsis” (which looks into the past). There is no real difference between the terms flashback and analepsis, but I use analepsis here to imply that Nostromo also contains the opposite: prolepsis.
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