Nostromo (Oxford World's Classics) Revised Edition
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A story of revolt in colonial Latin America set in the imaginary republic of Costaguana (an accurate composite of Hispanic American nations), _Nostromo_ is divided into three parts. The first part, "The Silver of the Mine," introduces the reader to Charles Gould, administrator of the San Tomé silver mine, which is located in the town of Sulaco. The narrator relates the history of the mine, which first haunted Charles's father and now absorbs the attention of the inheritor. It's almost as if the mine were a person with a will of its own. Giorgio Viola, a Romantic freedom fighter who belonged to the ranks of Garibaldi, is another important figure in this first part, and the reader is allowed a glimpse of Gian' Battista Fidanza, the head longshoreman of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, the man the locals call Nostromo. As in most traditional narratives, the first part of the novel establishes the setting and states the problem. It becomes clear from the beginning that as the administrator of a silver mine, it is Charles Gould, and not the local political authorities, who actually holds power in Sulaco. This situation inevitably causes resentment among the local population.
The second part of the novel, "The Isabels," in which the main conflict takes shape, focuses on Antonia Avellanos (the daughter of one of Charles Gould's local friends) and the man who loves her, the journalist Martin Decoud. Antonia is political, and wants the best for the people of Sulaco; Decoud is not a patriot, he considers himself above all that, and as civil strife sets in he wants to leave Costaguana with the lady he loves. As Gould and Decoud realize that their interests (material in the first case, and romantic in the second) are in danger, they devise a plan to protect these interests and enlist the help of Nostromo, who may be the only man capable of carrying out the plan. The novel's third part, "The Lighthouse," presents the resolution of the conflict and describes the fates of the characters involved.
As Conrad points out in his foreword to the novel, _Nostromo_ is loosely based on an anecdote he heard as a young man, while working in the Gulf of Mexico. Conrad built the novel around the story of a man who, taking advantage of a local revolution, managed to escape with a lighter (a flat-bottomed barge) loaded with silver. Like Henry James, Conrad had the ability to construct entire stories starting from a brief real-life anecdote. It is known that _Lord Jim_ was conceived in the same way.
Besides offering a great story, _Nostromo_ is a complex analysis of capitalist colonialism. The topic is the same as that of _Heart of Darkness_, but in this case Conrad is more objective and less ambiguous. Latin America is shown as a highly unstable region, but it is as much a land of ideals and self-sacrifice as it is one of corruption. While the people want to be free and self-sufficient, those in power sell the country's valuable resources to foreign interests so as to increase their personal wealth and remain in power. Given this situation, revolution becomes inevitable. This is the sad history of Latin America, and in _Nostromo_ Conrad shows how clear a perception he had of it. The novel, which is deeper and more panoramic than _Heart of Darkness_, should be required reading for courses in Latin American history and politics.
As I was reading the novel, I felt that it could have been titled _Sulaco_, or even _The King of Sulaco_ (the title the locals give to Gould), instead. Nostromo himself does not emerge as a key figure until the second half of the novel, but towards the end it becomes clear why the story bears his name as its title. His nickname means "our man," and his last name, Fidanza, recalls the Italian "fidanzarsi," which means to get/become engaged. Like _Heart of Darkness_, _Lord Jim_, and so many other Conrad tales, _Nostromo_ revolves around an imposing male figure. Like Jim, Nostromo is a good man, but _Nostromo_ the novel is not marred by the technical imperfections that may be found in _Lord Jim_ (please see my review of this novel for more on this). While _Lord Jim_ may be more daring and groundbreaking in its use of narrative techniques, _Nostromo_ is polished to perfection and much more socially and politically involved. Regarding the female characters, critics have observed that Conrad's women are always beautiful and pure. The author may offer more of the same in _Nostromo_, but I found Antonia to be a memorable character, and she was particularly dear to Conrad because, as he points out in his "Author's Note," she was based on his first love.
In _Nostromo_, Conrad shows an understanding of locals and foreigners alike. Decoud, a Costaguanero, says, "There is a curse of futility upon our character: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, chivalry and materialism, high-sounding sentiment and a supine morality, violent efforts for an idea and a sullen acquiescence in every form of corruption. We convulsed a continent for our independence only to become the passive prey of a democratic parody, the helpless victims of scoundrels and cut-throats, our institutions a mockery, our laws a farce." Pages of Latin American history are summarized in these lines. The same character later describes Gould as "an Englishman," which to him means "simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale." I was reminded of the title character in Graham Greene's _The Quiet American_ (1955). Another passage I loved, this time spoken by Gould: "The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government--all of them have a flavour of folly and murder." The two cultures involved are worlds apart, irreconcilable.
One final comment. As I read, I often got the feeling that in a way the true central character of _Nostromo_ was not Gian' Battista, not Gould, not Decoud, but the silver itself. Isn't this appropriate in a novel about the workings of capitalism? Regarding revolution, Conrad did not exhaust the topic here. He would continue to explore it in his next two novels, _The Secret Agent_ (1907) and _Under Western Eyes_ (1911), both of which are excellent.
_Nostromo_ is as close to perfection as Conrad ever came. Besides being a landmark of English literature, it prefigures the work of some key Latin American novelists, such as Miguel Ángel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez, in whose _Love in the Time of Cholera_ (1985) Conrad himself makes a cameo appearance.
My next novel by Conrad will be _Victory_, but I may read some more of his short stories first.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!
Though the book is written in a highly colored manner, it moves along at a rapid pace and contains enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages. Most of it is told from the third person omniscient point of view, but a passage toward the end gives a single character a chance to summarize the conclusion of the revolution before the focus once again shifts to the hero.
I am looking forward to "Heart of Darkness," Conrad's masterpiece.
The book is swollen with Conrad's dour view of class conflict, colonialism, oligarchy, political fanaticism and the brutality of rich and poor alike. To mention the major turnabout in the story would be to spoil it for unfamiliar readers, but suffice to say there is a deep-seated morality to punishes the guilty and destroys the lives of their abettors.
The Kindle version needs serious editing since it does not show the pages and in fact has Cervantes "Don Quichote" attached to it!!! You do not know that before you get to it.
Top international reviews
The central character Nostromo is an engaging guy who is well liked by most who meet with him, dealing equally with the men who work for him and those for whom he works. However, ‘the great and the good’ of the society within which he lives treat him as disposable. Nostromo is the man they task on the dangerous or unpleasant missions which benefit them but which they are themselves unwilling to undertake. Of course, they never properly reward him for his efforts – or accept him as their equal. When the opportunity to improve his situation finally comes along, he seizes it.
This was a surprisingly entertaining story that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.
Complex but rewarding.