Sunday, June 13, 2010


So, yeah, Nostromo. I apologise for taking so long to write about this. I picked it for classic book club because its Latin American setting dovetailed nicely with the Cuban holiday on which I would be reading it (for all that the book is set on the South American mainland rather than a Caribbean island). I also wanted to read something that was not one of the books by Conrad that everyone goes on about.

Nostromo is a book about any number of things, but two of them are politics and economics. The book is set in a fictional Latin American country, in that period of history when railways, steamships, and the telegraph were together opening up that part of the world to commercial exploitation based on primary commodity exports. In the book we see the transition from the chaotic rowdiness of the first decades of independence to a more ordered environment where the local government enforces a stability that serves the interests of foreign capital and local magnates. The book also features some allusions to torture and human rights abuses as horrific as anything from military-ruled Latin America of the 1970s.

The book is, at least initially, descriptive rather than narrative, painting a portrait of the Republic of Costaguana (or, more particularly, of Sulaco, its occidental province). Conrad's powers of description are such that I feel like I have been there and encountered its leading citizens. The initially slow-burning narrative focuses on a silver mine that finds its way into the possession of an Englishman living in Sulaco. The narrative ramps up when a civil war breaks out in Costaguana, with possession of the mine and its silver being the key prize sought by the various factions.

Conrad's powers of description and characterisation impress greatly, but I was also struck by his ability to handle action. When the civil war comes to Sulaco, the languid pace of the previous sections gives way to a tense account of move and counter-move. Nostromo himself, the capable underling of the Sulacan elite, assumes centre stage now after hitherto being sketched only obliquely and in passing. In true Conradian fashion, he proves less reliable than his betters had hoped, yet they fail to notice and he still manages to be the hero of the hour. I was also struck by Conrad's ability to switch from wry humour (with one batch of soldiers who invade Sulaco seeming more like Keystone Cops than anything possessed of martial viguour) to things much grimmer (like when the body of a man tortured to death by said soldiers is found).

So yes, a great book. I am glad to have finally broken my Conrad duck, as he has been my official favourite writer of whom I have read nothing ever since I read about his work in some commentary on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think of it?

I hope to be quicker with a response to Hard Times.

An inuit panda production


dave said...

In chap. 6, p. 33 in my edition, Conrad says: " he was well read in light literature it took to his mind the form of the Old Man and the Sea." Since Nostromo was written 50 years before Hemingway's book, what does this refer to?

ian said...

I'm guessing it is a reference to the story from Sinbad? Oh no, wait, that is the Old Man Of The Sea. Mmmm.

ian said...

this is what I was thinking of: