Monday, June 6, 2005

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Took me a long time to read this one and as I did so I came to refer to it as “my stupid book.” That’s probably too harsh. I found myself nodding off a lot, but probably largely because I read it at night before going to bed. On weekend afternoons, I found it a better read. It seemed to take a long time for the actual story to begin, the first 200 pages seemingly devoted to exposition and character development. Characters, that is, except for Nostromo, who is kind of a ghostly figure until he makes a late appearance in part two and suddenly makes the story his own.

In retrospect, it may have been an effective structure because the characters in the story feel like they have unique histories behind them, but those first 200 pages were kind of tough to get through. Everyone in the novel thinks Nostromo has unassailable integrity, but through a series of accidents and circumstances, he finds himself the only person who knows where a fortune in silver is buried. Rather than reveal his secret and return the silver to its owner, even after the danger that brought the accidents and circumstances has passed, he decides to keep it to himself and “slowly get rich” under the guise of a successful shipping business with his schooner. His penalty, in the strange morality of fiction, is death by accidental shooting by someone who thinks of him as a son.

That’s the story, but the book is much larger than that, encompassing a revolution in a fictional South American republic and the plunder of its natural resources by foreign commercial exploits at the expense of its own citizens. Although Nostromo’s story fills fewer pages, it seems more real and immediate than its overpowering and sometimes indistinct backstory. I doubt I’ll put any more Conrad on my reading list.

Nostromo shook his head resolutely. He did not believe in priests in their sacerdotal character. A doctor was an efficacious person; but a priest, as priest, was nothing, incapable of doing either good or harm. Nostromo did not even dislike the sight of them as old Giorgio did. The utter uselessness of the errand was what struck him the most.

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In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.

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