Images of South America in Some Texts of Joseph Conrad

Article excerpt

"My task is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.

Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus"


In spite of the enormous volume of literary criticism written by some of the most renowned critics of Joseph Conrad's work, there are regions of his texts that remain as yet unexplored. This paper is concerned with one of those territories, which no critical Marlow has ventured into: the construction of images of South America in the novel Nostromo (1904) and the novella Gaspar Ruiz (1908). Nostromo is the story of a robbery of a shipment of silver ingots during a civil war, at a time that is unspecified but that can be deduced to be around 1880, (1) in the imaginary province of Sulaco in the likewise imaginary republic of Costaguana, which would be located, although this is not explicit either, on the Pacific coast of South America. Gaspar Ruiz, on the other hand, is a story of identity, perhaps loyal, perhaps treacherous, of a royalist prisoner taken by the army of San Martin between Chile and the Argentine province of Mendoza, immediately prior to the liberation of Peru.

It is interesting to consider the fact that conventional criticism of the Polish-British writer has not focused on the particularities of the South American landscape in the texts of Conrad. This is not to say that Nostromo is a text that has been altogether ignored, although, by and large, this has been the fate of Gaspar Ruiz. What has happened is that readings of these texts have passed over the specificity of the South American context, upstaged perhaps by images and personalities of the novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. I believe that recognition of this specificity deep within the work of Conrad can illuminate what I will call the South American corpus.

Although these texts are situated historically at the two opposite extremes of the nineteenth-century, the fact that they were written one after another, between 1903 and 1905, (2) permits an a priori consideration of their univocal construction both in terms of their historical-material aspects and the imaginary South American geography they present. The hypothesis of this paper focuses on the fact that the modernization advocated during the last third of the nineteenth-century through the alliance between the colonial powers present in America and the local elite assumed a point of inflection in the constructed landscape, as evidenced in the texts by Conrad in two different images: on one hand, a pre-modern image of the continent as virgin nature, present in Gaspar Ruiz and in the first chapter of Nostromo; and, on the other hand, a chronologically posterior image predominant in Nostromo, in which nature is presented as an obstacle to modernization, which the imperial powers needed to establish in order to satiate their "material interests," (3) a formula that Edward Said refers to as the foremost idee revue of Costaguana. (4)


In the prologues written by Conrad for the volume A Set of Six of his complete works, in which Gaspar Ruiz is included, as well as for the novel Nostromo, he reveals the fact that both stories were taken from books of military and naval travel narratives in Latin America. (5) From these and other texts that provide background to his literary production, it can be deduced that Conrad used many bibliographic sources in writing fiction when his personal experience could not provide the details he needed to achieve verisimilitude in a narrative. (6) Adolfo Prieto explains that between 1820 and 1835, South America received many British travelers, attracted by the "mines of gold and silver of the Andean region." (7) The common feature that Prieto detects in these travelers' narratives, later published in Great Britain and possibly serving as sources for Conrad's stories, is the strong influence upon their descriptions of the South American landscape of Alexander von Humboldt's representations in his widely-read ni neteenth-century travel book, known in England by the title Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799-1804. …