Academic journal article Conradiana

A Century of Nostromo

Academic journal article Conradiana

A Century of Nostromo

Article excerpt

It was in 1951 that Robert Penn Warren, a leading American writer of the time, in his Introduction to the Modern Library edition of Nostromo proclaimed this novel to be Joseph Conrad's "masterwork," the centerpiece of his output (viii-xi). And indeed, we can view Nostromo as at Conrad's summa, almost an anthology of his typical narrative techniques, his favourite themes and motifs, as well as the epitome of his political concerns. Some weary readers would also add: this is Conrad's most difficult work, with its reputation of a novel one cannot read unless one has read it before. Well, let's admit that it is not exactly a piece of light literature.

But undoubtedly Nostromo is Conrad's most ambitious and formidable artistic endeavour, the only one with a truly epic scope and sweep--which is a rare distinction by itself. (1) John Galsworthy called it his "most sheer piece of creation" (qtd. in Keating 138). Among Conrad's novels it is the only one whose action takes place in an imagined country. All the others can be located on actual maps: of Borneo, of England, Switzerland, Russia or France. The whole unforgettable topography of Nostromo, from its Golfo Placido sheltered from the ocean by two peninsulas to the snowy peaks of Higuerota, is a product of Conrad's imagination. Similarly, the actors who people this exotic stage--a hybrid population made up of the indigenous dark-skinned Indios, of the descendants of Spanish colonizers, and of various immigrants from Europe, notably the Italians like the eponymous protagonist of the novel--are all Conrad's creations. This imagined land and its people are, however, firmly rooted in the realities of Latin America. Costaguana represents, in Conrad's own words, "a S[outh] Am[eric]an state in general; thence the mixture of customs and expressions" (2)--with Venezuela, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador providing the main source materials. Its history and politics, too, are synthetic and representative. Although some critics place the action of the novel in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the exact dating, based on allusions to real events, seems to me less important than the fact that the depicted attitudes, conflicts, issues, and processes constitute a convincing whole. This "synthetic product" (again Conrad's own expression (3)) was also for him also an experimental crucible.

Conrad's characteristic motifs of fidelity and treason, individualism and the role of reputation, honour and duty, loneliness and commitment to community, patriotism and exile are amply evident. So too are his characteristic narrative techniques, with swiftly changing points of view, personal narrators, and notorious departures from the chronology of described events. These last play in Nostromo a role even more pronounced than in Lord Jim.

The evocation of this created world is permeated with Conradian irony, which relents only occasionally when Antonia Avellanos, Emilia Gould, and Dr. Monygham are concerned. These three are spared the barbs: Dr. Monygham simply because he is sternly self-critical and at the same time completely un-selfish; Antonia Avellanos because as a devoted, altruistic daughter and an ardent patriot, she is ready to sacrifice herself for the larger cause. I shall deal with Emilia Gould at the end of my essay.

One obvious function of irony is to undercut appearances--social, political, psychological, and moral. But applied with such consistency (although varied in force) irony works as an optical device, which produces an effect of multi-dimensionality, of in-depth vision. Added to the narrative techniques mentioned above, it makes the reader see everything from many sides simultaneously. The authorial point of view oscillates skilfully between two contrasting attitudes: one of detachment, often with a sardonic twist; the other, of emotionally charged ethical commitment; the latter finds its clearest expression in the thoughts and words of Mrs. …

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