Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Anti-Heroics and Epic Failures: The Case of Nostromo

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Anti-Heroics and Epic Failures: The Case of Nostromo

Article excerpt

CONRAD MADE several voyages to the French Antilles when scarcely out of his teens, claiming to have glimpsed South America and to have been briefly in Venezuela.1 Only in the year before he died did he set foot in the United States. Although his relationships with the Old World were somewhat tangential, as a true European he maintained a wary distance from the New. Not remaining exclusively Polish, or French, or British, he used his writings to create a pan-European perspective towards the interconnections of Europe's empires. Arguably the first internationalist novelist, Conrad saw the old European colonialism as dying. But far from feeling his present to be the dawn of a new world order, his diagnosis of the Zeitgeist - before, during, and after the Great War - corresponded roughly with the description of the crowd gathered at Schomberg's in Surabaya, as "the age in which we are camped like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel" (Victory 3).

Conrad made one early literary journey to "the Americas" in the form of his masterpiece Nostromo. The epic scope and detached narrative perspective of this least personal of his novels (to that date) involved considerable self-distancing. According to Conrad's "Author's Note" of 1917, Nostromo, set in an imaginary Latin American republic, was assembled out of a few personal memories from his earlier Marseilles period (1874-78) and much reading.2 The novel marginalizes British imperial power at the same time that Conrad himself was taking up permanent residence in the heartland of middle-class England. Set in what was, strictly speaking, a post-colonial Latin America, Nostromo describes new forms of imperialism based on multinational capitalist interests and projects a vision of empire beyond the demise of European colonialism. Well before Old World colonialism had run its course, it descries on its furthest horizon the dim outlines of a future global economic system dominated by American capital.

The social and political realities of Costaguana are approached in terms that go beyond the dualism of the colonizer/colonized nexus. In 1823, President James Monroe had told Congress of the need to remain aloof from European colonial wars but also insisted that Europe stay out of the Americas. This had the long-term effect of leaving Latin America to the United States to "manage." Nostromo catches that history on the very cusp of change: the moment of American intervention in Panama/Columbia, which coincided with the construction of the Panama Canal. That event opened the way to further "new worlds." At the time of Nostromo's Costaguana, with the canal not yet built and a United States controlled Canal Zone yet to be established (both were just around the corner), Conrad situates his backwater province on the Pacific side of South America, thus doubly removed for a moment longer from the "mainstream."3

Early in the novel Charles Gould comments: "There's a good deal of eloquence of one sort or another produced in both the Americas" (83). The critical edge of this remark can be felt if one recalls Conrad's endemic mistrust of "eloquence," whether that found in Mr Kurtz's infamous humanitarian report or the rhetoric of the billionaire businessman Holroyd:

Now, what is Costaguana? It is the bottomless pit of 10 per cent, loans and other fool investments. European capital had been flung into it with both hands for years. Not ours, though. We in this country know just about enough to keep indoors when it rains. We can sit and watch. Of course, some day we shall step in. We are bound to. But there's no hurry. Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God's Universe. We shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith's Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.