Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"Who the devil was he? - Conrad tells his story

The most remarkable single chapter of Nostromo is Part III, Chapter 10, about five-sixths of the way in, which in a properly structured novel would be where the action ramps up and races to a thrilling conclusion.  That is exactly what Joseph Conrad does, but in his own perverse way.

At this point, the great action scene in the novel has involved three men on a boat in the dark, keep perfectly still, perfectly quiet, while trying to make out the actions of another boat that is perfectly still and quiet.  The scene is tense and terrifying, but also so static that it is amusing, in retrospect, to think of how exciting it was.  Well, now there ought to be some more action.  There has been a revolution in Sulaco, and the title character, thought to be killed, but no!, has been sent off to the rescue.

In this chapter, the fussy Captain Mitchell takes a guest on a tour of the city.  Conrad has flung the chapter into the future – how far is not clear – so that the Captain is telling his guest about the story that I thought I was going to read in a more direct fashion.  Conrad is deliberately telling, not showing, and the teller only has the most general comprehension of the events he is relating.  Even though it would seem that the Captain knows more than I do, having the privilege of living in the future, he understands less, so that as the blowhard fills me in, the gap between what I know and what he knows expands.  Irony, is what I mean.

Much of Conrad’s previous fiction was narrated by a master ironist, his stand-in Marlow, a story-teller so skilled that his dexterity raised suspicions.  What is Marlow not telling me?  He always seems to know more than I do.  Captain Mitchell is a parody, a pedant and a fool.  He tells too much, and not enough.  As he tells the story – how the hero Nostromo made his way to the allied army, how the revolution was suppressed, and so on – Conrad slips more and more over to the poor sap stuck on the tour along with me:

‘Abominable Pedrito!  Who the devil was he?’ would wonder the distinguished bird of passage hovering on the confines of waking and sleep with resolutely open eyes and a faint but amiable curl upon his lips, from between which stuck out the eighteenth or twentieth cigar of that memorable day.  (III.10)

What a strange sentence.  Pure Conrad.  The “distinguished bird of passage” is the visitor, bored out of his mind, stupefied by tobacco; the abominable Pedrito is a major figure in the revolution but a minor character in the novel, meaning that the distinguished bird is a deliberate substitute for the poor reader who just wants to know if Nostromo made his way back and if the silver mine was dynamited or not and whatever happened to that poor French fop Martin Decoud after the accident with the boat.  No, first, I get Pedrito.  Nothing wrong with asking who the devil he was.

Since Conrad’s narrator is genuinely omnipotent, and is more interested in irony than suspense, before the chapter ends I do get answers to all of my questions, including plenty of detail that no one alive would know, things even Marlow could not tell me.  Conrad never cheats.

I have read a number of other novels like Nostromo, but they were all written later, by people who had read it.


  1. Every time I read about Conrad, I think "I should read more Conrad." I've read Heart of Darkness and I own a copy of The Secret Agent that I intend to get to soonish. Even in something as straightforward and moralistic as Heart of Darkness there's an elusiveness I find pretty appealing.

  2. That is pretty much what I used to think. That elusiveness is what I have been harping on, I guess. Narrative strategies that make the stories more interesting - and Conrad is not exactly a slouch with interesting stories.