- Author: Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
- Rank: #89
- Published: 1904
- Publisher: Harper & Bros.
- Pages: 404 (Bantam Classic)
- First Line: “In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco – the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity – had never been commercially anything more important than a coastal port with a fairly large local trade in oxhides and indigo.”
- Last Lines: “It was another of Nostromo’s triumphs, the greatest, the most enviable, the most sinister of all. In that true cry of undying passion that seemed to ring aloud from Punta Mala to Azuera and away to the bright line of the horizon, overhung by a big white cloud shining like a mass of solid silver, the genius of the magnificent capataz de cargadores dominated the dark gulf containing his conquests of treasure and love.”
- ML Edition: #275 – two dust jackets (1951, 1968)
- Film: David Lean died before making his version. A BBC version was made in 1997.
- Acclaim: ML List (#47)
- Read: Summer, 1998
The Novel: Joseph Conrad was unlike any other novelist in the English language, in that he was a master of the language for whom it was not a native language (don’t bring up Nabokov – he learned to speak and write English before he even wrote and spoke Russian). There was a stretch, during the first decade of the twentieth century, where he was certainly the foremost novelist in the world. He is the only novelist to have four novels end up on the Modern Library list and all four — Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Secret Agent, were written in the course of ten years. In later years, Conrad’s critical star would suffer with the rose of postcolonialism, but there are few who would argue with his mastery of the English language; an amazing achievement given that he didn’t become fluent in English until he was in his mid-twenties.
Nostromo is one of those novels that now gets ravaged by post-colonial critics. Here we have the Europeans who come in and are able to force peace and civility upon the less civilized South Americans. But of course, he is unable to save himself from his own fate, and besides, the plot isn’t the key item here. It is all about Conrad’s ability to forge an imaginary country and the language which he uses to help us see his vision. Conrad describes his own inspiration in a note to the novel: “I had the first vision of a twilight country which was to become the province of Sulaco, with its high shadowy sierra and its misty campo for mute witnesses of events flowing from the passions of of men short-sighted in good and evil.”
This is the country he does create, with such amazing descriptions right from the start: “Utterly waterless, for the rainfall runs off at once on all sides into the sea, it has not soil enough – it is said – to grow a single blade of grass, as if it were blighted by a curse.” This is the kind of country that the sailor Nostromo is coming to in the midst of a silver rush.
Not that all of his language is wrapped up in physical descriptions. He also has a firm understanding of psychology: “These two young people remembered the life which had ended wretchedly just when their own lives had come together in that splendor of hopeful love, which to the most sensible minds appears like a triumph of good over all the evils of the earth.”
Of course there is a fatal ending to the novel; this is Joseph Conrad and very little light is able to emerge into the gloom of darkness that hangs over Conrad’s books. While there might be a bit of horizon in the distance in the final lines, in contrast to the black bank of clouds in Heart of Darkness, Nostromo himself does not end well, something that we can see coming earlier, when we see him sink his ship: “The gloomy, clouded dawn from behind the mountains showed him on the smooth waters the upper corner of the sail, a dark wet triangle of canvas weighing to and fro. He saw it vanish, as if jerked under, and then struck out for shore.”
It’s a shame that David Lean died before he could make his film. Lean’s epic vision was singularly suited for a film version of it. The sadness that this was never completed inspired me so much that when I wrote my first novel, the narrator was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of Nostromo.