Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo was first published 1904. The book takes place in the fictional South American country of Costaguana in the fictional seaport of Sulaco. Charles Gould, who is of English descent, is a citizen of Costaguana. He and his wife, Emilia Gould, return to Costaguana from Europe to revive an abandoned silver mine that had previously ruined his father. As the mine begins to be successful, Gould allies himself with Costaguana’s President don Vincente Ribiera. The president is a reformer who is trying to bring stability to Costaguana after years of repression, civil wars and corruption. Unfortunately, Ribiera is overthrown by brutal, oppressive and corrupt forces. These forces proceed to invade Sulaco as various factions compete for power and influence.
Nostromo is an ex-Genovese sailor who resides in Sulaco. He is a foreman of European workmen, but he also serves the various upper class European residents as a kind of security operative. He becomes instrumental in the fight against the oppressive factions. When Sulaco is invaded by the enemy forces, he undertakes a mission to save a large shipment of silver from them by getting it out of the country by boat. Much of the book concerns this mission and its aftermath.
The book is filled with interesting and complex additional characters. Martin Decoud is a cynic who is drawn into the reformist cause as a journalist and editorial writer. Decoud accompanies Nostromo on his mission to save the silver. Also cynical is the moody Dr. Monygham, who also becomes involved with the reformists.
As is typical of other Conrad works that I have read, this novel is full of detailed descriptions and dense prose. The first part of the book is so full of these descriptions as well as background information on characters, that the plot barely moves at all.
There are multiple themes running through this book. As I often do, I will devote a few words to one of these. The motivations and obsessions that provide meaning to life and that drive action is a major subject of this novel. Various characters in the book are determined people. It is of note that they are driven by different things.
Charles Gould is obsessed with the San Tome Mine. Gould is less interested in monetary success than he is in the success of the mine itself and its social impact. The mine, which destroyed his father, becomes the focus of his life. It becomes so important to him that the love and tenderness goes out of his marriage. At one point his wife Emilia laments,
"Incorrigible in his devotion to the great silver mine was the Senor Administrador! [Gould] Incorrigible in his hard, determined service of the material interests to which he had pinned his faith in the triumph of order and justice. Poor boy! She had a clear vision of the grey hairs on his temples. He was perfect— perfect. What more could she have expected? It was a colossal and lasting success; and love was only a short moment of forgetfulness, a short intoxication, whose delight one remembered with a sense of sadness, as if it had been a deep grief lived through. There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea. She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than the worst Government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness. He did not see it. He could not see it. It was not his fault. He was perfect, perfect; but she would never have him to herself. Never; not for one short hour altogether to herself”
Likewise, Nostromo, is a focused man. He is obsessed with his own reputation. The ex-sailor is incorruptible and brave. He fights on the side of reform. However, he cares nothing for the cause. He only values what others say about him and that he is esteemed. He shows himself willing to die for his reputation.
At one point he comments about his mission to save the silver.
“I am going to make it the most famous and desperate affair of my life... It shall be talked about when the little children are grown up and the grown men are old”
Things get really interesting when Nostromo begins to realize that the Europeans are just using him for their own ends. He becomes disillusioned. As the narrative continues for years after the mission, this disillusion carries Nostromo into all sorts of directions. This turn of mind allows Conrad to explore both his character as well as disillusionment of purpose.
Martin Decoud is another example. As his role as writer for the reformists begins to metamorphose into that of a political leader, Decoud shows physical bravery and outwardly appears to be committed to ideas. In reality, however, he is cynical and does not believe in causes. He is, however, in love with Antonia Avellanos, a committed and idealistic person who is dedicated to the cause of reform. Thus, Decoud’s commitment is not what it appears to be.
Despite the depressive aspects of his personality, Dr. Monygham claims to value loyalty to others. It is revealed that he is haunted by the fact that he betrayed people when he was subjected to torture by a previous regime. It turns out that the thing that he seems to care most about is an unrequited love that he has for Emilia Gould
There are multiple additional characters whose motivations in life are examined. Some engage with one another through dialogues that expose their differences and incompatibilities.
At one point, the chief engineer of the railroad observes,
“things seem to be worth nothing by what they are in themselves. I begin to believe that the only solid thing about them is the spiritual value which everyone discovers in his own form of activity”
The above quotation encapsulates a lot of what this book has to say.
The story allows Conrad to explore meaningfulness and personal values in many permutations. Some characters maintain their beliefs, some beliefs some become disillusioned, and others believe that they have betrayed their own values.
There is a lot more going on in this book. It is a critique on both Colonialism as well as Latin American politics. It describes some horrendous violence and brutality that conveys an anti-violence message. There is a disturbing passage that describes torture that might lead some readers to avoid this book.
This is another brilliant novel by Conrad. It has more characters, more plot threads and more themes floating around than either Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the other Conrad books that I have read. I find that Conrad is a master of prose, plot, characters and themes. With that, as stated above, this novel is heavy with descriptions and background information so some readers might become a little bored. For those who appreciate its strengths , I think that this book will not disappoint.