Sunday, September 3, 2023

Lessons from Joseph Conrad's Nostromo Are Still Relevant.

"It is to be remarked that a good many people are born curiously unfitted for the fate awaiting them on this earth."
--Joseph Conrad

    When I first set out to pursue a writing career I had a strong desire to write fiction, but also wrote articles. I'd decided that writing a novel was too big of an undertaking for a beginning writer who was also working full time, so I focused on writing short stories. 

    To learn the storytelling craft I read and listened to short stories in the following manner.  I would use short story anthologies to identify short story writers. I would select a writer and immerse myself in his or her work, much like binging. Hemingway, Jack London, Chekov and many others were studied in this way. Joseph Conrad was among the first.

    I remember taking an album out of the Hennepin County Library with several Conrad stories on it. The first that I listened to was called "The Lagoon." The descriptive prose and heartbreaking story moved me profoundly. What especially made an impression on me was that Conrad wrote in English, which was not his native tongue. In fact, English was Conrad's third language.  

    Conrad wrote Nostromo in 1904, a story set in the fictional South American republic of Constaguana during a violent revolution. The title character is an Italian longshoreman who has been entrusted to safeguard a priceless silver mine that was owned by Charles Gould.

    Primary themes in the novel include the corrupting influence of power and greed while also examining the impact of colonialism and imperialism on Latin America. How interesting that these themes continue to remain relevant 100 years later in a post-colonial era.


    In the story, Nostromo is initially a respected and trustworthy figure, but he is gradually bent by the power and wealth that he gains from safeguarding the silver mine. Over time he is increasingly ruthless and dishonest, eventually becoming responsible for the deaths of many people. 

    Here's a description of the novel from What I found most illuminating is how much history preceded the Latin American conflicts that we've been more aware of because they happened in our lifetimes (if you're a Baby Boomer).

    One of the greatest political novels in any language, Nostromo reenacts the establishment of modern capitalism in a remote South American province locked between the Andes and the Pacific. In the harbor town of Sulaco, a vivid cast of characters is caught up in a civil war to decide whether its fabulously wealthy silver mine, funded by American money but owned by a third-generation English immigrant, can be preserved from the hands of venal politicians. Greed and corruption seep into the lives of everyone, and Nostromo, the principled foreman of the mine, is tested to the limit.

    Another main point that Nostromo makes is that colonialism and imperialism can have a devastating impact on the people of the colonized countries. This was a theme in Orwell's early writings in which he attempted to convey the consequences of British imperialism in India. In this novel Conrad shows how the silver mine in Costaguana is exploited by the British and other foreign interests, and how the profits from the mine benefit a small elite while the majority of the people live in poverty and squalor. This exploitation took place thoughout the New World. When we lived in Mexico we visited two cities where silver mines had been stripped bare by the Spanish, for the benefit of Spain.

    Here are four takeaways from Nostromo:

    1) The importance of individual responsibility and the dangers of blindly following authority.

    2) The fragility of social order and the difficulty of creating lasting change.

    3) The power of nature and the limitations of human control.

    4) The ambiguity of good and evil and the difficulty of making moral choices in a complex world.  

    "Having had to encounter single-handed during his period of eclipse many physical dangers, he was well aware of the most dangerous element common to them all: of the crushing, paralyzing sense of human littleness, which is what really defeats a man struggling with natural forces, alone, far from the eyes of his fellows."
    --Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

    Nostromo Summary
    The Mission's Pointed Questions

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