Joseph Conrad On Nostromo

Joseph Conrad On Nostromo

“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman…”

― Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Joseph Conrad in his notes on Nostromo speaks of its origins as having its genesis in two otherwise inexplicable events. The first concerned his anxiety on having finished his book Typhoon,

I don’t mean to say that I became then conscious of any impending change in my mentality and in my attitude towards the tasks of my writing life. And perhaps there was never any change, except in that mysterious, extraneous thing which has nothing to do with the theories of art; a subtle change in the nature of the inspiration; a phenomenon for which I can not in any way be held responsible. What, however, did cause me some concern was that after finishing the last story of the “Typhoon” volume it seemed somehow that there was nothing more in the world to write about.1

Many writers have come to a point in their lives when things dry up, when they feel they have nothing left to say, that its all been said, and that to say more would be a mere repetition of everything that had gone before. It’s as if an abyss opens up and one feels hollow inside, as if someone had taken a butcher knife and cut a deep hole in one’s mind and left nothing but darkness and despair in its place.

Then something happened to Conrad. He’d been traveling as he usually did on sea and overheard a conversation concerning an incident off the coast of some South American nation which was undergoing a Revolutionary war. A man whose name was never mentioned had stolen a sailing vessel full of silver bullion worth a vast fortune and gotten away with it. Conrad was not that interested in the crime itself but rather that it happened during a specific political and revolutionary period a small countries struggles. It was this combination of intrigue, revolution, and politics that sparked his interest but not enough to do anything with it for a story so he forgot about it until twenty-six years later.

At that time he’d been in a small book shop in some port city of a small country in South America and come across an autobiography of a sailor which on reading the blurb seemed to interest him because of the time frame of the man’s life. As he was reading it he came upon three pages that described for him the details of the tale he’d heard some twenty-six years previously. The young sailor had taken employment on a schooner with a captain who was the very thief and scoundrel who had stolen the treasure all those years earlier. As the captain one night told the young sailor: “People think I make a lot of money in this schooner of mine. But that is nothing. I don’t care for that. Now and then I go away quietly and lift a bar of silver. I must get rich slowly — you understand.” The young sailor didn’t believe him, and even threatened the captain saying, “What’s to prevent me reporting ashore what you have told me about that silver?” The captain studied him for a moment and returned: “You fool, if you dare talk like that on shore about me you will get a knife stuck in your back. Every man, woman, and child in that port is my friend. And who’s to prove the lighter wasn’t sunk? I didn’t show you where the silver is hidden. Did I? So you know nothing. And suppose I lied? Eh?”

After that the young sailor fears reprisal stole a skiff and left the schooner that night. So the tale concluded. Conrad having read that was unimpressed about the ruffian captain or the crime, but something else occurred that would set him on course for writing his last novel. As he states it:

I did not see anything at first in the mere story. A rascal steals a large parcel of a valuable commodity — so people say. It’s either true or untrue; and in any case it has no value in itself. To invent a circumstantial account of the robbery did not appeal to me, because my talents not running that way I did not think that the game was worth the candle. It was only when it dawned upon me that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that 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 men short-sighted in good and evil.

Such are in very truth the obscure origins of “Nostromo” — the book. From that moment, I suppose, it had to be. Yet even then I hesitated, as if warned by the instinct of self-preservation from venturing on a distant and toilsome journey into a land full of intrigues and revolutions. But it had to be done.

It was this incidental history in itself of little matter that would converge on Conrad’s imaginative need which would suddenly reveal to him how a powerful narrative of tragic consequences could suddenly arise out of such lean fare, a story of mystery and passion, politics and character. This sense of a destiny that ties all mankind together in strange relations.

As he’d say of the book and the history of the people:

As to their own histories I have tried to set them down, Aristocracy and People, men and women, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, bandit and politician, with as cool a hand as was possible in the heat and clash of my own conflicting emotions. And after all this is also the story of their conflicts. It is for the reader to say how far they are deserving of interest in their actions and in the secret purposes of their hearts revealed in the bitter necessities of the time. I confess that, for me, that time is the time of firm friendships and unforgotten hospitalities.

For me it is that singular phrase which highlights the power of such narratives that bring out the “secret purposes of their hearts revealed in the bitter necessities of the time”. For in the end its the dark mystery of the unknown, the mystery of the heart itself, oh “bitter necessities” of time that matter, and nothing else.

  1. CONRAD, JOSEPH. Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 27265-27269). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.