The first book I read as part of my salty-sea dog era was Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, by Joseph Conrad. Published in 1904, it did not receive much in the way of critical or commercial success, and to this day, it is far from Conrad’s most read or famous work (which I guess would be Heart of Darkness). In the fullness of time, its reputation has only grown and its themes surrounding imperialism, revolution, and the corruption of greed remain relevant to this day.

Nostromo book cover (Penguin Classics)

Set in a fictional South American country, this novel tells the story of a silver mine that gets thrust into disarray during one of the periodic revolutions that plague the country. The infamous difficulty of the novel is not so much due to the plot, but the setting and background. The majority of the novel is comprised of flashbacks and detailed histories of the fictional country, it’s geography, the various periods of rule ranging from colonial exploitation to post-colonial misrule and various rebellions and revolutions. The backstory and motivations of the numerous characters are also related through lengthy flashbacks.

As a result of this extreme reliance on flashback, the pacing of the novel, especially in the early goings, is choppy and sometimes jarring. That being said, this was a conscious choice, and there are stylistic benefits of the approach as well. The insistence and influence of the past upon the present is well established by this approach, and the ambitious, multi-faceted view of an entire society in the grip of revolution would not be possible without the diverse origins of each component of the conflict. The plot actually resembles a simplistic adventure story, but this is given weight by the thematic depth of its tragedy.

“… We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it – and neither can we, I guess.”

Nostromo, Page 63

At this point, I must admit that there are elements of pessimism, fatalism, and near-nihilism in this novel that would, in most cases, cause me to roll my eyes. However, there are some mitigating factors that propel this book beyond my usual complaints. One is Conrad’s humanism, which is on ample display in Nostromo. This is the sort of novel that seems to provoke criticism from all ideological corners. It does not paint a pretty picture of imperialism, colonialism, religion, capitalism, or Marxism (nor probably several other ideologies or dogmatic enterprises that I’m missing), but it does affirm the power of love, the sanctity of family, the importance of the individual, and the need for empathy, sympathy, and understanding. He puts individual relationships above politics, which has the potential to annoy those of all political stripes. And since everyone has some inherent political stripe… you get the picture. Of course, I am not above the fray on this (witness my aforementioned eye-rolling!), but I can appreciate the level of detail and thought that have gone into this and which deserves a corresponding amount of consideration in response.

The other major mitigating factor, and the thing that endears me the most to this novel, is that I couldn’t help myself from thing about how similar this novel is to… The Lord of the Rings. Early on in reading one of the flashbacks in Nostromo, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I thought of similar digressions in Tolkien’s infamous high-fantasy. I realize that, in some ways, this is a deeply silly comparison, but that’s precisely why I find it so endearing. Sure, Nostromo is an intensely political novel with keen insights into the nature of mankind, but setting it in a fictional country means that Conrad spends a huge amount of time fleshing it out with history and culture, especially as seen through a handful of characters (each with their own similarly detailed backstory)*.

Sometimes it felt like reading a realistic, non-fantasy version of The Simarillion. Plus, you get numerous characters who have several different names (take the titular Nostromo, who also goes by Giovanni Battista Fidanza, Capataz de Cargadores, etc…), just like the LotR characters (i.e. Strider, Aragorn, Elessar, etc…) And the treasure from the silver mine? Everyone greedily seeks it out, and it corrupts even those described as incorruptible. Sound familiar? No? I’m just a huge nerd? Yeah, that checks out.

Tolkien was famously dismissive of “allegory” and denied any topical meaning or “messages” in his work. This has not stopped people from speculating, which is the point, but there’s a similar humanism in Tolkien’s work that can thwart many political interpretations. Conrad is obviously more bluntly addressing politics in his book (in a way that I’m not sure Tolkien would particularly approve of), but I do think there’s a similar perspective underlying both authors’ work.

If the name “Nostromo” sounds familiar to you at all, it’s probably because it was the name of the mining ship from Ridley Scott’s Alien (similarly, the name of the Colonial Marines’ ship in Aliens is Sulaco, which is the name of the town in Nostromo.) There’s also some thematic similarities, though obviously Alien is more fanciful in its presentation (not to mention that it implies its background setting, rather than explicitly establishing a comprehensive setting the way Nostromo does).

I will leave you now with a selection of quotes from the novel that I found interesting. They will give you the flavor of Conrad’s prose, which is not exactly free from hooptedoodle, but which is stylistic and expressive.

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Nostromo, Page 49

Gould is the owner of the silver mine, and this is a reference to his relationship with his wife, which is a humanizing one that, like a lot of individual characters, offsets some of the cynicism inherent in the novel. It’s also the sort of thing that would give people of a certain political persuasion the hives.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our actions can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

Nostromo, Page 54

A nice turn of phrase that might help explain some of our political issues of the day.

In all these households she could hear stories of political outrage; friends, relatives, ruined, imprisoned, killed in the battles of senseless civil wars, barbarously executed in ferocious proscriptions, as though the government of the country had been a struggle of lust between bands of absurd devils let loose upon the land with sabres and uniforms and grandiloquent phrases. And on all the lips she found a weary desire for peace, the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security, and without justice.

Nostromo, Page 71

Conrad again emphasizing the way individuals are caught up in official events, ground up and spit out of political machinery, and so on… Once again, something that is easy to relate to and apply to our current circumstances.

“I think he can be drawn into it, like all idealists, when he once sees a sentimental basis for his action. But I wouldn’t talk to him. Mere clear facts won’t appeal to his sentiment. It is much better for him to convince himself in his own way. “

Nostromo, page 171

Its easy to think that facts and reason will prevail (and to be fair, they probably should), but that often does not matter to idealists or ideologues, something that will be good to keep in mind during an election year.

It was part of what Decoud would have called his sane materialism that he did not believe in the possibility of friendship existing between a man and a woman.

Nostromo, Page 176

Imagine the takes, the hot takes on this in 1904! One of the many beneficial things about reading older books is that you can see that many topics that concern us today are not new, and indeed, have been hot button issues for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.

There was between them an intimacy of antagonism as close in its way as the intimacy of accord and affection.

Nostromo, Page 200

Maybe not quite directly relevant to LotR, but the notion of conflict being the basis for a relationship that can be strong is one that crops up often (in fiction and in life).

The mere presence of a coward, however passive, brings an element of treachery into a dangerous situation.

Nostromo, Page 216

Not much to say about this one other than that it’s a nice turn of phrase, so I Googled “Lord of the Rings coward” and the results are just a never-ending succession of “Is [x character] a coward?” followed by “No, [x character] is clearly not a coward because of y and z.” Except for Denethor. The way he eats those tomatoes, man.

A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.

Nostromo, Page 298

A concise description of something that seems to happen a lot, especially in our current social media environment.

“There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Nostromo, Page 403-404

Way to finish on an optimistic note, amiright?

* – I should note that parts of this post, particularly the comparison with LotR, are adapted from and originated in a Tasting Notes post from last year.

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