1904 – nostromo ~ joseph conrad

The first time I set eyes on this week’s book, I was not impressed.

Firstly, it’s big. Thick books don’t usually intimidate me, but when you’ve only got one week in which to read a book, you don’t really want to choose one with more than four hundred pages.

Secondly, the blurb on the back of this book describes it as “one of the greatest political novels in any language”. There’s something about the phrase “political novel” that makes me want to barf. Political intricacies are so not my thing…

However, by the time I finished reading this book, I was definitely impressed.

The book I’ve chosen for this week was written by the same author as another book I’ve already reviewed here on Book to the Future. I know what you’re thinking – it’s only my fifth review and I’ve already read two books by the same author! But, in my defence, there aren’t that many books from 1904 still in print. The other major work published in 1904 was The Golden Bowl by (shudder) Henry James. And after struggling my way through The Ambassadors last week, there was no effing way I was lining up to read another Henry James book just yet. Nosireebob…

So – my choice for this week’s review? Here it is…


by Joseph Conrad

Published in 1904

Just two weeks ago, I reviewed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and confessed that it’s been one of my favourite books since, well, forever.

But, despite this fact, I’ve never read anything else by Joseph Conrad. So this week, in 1904, I decided to look up Nostromo, one of Conrad’s other major works.

I admit, I knew next to nothing about Nostromo before I picked up the book and read the blurb on the back. I actually thought Nostromo was the name of a ship (thank you so much for that little misunderstanding, Alien films).

I went into Nostromo thinking it’d be another Heart of Darkness. It’s not – it’s something else entirely…

For starters – Nostromo is a person, not a boat. He’s an Italian sailor, and Nostromo is his story…but it’s also the story of the town he calls home.

Nostromo is set in Costaguana, a fictitious country in South America. The action takes place in the coastal town of Sulaco. It’s a kind of rugged paradise. The land itself is beautiful; overlooked by perpetually snow-capped peaks in the distance. The problem with Sulaco is the people. It’s rife with corruption, crime and political instability. One character describes it as “a paradise of snakes”.

But Sualco has one item of extreme interest – a silver mine.

Enter: Charles Gould, an Englishman born in Sulaco. He has inherited the mine from his father, who was executed in the town’s most recent revolution. Despite promising his Dad that he’d never have anything to do with Sulaco or the silver mine EVER – Charles is all too eager to move to Sulaco and take over. He brings with him his beautiful new English bride.

But the mine isn’t operational. The government is unstable. So he seeks the help of an American squillionnaire to re-establish the silver mine. Oh, and to install a new government of which he approves…

Bad move, Charlie. With American money pouring into the town, even more instability ensues. Add to the mix a monthly transport of silver from the mine, and you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen. The result? One enormous uprising, in which a number of warlords fight for control of Sulaco and its riches.

But who’s this Nostromo guy? He’s the hero of the tale…right?

Nostromo has a reputation about Sulaco. He’s young, handsome and in charge of the local wharves. Everyone adores him. When there’s something dashing to do, Nostromo is there to do it.

Except Nostromo isn’t the oh-so-dreamy hero everyone thinks he is. His reputation around Sulaco is the result of years of cultivation, and all Nostromo really cares about is making people admire him. And trust him…

When the silver transport is at risk, who should step forward to save the day but Nostromo? He’s handed the town’s treasure and heads off on a desperate mission to hide it on a distant island. Which he does, against the odds. But upon his return, he tells everyone the treasure was lost at sea. After working to quell the uprising in Sulaco, Nostromo is praised as a hero. Huzzah!

With a fortune at his disposal, and a town full of admiring followers, Nostromo has everything he’s always wanted. However, Nostromo’s greed for riches is his very undoing…and the same goes for Charles Gould. That’s all I’ll say about the plot, because this is a book you really should read for yourself.

Nostromo is not Heart of Darkness. It’s nothing like it. It’s thematically similar, but, in terms of writing, the two books are poles apart.

The advice given to any modern writer is to “show, not tell”.  In Heart of Darkness, Conrad merely shows us what’s happening, and gives us little insight into what’s really going on in the heads of his other characters. But Nostromo is different. Conrad defies the rules of writing and makes telling look cool…

The narrative technique Conrad employs in Nostromo is totally unique. At the beginning of the book, we’re thrown straight into the events of the middle of the story. Then, we float around a little between characters, like a butterfly, settling on one for a while and describing his or her actions, their history, their innermost thoughts – before moving on to someone else. As a result, you really care about the characters. In the middle of the book, we’re presented with the aftermath of the book’s climax, which is purposefully omitted, and in the end, we go back a little to learn what happened to Nostromo, as we finally see the story from his perspective, and learn the truth about his less-than-heroic motivation.

Yes, I did say back up there that the book’s climax is actually left out. Instead of showing us directly what happened, Conrad jumps way into the future, and we are told of the events of the battle for Sulaco from the point of view of another character, who is acting as a guide for a bunch of American tourists. The gaps in the story are plugged to perfection. Some readers might feel cheated, but I personally think this technique is brilliant.

The narrative structure flits between characters, places and times. Getting into the characters’ heads helps us care about what happens to them, and better understand their actions.

If you’re thinking that this sounds confusing as all hell, you’d be quite right. It really threw me at the start of the book when the characters were fleeing for their lives…and then, all of a sudden, we’re reading the story of how Charles Gould met his wife. It took me a quite while to work out where I was and what was happening.

But all the momentary confusion of Nostromo‘s unique narration eventually passes, and you’re left feeling totally awed. Awed by the characters Conrad has created, awed by his amazing gift for storytelling…

Look, I could continue yakking on about Nostromo for many more thousands of words. But this review is too long as it is, and I haven’t begun to discuss the many lovely passages in which Conrad describes the landscape of Costaguana. Or the way he manages to predict the menace of what we now refer to as globalisation – way back in 1904!

There is so much to admire about Nostromo. Describing it makes it sound absolutely insane. And it IS. However, for the reader looking for something truly unique, Nostromo presents a challenge. If you’re a little confused in the beginning, don’t worry. If you can’t keep track of the huge cast of characters, it’s okay; I had trouble too.

Just keep reading, and, if you’re patient, Nostromo will reward you.


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Hell yeah! Forget about that “greatest political novel” guff on the back cover. Nostromo is a brilliantly-crafted novel that chugs along on the strength of its characters and narrative brilliance. I missed a few of the political points here and there, but it was the stories of the characters that kept me going. My review may be just as confusing as the book itself sounds at times, but Nostromo is a book you really should read once in your life…

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

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