A misanthropic sort of occupation


The province of Sulaco, convulsed by the revolution which has engulfed the Latin-American state of Costaguana, desperately needs honourable men. Captain Mitchell would gladly inform anyone who might ask him that Giovanni Battista Fidanza, the Capataz de los Cargadores, the great Nostromo, was the most trustworthy fellow along the entire coast. But Nostromo's honour is a constructed thing, a fame built purposefully by the Capataz with the premise that one might as well be famous for being honourable than for being duplicitous. When he is asked to save the silver of San Tomé mine from the armies, so that Sulaco might gain independence, the brave deed fits so well into the story of his life that he cannot refuse. But as he finds himself alone in the Golfo Placido, and finally the last person alive to know that the silver has not been lost, his resolve, and the faith he has in his capitalist-idealist masters, begins to quaver.

The rest of Sulaco can only ever guess at the genuine beliefs and passions of such an actor as Nostromo, a man who has become the devil-may-care cavalier of his own myths. But as silver and expectations weighs heavy on the backs of Nostromo and Martin Decoud (the architect of future independence), we begin to see beneath the façade. A complex Gian' Battista had once determined to create the simple, boisterous Capataz, and when his faith in his place in the schemes of his so-called countrymen is shaken then the original, less dependable Fidanza emerges, confused and thinking furiously. Conrad takes an archetype and forces him to shrug off the armour of his cynicism, leaving a more vulnerable, sympathetic character behind. Almost all of the characters in Nostromo provide an enjoyable read, but it is to the tragedy of the Capataz that the reader's heart goes out.

Nostromo is a huge story in a reasonable-sized book. It encompasses capitalism, revolutionary politics, vast tracts of geography, the complexity of a tempted, imperfect man, and the birth of a new nation. It reads almost like a serial, certainly like an epic. Conrad has used a number of techniques to spread his work far beyond the vision of his book, reaching out into misty indistinction both at the beginning of the story and at the start of the denouement. Here the story looks far into first the past and then the future, so that it draws all of history and predestiny into its scope. And as one approaches the fovea centralis, the narrow, frightening pit of the silver's concealment and of Nostromo's darkening soul, the story slows, repeats and concentrates. The scenes in the Golfo Placido, when Decoud can see nothing but Nostromo's near-black corneas, become indelible phosphorescences, long after the book has ended.

The sheer substance of Nostromo can make it hard to digest at times, and the book is certainly no easy page-turner. Yet its density is also instructive, and scarcely as heavy as the load that the poor Capataz must carry on his back: of hopes, responsibility and guilt. The story of a man in torment is no easy read, but it becomes an inevitable one, drawing the reader back to the sometimes difficult work over and over again.