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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Two American-type characters in Nostromo, neither of whom is American

The encing of the middle section of Conrad's Nostromo, The Isabels, is a pretty great scene, as Nostromo and Decoud navigate through the darkness to get the silver bullion ashore on the Isabel islands, where they bury it - and N. leaves D. behind as he sails their boat back toward the harbor of Sulaco. The question is: what will happen to Decoud? Will he be stranded, or rescued? And how long will it take for the rebel forces to learn the whereabouts of the silver? It's easy to forget this plot detail but the rebels passing by in the night on a steamship pulled from the water the old guy who was a stowaway on the lighter carrying the silver - inevitably he will tell someone that N and D were transporting the bullion and that the steamship missed them in the night, and someone will come searching. Clearly, this is one of the great sequences in the novel and in all of Conrad - as everyone knows, his best writing is almost always about the sea, and the technical difficulties of navigating in the pitch black is perfect. I've now read a little bit into part 3, The Lighthouse, and am concerned that again Conrad is loading the narrative down with back story - this is an extremely demanding novel which at times is at war with itself: the impulse to writing a good stirring narrative fighting against Conrad's tendency to build a complex plot of intrigue, revolution, and counter-revolution. That's a theme not generally associated with C., but, as I noted yesterday, a few of his great works do concern politics and terrorism - notably Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent (which has been made into a good movie, under a different title). In Nostromo, the complexity of the plot may be the novel's undoing - may be why it's read less often than his more accessible works such as Lord Jim or the novella The Heart of Darkness - my head spins trying to keep all the factions and their representatives straight, and maybe that's not even necessary. Maybe it's all about establishing a mood of political upheaval - with a few lone wolfs finding for their own ego and salvation, i.e., Nostromo and Decoud, each with different motives, and each a risk to the other. Finally, the success of the novel, for me, will depend on how well C is able to establish N as a character - not just as a near-mythical superhero - in part 3. Nostromo and to a lesser degree Decoud are what we used to call "mediating figures," able to move across social class boundaries and cultural gaps, with little allegiance to anyone but themselves: each an American type of character amidst the social interconnectedness and dependencies of the Europeans who control the economy of this tiny country (Costaguana) and who control the narrative drive of this novel.

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