Nostromo was a difficult read for me. I started this book many years ago and gave up after the first 50 pages. This time I plowed through, and I’m glad I did. There’s a lot of depth to this novel, but you don’t see it until about halfway in.
The story takes place in a fictional South American country called Costaguana at the turn of the 20th century. An Englishman named Charles Gould has inherited a ruined mining concession, and undertakes to restore it, mostly as a means of sticking a thumb in the eye of the corrupt Costaguana government that caused the ruin of the mine, and the ruin of Gould’s father. The title character, Nostromo, is an Italian sailor named Gian’ Battista Fidanza, who works as the cargo manager at the port of Sulaco, the city where the action takes place. He is a man of nearly superhuman ability and moral courage, seen as indispensable by the European owners and managers in Sulaco. Despite his great value, his financial rewards are few.
The Gould mining concession is an irresistible prize for the Costaguana government. A few generals stage a military coup, claiming to be democrats and men of the people, with the aim of seizing the mine’s wealth. Charles Gould will have none of it, and would rather destroy the mine than have it fall into the hands of the brigands who are coming to seize it.
So at one level the novel addresses issues of colonialism, and in a way that I’m not too happy about. The locals are characterized as thieves, lazy, indigent, greasy, unkempt, venal, crude, and so on, while the Europeans are, for the most part, depicted as idealistic, selfless, beleaguered, and enlightened. But, as always with Conrad, the picture is not quite so cut and dried. Nostromo, and his would-be adopted father Giorgio Viola, an ex captain in the army of Garibaldi, a dedicated republican (in the old sense meaning in favor of liberty), see the Europeans as the exploiters that they are - of course, they themselves are European, but have a moral and philosophical bias towards the downtrodden. And the Europeans themselves are shown to be obsessed by their need to extract the maximum wealth from the country, while treating the local people as mere means towards that end.
The real interest of the novel is in its psychological portraits of the principal characters. Conrad is comfortable with complexity of character, and his characters are never paper cutouts - each one of the major characters in this novel have conflicting desires, and the novel is in some ways a working out of those internal conflicts. Actually there is one exception to this: Captain Mitchell, the local agent for the main shipping company in Sulaco, is a completely self unaware person, who fancies himself a person of deep perception and great courage, but possessing neither. He serves as a kind of quasi-comic foil to the real players: Nostromo, Charles Gould and his wife Emily, Martin Decoud, Giorgio Viola and his wife and daughters, and Dr. Monygham.
This is a novel very well worth reading. Conrad stands out amongst authors of his era for the way that he embraces psychological and social ambiguity. He was a modern writer in that sense, and a realist.