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Nostromo

"Nostromo" is the most anxiously meditated of the longer novels which
belong to the period following upon the publication of the "Typhoon"
volume of short stories.

I don't mean to say that I became then conscious of any impending change
in my mentality and in my attitude towards the tasks of my writing life.
And perhaps there was never any change, except in that mysterious,
extraneous thing which has nothing to do with the theories of art; a
subtle change in the nature of the inspiration; a phenomenon for which I
can not in any way be held responsible. What, however, did cause me some
concern was that after finishing the last story of the "Typhoon" volume
it seemed somehow that there was nothing more in the world to write
about.

This so strangely negative but disturbing mood lasted some little time;
and then, as with many of my longer stories, the first hint for
"Nostromo" came to me in the shape of a vagrant anecdote completely
destitute of valuable details.

As a matter of fact in 1875 or '6, when very young, in the West Indies
or rather in the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land were short,
few, and fleeting, I heard the story of some man who was supposed to
have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full of silver, somewhere on
the Tierra Firme seaboard during the troubles of a revolution.

On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no details,
and having no particular interest in crime _qua_ crime I was not likely
to keep that one in my mind. And I forgot it till twenty-six or seven
years afterwards I came upon the very thing in a shabby volume picked up
outside a second-hand book-shop. It was the life story of an American
seaman written by himself with the assistance of a journalist. In the
course of his wanderings that American sailor worked for some months on
board a schooner, the master and owner of which was the thief of whom I
had heard in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because there
could hardly have been two exploits of the peculiar kind in the same
part of the world and both connected with a South American revolution.

The fellow had actually managed to steal a lighter with silver, and
this, it seems only because he was implicitly trusted by his employers,
who must have been singularly poor judges of character. In the sailor's
story he is represented as an unmitigated rascal, a small cheat,
stupidly ferocious, morose, of mean appearance, and altogether unworthy
of the greatness this opportunity had thrust upon him. What was
interesting was that he would boast of it openly.

He used to say: "People think I make a lot of money in this schooner of
mine. But that is nothing. I don't care for that. Now and then I go away
quietly and lift a bar of silver. I must get rich slowly--you
understand."

There was also another curious point about the man. Once in the course
of some quarrel the sailor threatened him: "What's to prevent me
reporting ashore what you have told me about that silver?"

The cynical ruffian was not alarmed in the least. He actually laughed.
"You fool, if you dare talk like that on shore about me you will get a
knife stuck in your back. Every man, woman, and child in that port is my
friend. And who's to prove the lighter wasn't sunk? I didn't show you
where the silver is hidden. Did I? So you know nothing. And suppose I
lied? Eh?"

Ultimately the sailor, disgusted with the sordid meanness of that
impenitent thief, deserted from the schooner. The whole episode takes
about three pages of his autobiography. Nothing to speak of; but as I
looked them over, the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard
in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time when
everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting;
bits of strange coasts under the stars, shadows of hills in the
sunshine, men's passions in the dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown
dim.... Perhaps, perhaps, there still was in the world something to
write about. Yet I did not see anything at first in the mere story. A
rascal steals a large parcel of a valuable commodity--so people say.
It's either true or untrue; and in any case it has no value in itself.
To invent a circumstantial account of the robbery did not appeal to me,
because my talents not running that way I did not think that the game
was worth the candle. It was only when it dawned upon me that the
purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue,
that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim
in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the
first vision of a twilight country which was to become the province of
Sulaco, with its high shadowy Sierra and its misty Campo for mute
witnesses of events flowing from the passions of men short-sighted in
good and evil.

Such are in very truth the obscure origins of "Nostromo"--the book. From
that moment, I suppose, it had to be. Yet even then I hesitate, as if
warned by the instinct of self-preservation from venturing on a distant
and toilsome journey into a land full of intrigues and revolutions. But
it had to be done.

It took the best part of the years 1903-4 to do; with many intervals of
renewed hesitation, lest I should lose myself in the ever-enlarging
vistas opening before me as I progressed deeper in my knowledge of the
country. Often, also, when I had thought myself to a standstill over the
tangled-up affairs of the Republic, I would, figuratively speaking, pack
my bag, rush away from Sulaco for a change of air and write a few pages
of "The Mirror of the Sea." But generally, as I've said before, my
sojourn on the Continent of Latin America, famed for its hospitality,
lasted for about two years. On my return I found (speaking somewhat in
the style of Captain Gulliver) my family all well, my wife heartily
glad to learn that the fuss was all over, and our small boy considerably
grown during my absence.

My principal authority for the history of Costaguana is, of course, my
venerated friend, the late Don José Avellanos, Minister to the Courts of
England and Spain, etc., etc., in his impartial and eloquent "History of
Fifty Years of Misrule." That work was never published--the reader will
discover why--and I am in fact the only person in the world possessed of
its contents. I have mastered them in not a few hours of earnest
meditation, and I hope that my accuracy will be trusted. In justice to
myself, and to allay the fears of prospective readers, I beg to point
out that the few historical allusions are never dragged in for the sake
of parading my unique erudition, but that each of them is closely
related to actuality; either throwing a light on the nature of current
events or affecting directly the fortunes of the people of whom I speak.

As to their own histories I have tried to set them down, Aristocracy and
People, men and women, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, bandit and politician,
with as cool a hand as was possible in the heat and clash of my own
conflicting emotions. And after all this is also the story of their
conflicts. It is for the reader to say how far they are deserving of
interest in their actions and in the secret purposes of their hearts
revealed in the bitter necessities of the time. I confess that, for me,
that time is the time of firm friendships and unforgotten hospitalities.
And in my gratitude I must mention here Mrs. Gould, "the first lady of
Sulaco," whom we may safely leave to the secret devotion of Dr.
Monygham, and Charles Gould, the Idealist-creator of Material Interests
whom we must leave to his Mine--from which there is no escape in this
world.

About Nostromo, the second of the two racially and socially contrasted
men, both captured by the silver of the San Tomé Mine, I feel bound to
say something more.

I did not hesitate to make that central figure an Italian. First of all
the thing is perfectly credible: Italians were swarming into the
Occidental Province at the time, as anybody who will read further can
see; and secondly, there was no one who could stand so well by the side
of Giorgio Viola the Garibaldino, the Idealist of the old, humanitarian
revolutions. For myself I needed there a man of the People as free as
possible from his class-conventions and all settled modes of thinking.
This is not a side snarl at conventions. My reasons were not moral but
artistic. Had he been an Anglo-Saxon he would have tried to get into
local politics. But Nostromo does not aspire to be a leader in a
personal game. He does not want to raise himself above the mass. He is
content to feel himself a power--within the People.

But mainly Nostromo is what he is because I received the inspiration for
him in my early days from a Mediterranean sailor. Those who have read
certain pages of mine will see at once what I mean when I say that
Dominic, the padrone of the _Tremolino_, might under given circumstances
have been a Nostromo. At any rate Dominic would have understood the
younger man perfectly--if scornfully. He and I were engaged together in
a rather absurd adventure, but the absurdity does not matter. It is a
real satisfaction to think that in my very young days there must, after
all, have been something in me worthy to command that man's half-bitter
fidelity, his half-ironic devotion. Many of Nostromo's speeches I have
heard first in Dominic's voice. His hand on the tiller and his fearless
eyes roaming the horizon from within the monkish hood shadowing his
face, he would utter the usual exordium of his remorseless wisdom: "Vous
autres gentilhommes!" in a caustic tone that hangs on my ear yet. Like
Nostromo! "You hombres finos!" Very much like Nostromo. But Dominic the
Corsican nursed a certain pride of ancestry from which my Nostromo is
free; for Nostromo's lineage had to be more ancient still. He is a man
with the weight of countless generations behind him and no parentage to
boast of.... Like the People.

In his firm grip on the earth he inherits, in his improvidence and
generosity, in his lavishness with his gifts, in his manly vanity, in
the obscure sense of his greatness and in his faithful devotion with
something despairing as well as desperate in its impulses, he is a Man
of the People, their very own unenvious force, disdaining to lead but
ruling from within. Years afterwards, grown older as the famous Captain
Fidanza, with a stake in the country, going about his many affairs
followed by respectful glances in the modernized streets of Sulaco,
calling on the widow of the cargador, attending the Lodge, listening in
unmoved silence to anarchist speeches at the meeting, the enigmatical
patron of the new revolutionary agitation, the trusted, the wealthy
comrade Fidanza with the knowledge of his moral ruin locked up in his
breast, he remains essentially a man of the People. In his mingled love
and scorn of life and in the bewildered conviction of having been
betrayed, of dying betrayed he hardly knows by what or by whom, he is
still of the People, their undoubted Great Man--with a private history
of his own.

One more figure of those stirring times I would like to mention: and
that is Antonia Avellanos--the "beautiful Antonia." Whether she is a
possible variation of Latin-American girlhood I wouldn't dare to affirm.
But, for me, she _is_. Always a little in the background by the side of
her father (my venerated friend) I hope she has yet relief enough to
make intelligible what I am going to say. Of all the people who had seen
with me the birth of the Occidental Republic, she is the only one who
has kept in my memory the aspect of continued life. Antonia the
Aristocrat and Nostromo the Man of the People are the artisans of the
New Era, the true creators of the New State; he by his legendary and
daring feat, she, like a woman, simply by the force of what she is: the
only being capable of inspiring a sincere passion in the heart of a
trifler.

If anything could induce me to revisit Sulaco (I should hate to see all
these changes) it would be Antonia. And the true reason for that--why
not be frank about it?--the true reason is that I have modelled her on
my first love. How we, a band of tallish school-boys, the chums of her
two brothers, how we used to look up to that girl just out of the
schoolroom herself, as the standard-bearer of a faith to which we all
were born but which she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching
hope! She had perhaps more glow and less serenity in her soul than
Antonia, but she was an uncompromising Puritan of patriotism with no
taint of the slightest worldliness in her thoughts. I was not the only
one in love with her; but it was I who had to hear oftenest her scathing
criticism of my levities--very much like poor Decoud--or stand the brunt
of her austere, unanswerable invective. She did not quite
understand--but never mind. That afternoon when I came in, a shrinking
yet defiant sinner, to say the final good-bye I received a hand-squeeze
that made my heart leap and saw a tear that took my breath away. She was
softened at the last as though she had suddenly perceived (we were such
children still!) that I was really going away for good, going very far
away--even as far as Sulaco, lying unknown, hidden from our eyes in the
darkness of the Placid Gulf.

That's why I long sometimes for another glimpse of the "beautiful
Antonia" (or can it be the Other?) moving in the dimness of the great
cathedral, saying a short prayer at the tomb of the first and last
Cardinal-Archbishop of Sulaco, standing absorbed in filial devotion
before the monument of Don José Avellanos, and, with a lingering,
tender, faithful glance at the medallion-memorial to Martin Decoud,
going out serenely into the sunshine of the Plaza with her upright
carriage and her white head; a relic of the past disregarded by men
awaiting impatiently the Dawns of other New Eras, the coming of more
Revolutions.

But this is the idlest of dreams; for I did understand perfectly well at
the time that the moment the breath left the body of the Magnificent
Capataz, the Man of the People, freed at last from the toils of love and
wealth, there was nothing more for me to do in Sulaco.

J. C.

October, 1917.


Joseph Conrad

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