LITERATURE

Nostromo: Joseph Conrad's resonant tale of silver's illusory appeal

In exposing the allure and disenchantment of rampant materialism and the fragile bonds that unite mankind, Conrad not only created a blueprint for The Great Gatsby, but for much of 20th century literature

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 July, 2015, 10:52pm

Polish writer Joseph Conrad's seventh novel solved a severe case of writer's block: "After finishing the last story of the Typhoon volume, it seemed somehow that there was nothing more in the world to write about," he wrote in an author's note.

Salvation arrived "in the shape of a vagrant anecdote completely destitute of valuable details". In 1875 or 1876, the young Conrad heard "the story of some man who was supposed to have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full [barge-full] of silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the troubles of a revolution".

Nostromo relocates this typically tall maritime tale into Costaguana, a thinly veiled version of Colombia. The titular Nostromo is an Italian man of the people who is charged by Charles Gould, the wealthy owner of the San Tome silver mine near the port of Sulaco, with selling the precious commodity before rising political instability decimates his fortune. The chief threat is General Montero, whose rebel forces are making inroads against Don Vincente Ribiera's dictatorship, which in turn was financed by Gould himself.

Silver runs throughout Nostromo's prose. Most obviously, in the way that Gould's "San Tome silver mine had an immense influence over all these Spanish Dons". But it is glimpsed on Nostromo's "silver-grey mare" to the "silver mounted spectacles of Senora Emilia Gould".

Emilia makes perhaps the most apposite observation, when she exclaims: "Ah, yes! The religion of silver and iron."

In this materialist world, which confuses ideas of value with those of price, Nostromo himself is considered to be an atheist, at least by Gould, who entrusts him with selling the silver before the rebel forces arrive at Sulaco. Nostromo will eventually prove no less susceptible than anyone else to the earthly, fragile pull of silver, and the power and fame it can bring. Drawing perhaps on Judas' payment for betraying Jesus, the precious metal becomes a symbol of almost demonic procurement, and by extension imperialist corruption.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "I'd rather have written Nostromo than any other novel."

In exposing the allure and disenchantment of rampant materialism, the illusory happiness offered by capitalist culture and the fragile bonds that unite mankind, Conrad was not just creating a blueprint for The Great Gatsby, but for much of 20th century literature.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (Harper & Bros)