Saturday, 23 April 2016


Quite some time ago I happened to find a Conrad novel among the discarded books. It was a work I had never heard of, Nostromo, not nearly as famous as Heart of Darkness. An intriguing story, set in the fictional, dysfunctional South American republic of Costaguana.

One of the protagonists of the story, Charles Gould, comes from a British family which has been established in Costaguana for a while. Born in Costaguana, he has received his education and married in Britain, as is the custom in his family. During this period, he receives letters from his father, who is angry and desperate at having been granted ownership of an abandoned silver mine. The government expects revenues which Gould senior cannot deliver, so they demand the money from Gould himself, in the form of fines and other juridical measures. All he is capable of doing is writing frustrated epistles to his son Charles, exhorting him never to return.

Charles meets Emilia in Italy and the two become a couple. The narrator remarks:

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Then death intrudes. Charles receives the news that his father has died, and draws the conclusion that the anxiety over the silver mine has killed him. (I am summarizing; the scene in the book, told in a long flashback, is brooding, foreboding, all silences and eruptions.) At once he comes to the conviction that his vocation consists of turning the dead, lethal silver mine into a life-giving thing – an improvement on his father’s helpless attitude.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

So Charles Gould returns to Costaguana with his wife Emilia. And they succeed: the San Tomé silver mine blooms beyond belief, with financial backing from the US and a British working ethos among the employees. Several times it is referred to as an imperium in imperio, a state within a state; its economic strength gives it a measure of independence from the government. The narrator remarks about the Goulds:

It was as if they had been morally bound to make good their vigorous view of life against the unnatural error of weariness and despair.

Charles Gould hopes that the mine will bring prosperity to Costaguana and thus establish the conditions necessary for law and order to arise. At one point he explains this to his wife, and ends with the remark:

‘What should be perfectly clear to us, is the fact that there is no going back. Where could we begin life afresh? We are in now for all that there is in us.’

However, because he is such a power in the land, he has to deal with all sorts of political figures. With corruption being prevalent everywhere, from the established government to the bandits roaming the wild, it is difficult to do this without being implicated in the messy affairs of Costaguana. Charles chooses to go his own way and observe a scornful silence as much as possible.

At the beginning of Chapter II.6 we see the couple again. Charles has just started voicing the threat of blowing up the entire mine, thus sending the country back into certain chaos. Doña Emilia complains that there is an sense of unreality about everything:

‘My dear Charley, it is impossible for me to close my eyes to our position, to this awful…’
She raised her eyes and looked at her husband’s face, from which all sign of sympathy or any other feeling had disappeared. ‘Why don’t you tell me something?’ she almost wailed.
‘I thought you had understood me perfectly from the first,’ Charles Gould said, slowly. ‘I thought we had said all there was to say a long time ago. There is nothing to say now. There were things to be done. We have done them, we have gone on doing them. There is no going back now. I don’t suppose that, even from the first, there was really any possible way back. And, what’s more, we can’t even afford to stand still.’

This is how corruption has done its work: eroding the passions, whittling away at the sincerity of the determination, leaving hollow the decision once taken. Charles has stopped thinking and acting in Emilia’s sight, which is the true method of sincerity. Thought is blinkered; it has become instrumental. Action has ceased to be spontaneous; it follows a predetermined pattern. The mine has succeeded – but has Charles?

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