Chris Heaney's Reviews > Nostromo

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
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May 03, 07

Recommended for: Conrad-ists, Fair and/or Free Traders, [Anti-]Imperialists, Failed Capitalists and Anarchists.
Read in September, 2005

Nostromo is a weird, recursive baggy monster of a novel, but it's also brilliant. The plot, quickly, is the following: An American-backed silver mining company attempts to overthrow the government of an unstable Latin American country, and all hell breaks loose; the most honorable man in town, Nostromo, is caught in the middle. As in other novels, Conrad perfectly captures the ugly interior lives of white westerners dangerously out of their element. Here, however, that's thrown in alongside a scathing sketch of a multinational corporation, and an equal dose of sarcasm towards local revolutionaries (here, the fictonal Costa Guana, or Coast of Bird-sh**). Conrad's great trick is that Nostromo feels as on point today -- about economic and miliary interventionism, political opportunism, nativism -- as it probably did back then, but for different reasons. I underlined the hell out of my copy, hundreds of little graphite lines standing in for poor literary epihanies, and I was amazed that when I picked a first edition of the book (1906, I think) off the bookshelf of an early 20th century public figure, he had made check-marks besides some of the same points, and some points that were downright scary.

That said, this is not an approachable book, and I understand why some people might not like it. It has a lot of characters, and it does some weird things with time that are parsable today, given our experiences with disjointed story-telling, but likely helped contribute to its bad rap as "lesser Conrad" back in the day. Maybe I would kind of call it a Polish-born Anglophile's shot at Tolstoy in Latin America. And while it's no War & Peace (it's got more in common with Les Mis, actually), it hits some other weird sweet spot, the epic, multi-character political and psychological Russian potboiler ground up in a pirated-from-the-future post-modern pseudo Latin American meat-grinder. You know, THAT genre.

It's endearing but it wears its flaws proudly. Nostromo is like that friend of yours from college, whom you spent hours talking to late at night about art, politics and the entire world, but whom you don't talk to anymore because they "failed to launch" or they piss you off sometimes, with their currently extreme arch-conservative/anarchist politics. But they're terrific people, idealistic and jaded, utterly thrilling and densely plotted and plotting. You really should give them a call. Maybe you can read Nostromo together.
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