Most novels I talk about here in Dusting Off the Classics are works I’ve read months or years ago, when I have spent enough time away from the book to gain an accurate perspective of what that book meant to me. This means that I force myself to wait on writing about novels I’ve just finished . . . usually.
But today, I’m going to discuss Joseph Conrad’s seminal Nostromo, which I just completed on June 23rd. Ill-advised? Maybe. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, but that’s just a preliminary rating I assigned that will definitely change as time goes by. As soon as I put down Nostromo, I knew it was going to be my next featured novel, if only because of the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling I got with my reaction to it.
Nostromo, published in 1904, might technically be from the 20th Century, but its size (my copy ran well over 600 pages), sweeping nature, and frequently omniscient POV reminds me a lot of the landmark novels from the 19th Century. Unfortunately, that might be one reason Nostromo deterred me–and probably a lot of other 21st Century readers–for so long until I worked up the courage this month to finally dust it off and plunge into the scheming, swirling, and suspicious world of Costaguana.
Before anyone consults Google Maps, Costaguana is a fictional place. It’s a troubled nation in South America that has rich veins of silver. Approximately one-fourth to one-third of Nostromo is basically a history–but an engrossing and intriguing history–of this country and its major port, Sulaco, home of many of the main characters.
By far the most interesting of these figures is an Italian immigrant named Nostromo, although Conrad often refers to him as the “Capataz de Cargadores.” There are many, many plot threads running throughout this novel, but the critical one is Nostromo’s smuggling of a load of silver out of Costaguana when yet another revolution sweeps the country. This silver becomes a consuming obsession for pretty much everyone in Nostromo; the title character most of all.
It would take too long to tell more about the intricate plot, so I’d like to focus instead on the elements I mentioned earlier that could make this novel so frustrating to modern readers. Conrad, though he does have some great dialogue in this novel, is definitely most masterful with descriptions. Long descriptions, that fill up page after page with thick paragraphs. Combine that with some ventures into philosophy and morality, not to mention all that Costaguana history, and you’ve got yourself a veritable attention span workout inside those 600+ pages.
Yet that’s what actually appeals to me the most in Nostromo: its insistence on giving every rich detail about its environment. This makes Costaguana easily one of the most interesting places in literature, right up there with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
This also isn’t to say that Conrad sacrifices interesting characters for the sake of details: Nostromo, once the novel really gets going, surprised me so many times. At any one moment, he’s a blend of traditional hero, daring anti-hero, and, toward the end especially, something of an antagonist, the way he manipulates those around him and can’t seem to let go of his desire for the silver load. He’s a complicated man living in a complicated world rewriting its rules, and it makes for some fantastic reading.
Read what others have to say about this book here on Goodreads.com.
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