He is best known for his story set in the Congo, “Heart of darkness” (helped by “Apocalypse now”, its film adaptation) but his novel set in South America, “Nostromo”, is even more remarkable for its penetrating gaze into the workings of imperialism.
Maya Jasaanoff’s “The dawn watch: Joseph Conrad in a global World” bears eloquent testimony to the political and literary value of “Nostromo”.
Conrad’s friend, the writer and socialist activist Robert Bontine Cunningham Graham, may have been burdened with too long a name but his awareness of capitalist greed and violence informed Conrad’s writing: “The massacres in German Africa [Namibia, where the 20th-century first recorded genocide took place]” and “the inhuman bringing in of basketfuls of human hands in Belgium Congoland [amputations being common practice in Belgium’s African colony]”, he said, ‘excel the atrocities of any Spaniard in the whole conquest of America’.
Graham was the first ever socialist member of the British Parliament; his habit was to ride into Westminster on a black Argentinian horse.
Nostromo is set in a fictitious South American country, Costaguana, but based upon Graham’s knowledge of the continent. The story concerns a silver-mining concession, an American economic interest and the corrosive effects of filthy lucre on the country.
Jassanoff’s book builds up to Nostromo as the climax of Conrad’s works after showing how his other important novels – “The secret agent, Lord Jim” and “Heart of darkness” – probe the nature of globalization. Her book is a biography but one that eschews the formulaic chronological approach in favour of focusing on what matters: what made Conrad the writer he is and what truths are revealed in his fiction?
Conrad was Polish, born in what is now Ukraine, and his family suffered persecution and exile for their nationalist ideals.
He was always a foreigner but came to settle in England and learned its language from scratch. He gained citizenship before an Aliens Act in 1905 limited immigration for the first time in British history.
Becoming a sailor, Conrad journeyed across oceans and on the rivers of Borneo he encountered liminal figures – refugees, ‘half-castes’, people living between cultures – and learned that the world was a strange place.
As Jassanoff puts it, he ‘stowed away landscapes, characters, and plots’ that would be unpacked when he finally anchored in England and became a fulltime writer.
It was his short spell as a steamboat captain in Belgian Congo that proved traumatic.
He saw the appalling violence and hypocrisy that lay behind the colonialist rhetoric of ‘civilizing’ Africa and he suffered a nervous breakdown after returning to Britain. He was able to channel his experience into the writing of “Heart of Darkness”.
When, years later, he came to write “Nostromo” he put together everything he had learned from his years of travel. It brings together his insight into the rapacious nature of imperialism, its racist undertow, the amoral flow of capital and a prescient awareness of how American dominance doesn’t require the label ‘empire’ to make it one.
“The dawn watch: Joseph Conrad in a global World” by Maya Jasaanoff is published by William Collins.