Chapter 5:

[Diego Rivera: The Arsenal - Frida Kahlo distributes arms (1928)]

Conrad and ‘Costaguana’

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
[Alvin Landon Coburn, 1916)]


Landscapes of Romance

(a) Critical Modes

In a footnote to his biography of Joseph Conrad, Frederick R. Karl includes the following passage on the 'overlappings' in Conrad's fiction between the years 1899 and 1904:

Although listings are tedious, they do show a remarkable homogeneity. Clearly, there was a Conrad style, modality, even manner that entered into nearly everything he wrote in this busy period. Some analogies are:

1. Mob scenes of Romance and Nostromo, with some further reference to the clustered native scenes of Lord Jim and 'Heart of Darkness'; we note a basic shape to his milling groups or mobs.

2. Bay scene of Romance and the Gulf scene of Nostromo, with further reference to the becalmed yacht in Rescue and the drifting Patna in Lord Jim.

3. Narrative method: reliance on retrospective technique in 'Heart of Darkness,' Lord Jim, Nostromo, with similarities to the narrative technique of Rescue. Narrators overlap: Marlow, Kemp of Romance, Mitchell of Nostromo. Use of participatory narrator rather than simply impersonal post of observation.

... 6. Tensions, action vs. intense inactivity; adventure vs. torpor; need for movement vs. inability to move, passivity; struggle between will to power and need to rest, reflect, self-destruct. (Karl, 1979, pp.453-54)

It would be easy to object to particular points in this analysis. How, for example, does the 'bay scene' of Romance (1903) differ from that of Victory (1915) or Suspense (1925); or the drifting Patna from the Melita / Otago in The Shadow-Line (1917)? In other words, how can such themes be regarded as generically linked to this period when they recur throughout Conrad's career?

Nor are they even specific to Conrad. The types of 'narrative method' listed can be paralleled in many other works of the period. 'Retrospective technique' functions (albeit on a fairly simple level) in Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886); and the 'participatory narrator' could hardly be taken further than in James's 'Turn of the Screw' (1898) or The Sacred Font (1901). This is not really the essence of what Karl is trying to establish, however – and he would be justified in rejecting such criticisms as a misunderstanding of his position.

That he himself, even so, is not entirely happy with this mode of criticism is attested to by the fact that he prefaces the note with a proviso ('Although listings are tedious'), and excludes it from the main body of his text. After all, with a net as wide as this, it is hard to see how one could not find parallelisms in so large a body of work – and if it were not for the fact that Karl's primary purpose is to detect echoes or illuminations of Conrad's life in his fiction, the procedure might be condemned outright. Nevertheless, the implications of his method of analysis are clear: it amounts to blurring the boundaries of a series of texts in the interests of charting the aesthetic consciousness of an author – the region where all his works are presumed to originate. In Roman Jakobson's terms, it takes the text as metaphoric rather than metonymic (Jakobson, 1956, p.81) – as illustrating a set of equivalences from work to work, rather than seeing it as a microcosm within which each of these elements has its own structural function. As a response to Conrad, then, it posits the incidents in his novels as echoes in the world of appearances of some archetype of 'unrest' or 'drifting' to be found fully represented only in his life.

There is, however, an alternative approach, just as extreme, to Conrad's fiction - as we can see in the following passage from E. M. W. Tillyard's book on The Epic Strain in the English Novel:

Those who admire Nostromo sufficiently to read it several times carefully are apt to grow interested in the details of the geography. It is hardly a critical interest like that in the book's geographical intensity; for instance the question whether the promontory of Azuera bounded the Golfo Placido on the north or on the south is not critical like the question whether the promontory itself captures our imagination. However, though indubitably marginal, interest in the geography of Costaguana can be a spontaneous growth which the critic is justified in serving provided he does not make it out to be other than it is. I have had the curiosity to plot out some of the geography of Costaguana, and I give my findings for the benefit of anyone similarly interested; but I do so in an appendix to make it clear that those findings are not 'criticism'. (Tillyard, 1958, p.199)

To continue our use of Jakobson's model, this method of examining the book (marginalized, again, from the main body of the text in an appendix) might be described as metonymic – using the geographical hints in the text as a pretext for charting an unknown country. This is, to an extent, what every reader of a predominantly realist text tends to do; but (as Tillyard rightly remarks), the critical question of the book's 'geographical intensity' – whether its details 'capture our imagination' – reflects more accurately the level on which readers tend to assimilate such items of information.

David Lodge remarks that 'a narrative text is always in a metonymic or synecdochic relation to the action it purports to imitate, selecting some details and suppressing (or deleting) many others' (Lodge, 1979, p.xiv), and goes on to explain that (in his understanding of the terms) 'Metonymies and synecdoches are condensations of contexture ... produced by deleting one or more items from a natural combination, but not the items which it would be most natural to omit' (Lodge, 1979, p.76). Tillyard can thus be seen to be expanding the deletions in the text of Nostromo - the entire action becoming, for him, a synecdoche for the world of Costaguana. He is forced to some extent to go against the grain of the text to do so – since Conrad's novel, being arranged for maximum rhetorical effect, deletes the most 'natural' (i.e. straightforwardly informative) items from its descriptions – but the fact that he is able to do it at all implies a certain concrete quality to this particular 'region of Romance'.

It is not perhaps entirely just to characterize Karl and Tillyard's views in so extreme a way. A biographer, after all, has a certain licence to see important themes recurring in his subject's imaginative work (Karl clarifies his position by saying 'It is both dangerous and futile to read fiction as autobiography; but it is very fruitful to read fiction for the psychological preoccupations of an author at the time of composition' (Karl, 1979, p.668)). Tillyard, too, is explicit in rejecting any attempt to see his 'findings' as 'criticism'. Nevertheless, it seems to me that by treating the two passages I have quoted as the Scylla and Charybdis of Nostromo criticism, it may be possible to arrive at a more accurate idea of what we are doing when we try to analyze the implications of the setting (in this case, the imaginary country called 'Costaguana') in a novel of this type.

By doing so, it will be apparent that I am continuing the series of 'dialectic' pairings described at the opening of Chapter Four, but (as in the cases mentioned there), the picture must be complicated a little further before it becomes an adequate model for this purpose. I have attempted, so far, to situate Karl's method of criticism on Jakobson's axis of selection, associated principally with metaphorical tropes; and Tillyard's on the axis of combination and metonymy.[1] The readings of the text that these two methods of analysis encourage might, however, be described in philosophical terminology as, respectively, epistemological and ontological. Brian McHale defines these two terms (which he sees as dominating modernist and post-modernist writing), as follows:

the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as ... 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; ... What are the limits of the knowable?

... the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like ... 'Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?' Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world it projects, for instance: What is a world?; ... What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? (McHale, 1987, pp.9-10)

Karl's intention as a critic, as we have seen, is to illuminate the consciousness of his author – and it is for that reason that he highlights scenes, incidents, and attitudes which are common to a number of Conrad's works. The series of oppositions he sets up ('action vs, intense inactivity; adventure vs. torpor' and so on) are accordingly problems of consciousness within the text which can be made to reflect on the larger consciousness outside it. A character, for Karl, if not actually a metaphor for his creator, certainly embodies problems of knowledge and narration which only take on their full meaning on a 'wordly' level. [n this sense, then, Karl's strategy can be seen to lead quite naturally to an epistemological reading of Nostromo – not so much a clash of worlds as a clash of views of the same world.

Tillyard, on the other hand, is concerned with 'the mode of existence' of the world projected by the text Nostromo. Problems of perception and consciousness within the narrative thus become, for him, secondary to the problem of which world the characters are inhabiting. Is it the colonized world of economic cause-and-effect represented by the financier Holroyd? The 'over-world' projected by the Olympian presence of Higuerota and the high Cordillera? Or the idealistic and ordered cosmos of Mrs. Gould? Each of these is a potentially solid entity which would seem to exclude the possibility of the others' existence. Is, then, the 'concreteness' of Costaguana (evidenced by Tillyard's cartography), merely the result of the legions of overlapping worlds which it contains?

The epistemological and ontological readings of Nostromo may therefore be seen as the natural consequence of the respectively biographical and topographical approaches of Karl and Tillyard, and the tropes of 'metaphor' and 'metonymy' which they are accordingly driven to emphasize. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the tension between essentially textual problems of narration and point-of-view represented by the one and extra-textual problems of consistency and solidity represented by the other, is an unavoidable one for any consideration of the role of setting in the novel. Indeed, it is difficult to see how such an inquiry could be carried out at all without some distinction being made between the langue and parole of the novel – the series of intellectual levels on which it conveys meaning, and the specific manifestation of that meaning in the imaginary state of Costaguana.

The discussion of this tension between text and world still lacks any real background, however, and I therefore propose in the next section to analyze a series of representative narratives from the late Victorian and Edwardian period - attempting in each case to diagnose their dependence on the landscapes in which they are placed (ranging from the fictitious kingdom of Ruritania to the 'realities' of London and Paris) – and, in the process, giving an idea of the intellectual and mimetic concensus on which Conrad drew to create Nostromo.

[Robert Louis Stevenson: A Map of Treasure Island]

(b) Seven Examples

In his preface to Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson describes how, in company with a schoolboy:

I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance Treasure Island ... as I pored upon my map ... the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters. (Stevenson, 1924, pp.xxv-vi)

Not only, in fact, does the map appear to have inspired the book – it also dictated a large part of the action:

The map was the chief part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet Skeleton Island, not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque; and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr Poe and stole Flint's pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbours that the Hispaniola was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands. (Stevenson, 1924, p.xxx)[2]

It is tempting to see in this admission some cabalistic relationship between the schematic existence of a map and that of a novel – both of them paper synecdoches of the world, unreadable without a knowledge of the conventions of the form (the reductio ad absurdum of this position can be found in Borges' El hacedor (1960), where (possibly borrowing from Lewis Carroll's 'Hunting of the Snark' (1876)), he describes ''un Mapa del Imperio, que tenia el tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente can el. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y ... lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y de los Inviernos. En los desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas par Animales y por Mendigos' (Borges, 1965, IX: 103) ['a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and ... abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar'. (Borges, 1975, p.131)] – the 'ontological' approach run riot). Stevenson himself delimits the functions of maps in a more prosaic fashion:

It is perhaps not often that a map figures so largely in a tale; yet it is always important. The author must know his countryside whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun's rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. (Stevenson, 1924, pp.xxx-xxxi)

The map, then, is an aid to visualizing the imaginary world of a novel – but it does not, in itself, constitute that world (just as Borges's life-size map is no substitute for the 'Empire' it hides from sight). Of course, in cases like Stevenson's, where the physical sketch-map itself has played a part in dictating the structure of the plot, it takes on an added significance – but even then its real function is as a metaphor for any writer's interior picture of the world that he is describing (it is noticeable that a map is often added to a book precisely because that picture has been so imperfectly conveyed to the reader – John Buchan's The Courts of the Morning (1929), for example, has no fewer than three maps of his imaginary republic of 'Olifa', while Nostromo includes none at all of Costaguana).[3]

Our project of considering the range of imaginary worlds available to a writer of Conrad's era will therefore only tangentially be aided by a consideration of their respective cartographies. Such 'mapping' does, however, have larger implications which it will be the task of this section to examine. The best way to accomplish this is, it seems to me, simply by listing seven prototypical fin-de-siècle novels and looking at the role of the setting in each – in terms of the era in which each is set, the sub-genre to which it belongs (novel or Romance, for children or adults), and the atmosphere (exotic or domestic, 'swash-buckling' or oblique) which it seeks to convey.[4]

Our list, then, reads as follows:

  1. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

  2. The Story of the Glittering Plain, by William Morris (1891)

  3. The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope (1894)

  4. The Inheritors, by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (1901)

  5. The Grand Babylon Hotel, by Arnold Bennett (1902)

  6. Romance, by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (1903)

  7. The Rescue, by Joseph Conrad (1920)

It might be further broken down into setting, era and sub-genre, in accordance with the paradigm above (fictitious places will be found within inverted commas):

  1. 'Skeleton Island' – 18th centuryBoys' book

  2. 'Cleveland by the Sea', 'The Isle of Ransom' and 'The Land of Living Men'
    Heroic AgeFantasy Romance

  3. 'Ruritania' – ContemporaryPolitical Romance

  4. Sussex, London and Paris – ContemporaryScientific Romance

  5. London – Contemporary'a Fantasia on Modern Themes'

  6. The West Indies – early 19th centuryHistorical Romance

  7. The East Indies – ContemporaryColonial Romance

As we have seen, Stevenson himself claims that the setting of Treasure Island generated the story (The map was the chief part of my plot') – and while this statement cannot be taken entirely at face value, one can see that the participation of pirates dictates first an era (the 17th or 18th century), and then a general milieu ('The Spanish Main'). The fact that it is a book for boys means that erotic concerns cannot be foregrounded, and so the alternative theme at' a boy's growth into manhood through a series of formative experiences and encounters - Bildungsroman – is employed instead. The story might have been placed in the present day – in which case the 'treasure island' would have served as a romantic contrast to everyday England – but this is too commonplace a structure for Stevenson. The essence of his book is its efficacy as a means of escaping into the past (the 18th century – very vaguely characterized) and into an exotic landscape ('Skeleton Island' and the Hispaniola). It is not that this is a particularly safe and comforting environment – in fact, it is nightmarish ('blind Pew') and dangerous (the ruthless Long John Silver) – but it is also exciting. In Conradian terms, then, Treasure Island stands for the element of romantic frisson, 'immediate picturesque', which one gets from the mere details, the 'harbours that pleased me like sonnets', of some 'blank' or little known part of the world'.[5]

To go on to William Morris's The Story of the Glittering Plain, or the Land of Living Men (1891), the subsequent influence of Morris's prose Romances has depended to a large extent on the fact that they are set in an entirely imaginary world, which he makes little attempt to link historically with ours. This is not to say that his worlds are arbitrary. On the contrary, the 'Heroic Age' settings of this and others of his Romances (The House of the Wolfings (1888), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), and so on) in fact include many more-or-less plausible details from the Germanic past. They are blended, however, into a sort of amalgam of pre-Roman Gothic tribes, Vikings, and Icelandic society; in short, into the ideal 'essence' of Northernness, taken from all the sources known to Morris (The Volsunga Saga, The Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, Tacitus's Germania, and The Elder Edda). This is not historical, though, and not intended to be so – it is an aesthetically constructed world which includes all the most evocative features from various eras in our own. Morris's innovation lies in realizing that one does not have to provide a rigorous historical background for such flights of fancy. The mise-en-scène in The Glittering Plain, then, works on setting up a tension between the workaday heroic world of 'Cleveland by the sea', where Hallblithe is betrothed to the Hostage; the 'Isle of Ransom', the piratical island which he visits in company with his mysterious companion the Fox; and the 'Land of Living Men', the miraculous region where men and women enjoy perpetual youth, at the price of not being allowed to leave. All of these are sufficiently exotic to the reader, but the fact that the second inspires inhabitants of the first with fear and wonder. and the third awes inhabitants of the second, makes the three landscapes function together as a working model of a world. Their interrelationship prevents us from seeing anyone of them as simply arbitrary, despite the 'fantastic' construction of each. (This tension operates too in Nostromo, where the snowy mountain Higuerota and the mysteries of the interior act as a gauge against which we measure first the 'paradise of snakes' (Conrad, 1986, p.116) of the San Tomé mine, and then the Europeanized society of Sulaco itself – the three levels of geography echoing three levels of perception in the narrative).

In The Prisoner of Zenda, by contrast, we have an imaginary European state, 'Ruritania', set in the midst of the contemporary world. The intrigue in Anthony Hope's book is both amorous and political – his hero is forced to impersonate the King of Ruritania, but this also entails falling in love with the royal fiancée. The appeal of the book is thus three-fold: on the one hand all the uniforms and colourful regalia of a Central European state, on the other hand an atmosphere of international tension and 'high life', and a love interest as the essential complement to both. None of these things would have been available to an author writing about a 'real' country – as this could not but be seen as a commentary on the contemporary condition of that state. One could, of course, retreat into the past – under the influence of Dumas and The Three Musketeers (1844) – but this would involve losing the element of everyday life, the sense that such a situation could befall any London clubman at any moment. Ruritania, of course, is largely a wish-fulfilment fantasy – but it is based on real (if romanticized) elements. Costaguana, similarly, is a reasonably plausible South American country – but the fact that the novel's plot hinges on internal politics makes it essential that it be an imaginary one. It contains, as has often been pointed out, elements of Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela – but unless Conrad had been interested in writing a roman à clef, there would be no point in making a closer identification with any particular country. A contemporary Romance that hinges on politics is (one is tempted to generalize) bound to be set in an 'imaginary' country – the only possible exceptions being 'novelizations' of topical events in particular places.

The next book we have to consider, The lnheritors, the first collaboration between Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer, is an attempt at a best-selling 'Wellsian' Romance. It was inspired directly by books such as The Invisible Man (1897) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), with their topos of an ordinary English environment disrupted suddenly by an unexpected scientific advance. The 'inheritors' themselves never become sufficiently concrete for the reader to visualize them or their implications. nor does the rather involved and oblique style of narration help to convey this disruption – but in intention, Conrad and Hueffer's book too is intended to show the consequences of an unforeseen event, the irruption of beings from the Fourth Dimension into the contemporary world. The essence, then, of this sort of Romance is that it seems to be taking place 'anywhere'- but in fact its setting must be distinguished by a rather implausible ordinariness. Similarly, the people on whom it impinges cannot be too remarkable or interesting, or else the focus of the narrative will be deflected from an invasion by Martians, or by 'Dimensionists', or the existence of an invisible man, and onto the psychological processes of the characters.

This concept is carried even further in the next work we have to consider, Arnold Bennett's The Grand Babylon Hotel. This book, described as a 'fantasia' by its author to distinguish it from his novels of provincial life such as Clayhanger (1910) and The Old Wives' Tale (1908), combines the snobbish appeal of an aristocracy of wealth (the American millionaire Theodore Racksole is forced to buy the hotel of the title in order to obtain the dinner of his choice) with the more conventional aristocracy of birth (Racksole's daughter, Nella is being courted by a Prince Aribert of Posen). Contemporary reviewers noted the similarities with Anthony Hope (the plot concerns a conspiracy hid by the 'King of Bosnia' to discredit his rival for the hand of 'an exalted German Princess' (Hepburn, 1981, pp.151-52)). There is, indeed, a resemblance – but the fact that Bennett has set his book in London gives it an entirely different appeal from that of The Prisoner of Zenda. Of course, it is not the workaday face of London that is being emphasized (Bennett has no Wellsian 'ideas' which have to be highlighted over other aspects of the narrative) – rather, it is a hidden, select view of a city accessible only to the few: a world of luxury hotels, steam yachts and the other paraphernalia of Edwardian conspicuous consumption. These symbols of privilege drew a good deal of their mystique, however, from the fact that they were situated only a few feet away from the streets which Bennett's readers walked on every day, and yet were available only to those who were 'comme il faut'. Like Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) or The Man Who was Thursday (1908), Bennett uses this sense of a secret world – or, rather, of a sudden shift of vision which can transform in an instant all one's presuppositions about the world one inhabits – to change London itself into a place of mystery. Conrad too employs from time to time the strategy of a sudden shift of perception to give an unanticipated new 'sense' of a scene (take, for example, the passage where Captain Mitchell, pacing up and down the wharf at night, is turned, in the space of a moment, into a spy and a conspirator (Conrad, 1986, pp.281-83)).

Romance, Conrad and Hueffer's second collaboration, has a number of features in common with Treasure Island. They are both set in the West Indies, and are both avowedly 'historical'. There, however, their kinship ends. Romance is set in the early years of the Napoleonic era, and is based on a certain amount of research into contemporary memoirs and journals (Karl, 1979, pp.516-17), unlike the essentially fantastic Treasure Island. Romance, besides, is an extremely self-conscious novel, hinging on a series of reflections on the nature of 'Romance' both as a quality and a literary genre:

Journeying in search of Romance – and that, after all, is our business in this world – is much like trying to catch the horizon. It lies a little distance before us, and a little distance behind – about as far as the eye can carry. One discovers that one has passed through it just as one passed what is to-day our horizon ... It lies either in the old days when we used to, or in the new days when we shall. I look back upon those days of mine, and little things remain, come back to me, assume an atmosphere, take significance, go to the making of a temps jadis. Probably, when I look back upon what is the dull, arid waste of to-day, it will be much the same. (Conrad & Hueffer, n.d., p.56)

In other words, the qualities that make an incident or a setting 'romantic' are by definition ungraspable – dependent upon its being slightly out of reach. This is definitely so in the case of Seraphina, the book's heroine, but also with most of its action, which seems almost deliberately out of focus and imprecise. The setting, for all its 'period' trappings, thus becomes subordinated to a theory of the novel - the idea that its strength lies in an evocation, above all, of memory; and that nothing is inherently 'romantic' in any other terms.

This idea is also tested in The Rescue, Conrad's self-proclaimed 'swan song of Romance' (Karl, 1979, p.4). He gave as a reason for this judgement the book's 'concentrated colouring and tone'; and even thought of it as justifying his candidature for the Nobel Prize – though it is now regarded as one of his inferior later works. Its importance for us is two-fold. On the one hand, the book is interesting as a Romance of colonization – set, as it is, in the Malayan archipelago, and dealing with the conflicting aspirations of two races (seen in micrososm in the dilemmas of Tom Lingard, the captain of the Lightning). On the other hand, emphasis should also be laid on the time-scheme of the novel – and the effects of its inordinately long period of gestation (begun in 1896, it was not finished until 1919).

Taking the first of these aspects first, one of the first reviewers of Almayer's Folly (1895) commented that:

No novelist has yet annexed the island of Borneo – in itself almost a continent. But Mr. Joseph Conrad, a new writer, is about to make the attempt. (Sherry, 1973, p.47)

This model of 'literature' advancing as a colonizing force immediately behind the physical armies of the European powers is as striking as it is disconcerting. Certainly it accords with the early view of Conrad as a sort of 'sea-Kipling', but it also explains to some extent the problematic relationship which he came to have not only with imperialism (though 'Heart of Darkness' (1899) makes a distinction between King Leopold's Congo and the 'vast amount of red' where 'some real work is done (Conrad, 1967, p.55), this remark appears to be ironic in context, as if Conrad - rather than his narrator Marlow - wished to imply that a closer comparison might not be exclusively to the advantage of the latter), but also with the dictatorial powers of 'literature' itself. The idea of 'annexing' an area for literature, then, so glibly thrown out by the reviewer, must have filled Conrad with horror (as a close student of the corruptions of power as manifested in the Russian empire as well as the Congo).

Moving on to the second point, the time-scheme in Nostromo will be dealt with in more detail later in this chapter, but for the moment it is interesting to note the way in which Conrad's 'Lingard' trilogy (Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), and The Rescue) works in reverse chronological order – beginning with the end of a process, then some of its causes, and then (finally) returning to the youth of the principal character. The more-or-less 'contemporary' character of Almayer's Folly in 1895, drawing on Conrad's memories of the 1880s, means that each successive book gets further away in time – as if Lingard and Conrad were travelling away from each other at equal velocity, still linked by the fact that it was Conrad's youth that Lingard was 'annexing'. The Rescue, then, like Nostromo, is a book which has a complex rapport with its creator's past – and while this may not have had quite so fruitful an effect in the latter case, it does to some extent back up its claim to be considered as the summation of 'Romance as a literary art' (Karl, 1979, p.4). It combines the exotic landscape and 'concentrated colouring' of its Eastern setting with the knowledge (first broached in Romance) that 'Romance' is, by definition, always at a remove – in the past; in the future; over the next hill.

To sum up, then, we have seen in our seven examples a cross-section of the generic motivations which prompted particular contemporary novelists to choose settings for their novels. It remains, therefore, to look at some more specific 'landscapes of South America' before combining these remarks with the theoretical discriminations made in the first section, and attempting a more general reading of Nostromo and the country Conrad created for his novel.

[The Bridge of San Luis Rey]


Three South Americas

They travelled a great deal, seeking new taverns, for the highest attribute of a café singer will always be her novelty. They went to Mexico, their odd clothes wrapped up in the self-same shawl. They slept on beaches; they were whipped at Panama, and shipwrecked on some tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds. They tramped through jungles delicately picking their way among snakes and beetles. They sold themselves out as harvesters in a hard season. Nothing in the world was very surprising to them. (Wilder, 1947, p.131)

This quotation, referring to the two characters 'Uncle Pio' and 'Camila', comes from Thornton Wilder's short novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927). The book hinges on an investigation of the criteria according to which God chose the five travellers who died when, 'On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke' (Wilder, 1947, p.11), but, for our purposes, it is isolated passages like the above which are of most interest.

What precisely is it communicating to us? The single unified impression that it gives can, it seems to me, be divided into three distinct elements: history, sentimentality, and the exotic. Let us take them in order.

The single phrase 'they were whipped at Panama', added to the fact that we know the book to be set in the eighteenth century, the age of the Viceroys, gives us an impression of the past. It is not that whipping is unheard of in the modern world, or that being a 'café singer' has become an inherently respectable profession – it is simply that we, Wilder's readers, associate whipping with costume drama, and the contemptuous treatment of 'artists' by their patrons (Camila becomes, in the course of the novel, a great actress in the Spanish Classical Drama), with the era before Romanticism. Wilder's prose style is deliberately laconic, but the offhand way in which he brings up this point, 'they were whipped', in the midst of an account of their other travels and activities, attempts to give a sense of the triviality and unimportance of such an event in this callous age. History, then – that is to say, the deliberate avoidance of 'modern' reactions to things like being whipped and sleeping rough – is a principal ingredient in Wilder's idealized picture of Golden Age Peru. He works at one level of complexity, removing obvious and recognisable anachronisms from his text, in the service of an even grosser simplification – the assumption that the attitudes and atmosphere of the past can be conveyed without some overt recognition by the writer of his own distance from them.

This leads, inevitably, to the sentimentality that bedevils Wilder's work. His book is an attractive one, because it depends on a generalized pathos which is implied to be 'unchanging' from age to age. Take, for example, the little understatements in this apparently 'objective' passage. For 'the highest attribute of a café singer will always be her novelty', read 'Poor Camila, forced to travel from place to place, unappreciated and underpaid'. 'Their odd clothes wrapped up in the self-same shawl' also gives the pair something of the air of a Dickensian couple – Nicholas Nickleby and Smike, or Little Nell and her grandfather - travelling about with all their possessions in common, huddling together for warmth against a cruel world. The theme of beleaguered innocence recurs, in fact, in virtually every sentence: 'They slept on beaches; they were whipped at Panama, and shipwrecked ... they tramped through jungles ... They sold themselves out as harvesters' (that 'sold' is very good – simply saying 'hired' would not give enough of an impression of the hardness of their lives). Saint Paul, in fact, was an amateur in suffering beside them; no wonder 'Nothing in the world was very strange to them'!

The sentimentality and superficial historical verismilitude of Wilder's novel could perhaps explain its contemporary popularity – but the reason why it is still appealing seems to me to depend more on the air of the exotic exuded by it. It is not so much a Vernian delight in the detail of far-off places and peoples - rather a poetic evocation of something faded and dusty, an attenuated beauty which depends on distance for its charm. The simple phrase 'They went to Mexico' is already promising. It is not that Wilder offers us any characterization of colonial 'New Spain' – he can rely on his readers' already having a set of associations with the name. The fact, what is more, that this is a Mexico even further off – and therefore more exotic – than the country of which Westerners dream[6] means that Wilder's restraint in offering us nothing except the detail 'They slept on beaches' (which mayor may not refer to Mexico) gains in effectiveness, 'Beaches', at that period of the past, suggest (by association with Robinson Crusoe) 'shipwreck'. Thus we get the 'tiny Pacific islands plastered with the droppings of birds' – the perennial fascination of beach-combing. The contrast between 'jungle' and the 'delicacy' with which they pick their way among snakes and beetles is, to my mind, less adroitly handled – but it does make an obvious point about the simultaneous brute effect of endless jungle matched against the minute detail of each tree, plant and leaf. Finally, the 'hard season' during which they are forced to work as harvesters extends itself, by apposition, to apply to the entire past which they inhabit. Like the past of Europe, reached through John Masefield's 'Box of Delights', it is a time of strong colours and passions – passions which, however, always make sense in the present because that is where they really reside: a series of snapshots of another country's past displayed with the pretence of enlarging one's view of the world.

John Buchan, in The Courts of the Morning, depends similarly on overt subversion of one stereotype in order to establish another covertly:

There were no peasants to be seen, nor a single beggar; the Avenida de la Paz seemed to be kept as a promenade for big business and cultivated leisure. Archie grinned when he remembered the picture he had formed of Olifa, as a decadent blend of ancient Spain and second-rate modern Europe, with a vast wild hinterland pressing in upon its streets. The reality was as polished and secure as Paris – a reticent Paris, with a dash of Wall Street. (Buchan, 1949, p.51)

Buchan's 'Olifa', in fact, turns out to be a counterfeit of the Middle East at the time of the Arab revolt – with Sandy Arbuthnot cast as T. E. Lawrence (as in Greenmantle (1916)). The book is obviously intended as a copy – almost a parody – of Nostromo: landscape ('Gran Seco' for 'Sulaco'); chapter divisions ('The Gran Seco', 'The Courts of the Morning' and 'Olifa' for 'The Silver of the Mine', 'The Isabels' and 'The Lighthouse'); and even similar 'material interests' (copper for silver). Buchan in fact reviewed Nostromo quite favourably at the time of its first appearance (Sherry, 1973, pp.177-79), but (like 'Heart of Darkness', which he aped in Prester John (1910)) he obviously felt that the case for high finance and Wall Street could be put more favourably than Conrad's 'fatalism' allowed.

Archie's superficial impression of 'Olifa City' as looking 'as polished and secure as Paris' is, therefore, a mask – but the reality it hides (Castor's miners drugged by astura – like the 'assassins' of the Old Man of the Mountain (Buchan, 1949, p.149); the armaments building up in the Gran Seco) is easily displaced by the benevolent intervention of the American financier Blenkiron (obviously intended to echo Conrad's protestant crusader Holroyd). At the book's end, and the end of the civil war sponsored by Buchan's heroes, the Olifans are on the point of inventing 'a new civilization in this continent, which will be a bridge between the old world and the new' (Buchan, 1949, p.463).

If we look again at the passage quoted above we will notice something of this superficial 'contemporary relevance'. The general impression of South America given by most Edwardian novelists and writers (Masefield as well as Conrad and Cunninghame Graham) is – in the cities, the clash between aristocratic, colonial blancos or Whites, and revolutionary, populist Reds; and in the country, flimsy enclaves of agrarian civilization set amidst the unconquerable jungle or 'cordillera'. Buchan, therefore, specifies that 'There were no peasants to be seen' – and has his hero 'grin' at 'the picture he had formed of Olifa, as a decadent blend of ancient Spain [the Blancos] and second-rate modern Europe [the Reds]'. It is, to be sure, a cliché – but a mythological one; one perpetuated as much by Latin American writers such as García Márquez[7] as by Conrad and his contemporaries – so the main problem is what to replace it with. 'A reticent Paris – with a dash of Wall Street' is certainly a far less evocative alternative, as Buchan himself is the first to realize – but the 'real' face of the country which is masked by this façade is not really much better:

It's too big and badly put together, like a child's mud castle. There's cannibal fish, and every kind of noxious insect, and it's the happy home of poisons, and the people are as ugly as sin. The land isn't built according to our human scale, and I have no taste for nightmares. (Buchan, 1949, p.17)

This is one of Buchan's characters speaking rather than the author himself, but it applies just as well to the book he has written. The people 'as ugly as sin' might be seen as the victims of the sinister 'drug-régime' of Caster – while the 'home of poisons' refers to the 'Pais de Venenos' where the drugs come from, inhabited onLy by Indians immune to the poisonous vegetation and noxious fumes endemic to the region. It is all a little thin, even in context, and while Buchan's book is an enjoyable adventure story, it loses more than it gains by trying to debunk the traditional images associated with European myths of South America.

To illustrate this, let us consider a single aspect of the picture of South America provided by Conrad in Nostromo – his use of time. A great deal has already been written on this subject (I myself will be referring to the chronologies included in Ian Watt's introduction to the novel (1988, pp.vii-xv)), but not, perhaps, from precisely this point of view.

The fact that every novel has a temporal as well as a spatial dimension somewhat complicates our attempt at defining the static picture it gives of a particular 'South America'. To define more clearly what I mean, let us look at the various levels of time in Nostromo. We can, to begin with, divide these into two: real time and fictional time. The first of these is the ordinary set of years and centuries which we all inhabit; the second the 'mirrored' version of this progression within Conrad's text. A further subdivision is necessary, however, in order to understand the implications of these different levels.' Real time, then, can be divided into 'external' and 'Conradian' branches. The first of these refers to the historical record – accessible through books, newspapers, and other 'objective' versions of events. The second is Conrad's own experience – both his years at sea, and the actual time which elapsed during the composition of Nostromo.

Fictional time can also be divided up into 'actual' and 'perceived' time-scales. This is a distinction made famous by analyses of Othello – on the one hand we have the actual statements of characters about the weeks that have elapsed since they left Venice, and on the other hand the immensely shorter period (not more than a few days or a day and a half) seemingly taken up by the action itself.[8] Similarly, in Nostromo, the chronology can be fairly exactly plotted from the indications given in the text (though the exercise is a little like Tillyard's attempt to map Sulaco). Ian Watt, in fact, tells us that the riot quelled by Nostromo and his cargadores took place on 1 May, 1890, and the silver was buried on Great Isabel before the break of day on 4 May. The frequent flashbacks, retrospective accounts by some of the protagonists (such as Decoud's letter to his sister or Mitchell's monologue in Chapter 10 of 'The Lighthouse'), and blendings of pluperfect and historic tenses mean, however, that these 'three days' seem to occupy an entire epoch in the country's history. This use of what Ford Madox Ford called the 'time-shift' (Stang, 1987, p.266) is not, of course, 'realistic' – but the very complications and confusions of this structure are intended to remind us that time is not linear in the way in which it reacts upon our consciousness. Conrad is doing no more than dramatizing this fact in stylized terms.

Having isolated our four levels, then, we must next scrutinize the ways in which they influence one another. Let us take a simple example – Conrad's own account of the 'experiences' on which the novel is founded:

I am dying over that cursed Nostromo thing. All my' memories of Central America seem to slip away. I just had a glimpse 25 years ago – a short glance. That is_ not enough pour bâtir un roman dessus [to build a novel on]. And yet one must live. (Watts, 1969, p.145)

Elsewhere he expanded this statement to say: 'In La Guayra as I went up the hill and had a distant view of Caracas I must have been 2 1/2 to 3 days. It's such a long time ago! And there was a few hours in a few other places on that dreary coast of Ven'la' (Karl, 1979, p.143) (referring to his trip to Martinique, Colombia and Venezuela aboard the Saint-Antoine in 1876). Finally, in a letter to Edmund Gosse written in 1918, he stated: 'Of course you have seen yourself that Sulaco is a synthetic product ... In the last instance I may say that Sulaco is intended for all South America in the seventh decade of the nineteenth century' (Karl, 1979, p.812). Ian Watt is forced to date the book in 1890 (following the example of Cedric Watts' A Preface to Conrad (1982)) because of some of its references to real events – notably the Atacama nitrate war of 1879 to 1884 (Watt, 1988, pp.19-20), but Conrad himself obviously associated it with the period of his first and only visit to the continent.

To complicate the picture further, there is evidence that external events in the years 1903 to 1904, during which he was composing the novel, influenced his treatment of events – above all, the American-sponsored Panamanian revolution of November 1903 (referred to in Chapter Three above), which brought about its independence from Colombia, and which appears to have had an effect on his treatment of Sulaco's similar secession from Costaguana (Watt, 1988, p.10).

Nostromo, therefore, could be said to be set in 1876, if we take the date of Conrad's own visit to Colombia and Venezuela, and his statements to Gosse, as incontrovertible. Or, if we take more account of the external evidence of South American politics and wars (gleaned for the most part from an assortment of 'memoirs and reference books), we could, like Cedric Watts and lan Watt, date it in 1890. Again, if we take its status as a 'mirror' of Conrad's own' consciousness at the time of composition more seriously, we might date it to 1903-04. None of these dates is exactly wrong – but neither is anyone of them entirely convincing. The truth of the matter is that, like the novel's internal structure, which subsists on the tension between the 'actual' and 'perceived' time-scales, Conrad's life and reading (though certainly separate in themselves), were reacting simultaneously upon the composition of the novel at any given moment. Thus, the impression given by time is crucial in both 'real' and 'fictional' terms. Conrad's 1876 visit was, for him, a long time in the past when he wrote the book: hence the novel's emphasis on being set in a period within living memory – with immediate rapports with the present – but which, nevertheless, existed now only in the recollections of the participants. Its political dimension was, for him (with the Panamanian secession), a present reality – hence the book's ingenious 'looping' in time, which leaves us with the three days of the revolution as the only tangible temporal certainty to which we can cling. In this way, Conrad's time-scheme accommodates both the 'distanced' feeling of an unattainable past sought by Thornton Wilder, and the somewhat factitious contemporary relevance of John Buchan.

The same complexity of vision, what is more, manifests itself in passages of description:

The undulating surface of the forests seemed powdered with pale gold dust; and away there, beyond Rincón, hidden from the town by two wooded spurs, the rocks of the San Tomé gorge, with the flat wall of the mountain itself crowned by gigantic ferns, took on warm tones of brown and yellow, with red rusty streaks, and the dark green clumps of bushes rooted in crevices. From the plain the stamp sheds and the houses of the mine appeared dark and small, high up, like the nests of birds clustered on the ledges of a cliff. The zigzag paths resembled faint tracings scratched on the wall of a cyclopean blockhouse. To the two serenos of the mine on patrol duty, strolling, carbine in hand, and watchful eyes, in the shade of the trees lining the stream near the bridge, Don Pepe, descending the path from the upper plateau, appeared no bigger than a large beetle. (Conrad, 1986, p.334)

The actual components of this description are outlined in four sentences: the first giving a distant view of forests and the 'rocks of the San Tomé gorge'; the second picturing the 'houses of the mine' as they appear from the plain; the third comparing the paths down from the plateaus with 'faint tracings' 'scratched on a wall; and the fourth informing us both of the people (the 'two serenos') through whose eyes the scene is being directed, and the identity of the 'beetle' coming down the path. The interesting thing is that all four sentences are required in order for us to understand the full implications of this single event – the fact that Don Pepe is coming.

The passage, of course, conveys meaning on several levels – the reduction of vision implied by going from 'forests ... powdered with faint gold dust', by way of 'tracings scratched on the wall of a cyclopean blockhouse', to 'a large beetle' refers us to some larger scale of measurement beside which all the activities of the 'material interests' of Sulaco appear as trivial as insects on a wall. At the same time, the leisurely succession of phrases and periods ('away there, beyond Rincón, hidden from the town ... the rocks of the San Tomé gorge, with the flat wall of the mountain') give us an almost exact syntactical equivalent to the sensation of things being in suspension – to a moment when the sun is overhead, and a distant traveller is approaching, and all motion and activity in the world seems to have stopped and to be awaiting his arrival. In the context of the novel, both of these effects seem inappropriate to the governing state of affairs. Don Pepe is preparing to ask the priest, Father Roman, to take over the task of blowing up the mine (should it prove necessary), while he and all his workers march on the town. Events, in other words, have come to a head. And yet, in the eyes of the two serenos, we have a distant wooded gorge, some buildings the size of bird's nests, a scratch on the wall, and a large beetle.

The passage illustrates, above all. the careful way in which Conrad builds up not only the verismilitude, but the solidity of his imaginary kingdom, In terms of the narrative, we have Don Pepe descending a mountain in order to begin his march on the town; in terms of the actual description, we have a picture of how his approach appears in the eyes of two guards down on the plain – in terms of what the two together imply, however, we have the sense of a country whose existence does not depend solely on its function within a circumscribed plot. The expressions chosen do hint at a certain long range futlity in' Don', Pepe's mission ('Do you think that now the mine would march upon the town to save their Senor Administrador? Do you think that?' (Conrad, 1986, p.423) – as Dr. Monygham, years later, exclaims to Mrs. Gould). They also convey, in this immediate context, a sense of the indifference of nature (usually personified as 'snowy Higuerota') to men and their mining and material schemes – but the strength of the passage as a whole is its ability to suggest, even in the thick of the action, a moment when things seem suddenly, magically, in balance. The physical disposition of the words is able to convey the sense of a reality that goes beyond them.

Conrad's Nostromo, as we have seen, originated in the blend of his own memories and his reading of accounts of South America. As we have also seen, the apparent 'reality' of this outside information is superseded by the internal logic of the novel itself. Its time-schemes, actual and perceived, are matched by the 'actual' and 'perceived' nature of the landscapes it describes. The San Tomé mine, as it comes up again and again, in different contexts and situations, turns into more than the sum of those parts – the evidence upon which we can draw to describe our 'sense' of that mine becomes as great as that which we possess for important features of our own lives. It is, therefore, for us (in the only sense in which we can understand the words), 'real'.

[John Box: Sketch for David Lean's Nostromo (1986-91)]



Of the seven books examined by us in the second section, two are set in entirely imaginary countries ('Ruritania' and 'Cleveland by the Sea'), while one - Treasure Island – includes the fictitious landscape of 'Skeleton Island' in its general picture of eighteenth century England. 'Olifa' and 'Costaguana' are fictional too, whereas the Colonial Peru of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is (in principle, at least) historical. The striking thing, for the purposes of our argument, is the extent to which this distinction proves to be a question of degree – since the 'hinterlands' of virtually all novels and Romances must contain some connections with the actual world, and since their foregrounds almost invariably include some elements of imaginary topography.

The motives for choosing particular settings are elaborate and by no means easily reducible to a set of formulae but, in the context of South America at any rate, it is notable that of Green Mansions and Nostromo, both published in the same year (1904), it is Hudson's 'Romance of the Tropical Forest' which confines itself to the actual forests of Venezuela and Guiana, whereas Conrad's 'Tale of the Seaboard' requires a fictional state as a backdrop.[9] In other words, for the purposes of such exotic 'South American' landscapes, the countryside is sufficiently anonymous (Jungles, Plains, Rivers, Mountains) to remain 'real', whereas ports and coastal cities are too particular to be left unidentified. As I pointed out with regard to Ruritania above, using existing names commits one to a putative roman à clef, so the only alternatives are to leave the setting unspecified (within a larger unit such as 'Europe' or 'Latin America'), or to invent a new name – and with it, if one is conscientious, an entire polity.[10]

Returning to the critical distinctions made' in Section 1 between the 'epistemological' and 'ontological' readings of Nostromo, it now seems to me that we are in a position (at least temporarily), to prefer the latter over the former as a guide to this particular set of problems – how the solidity of Conrad's 'imaginary' South America differs from the reality of, say, Thornton Wilder's. I shall accordingly be employing the hypothetical picture of Nostromo as a series of worlds – interlocking but not mutually reconcilable – suggested in the earlier characterizations of E. M. W. Tillyard's position, as the 'dominant' for this discussion.

Conrad himself, discussing the origins of the book in his preface, says:

It was only when it dawned upon me that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor, and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of a twilight country which was to become the province of Sulaco, with its high shadowy Sierra and its misty Campo for mute witnesses of events flowing from the passions of men (Conrad, 1986, p.31).

The topographical nature of this metaphor is striking – an idea about how to treat a character being immediately translated into the first sight of a countryside. The 'Sierra' and 'Campo', to be sure, are anthropomorphicized, assumed to be capable of acting as 'witnesses of events'; but we find here already a crucial distinction being made between Conrad's 'vision of a twilight country', and that country's eventual transformation into the concrete 'province of Sulaco', with its own set of attributes.

The next summary we get of the nature of the country (and, by extension, of the novel) comes from the American tycoon Holroyd:

His [Charles Gould's] uncle went into politics, was the last Provincial President of Sulaco, and got shot after a battle. His father was a prominent businessman in Sta Marta, tried to keep clear of their politics, and died ruined after a lot of revolutions. And that's your Costaguana in a nutshell. (Conrad, 1986, p.97)

All that this paradigm shares with the last is a common concern with the nature of revolution, which both Holroyd and Conrad assume to be an endemic phenomenon of South America. Ian Watt mentions the shortening of 'Sta Marta' as evidence of hasty revision on Conrad's part (Watt, 1988, p.29), but it seems to me to denote, in context, a 'suppression' of certain crucial elements of the word – echoing Holroyd's blindness to anything but the economic and business realities of a country (as Mrs. Gould remarks, of his countrymen, 'Can it be that they really wish to become, for an immense consideration, drawers of water and hewers of wood to all the countries and nations of the earth?' (Conrad, 1986, p.90)). It is perhaps the most manifestly inadequate response to the complexities of Costaguana,' but it is by no means easily refuted – being, one might almost say, eventually victorious in the dialectical war of 'conceptions of the country' which is at the root of the Costaguanan revolution.

And, continuing this political theme, let us examine the opinions of the boulevardier Martin Decoud on the subject of the nature of Costaguana:

She won't leave Sulaco for my sake, therefore Sulaco must leave the rest of the Republic to its fate. Nothing could be clearer than that. I like a clearly defined situation. I cannot part with Antonia, therefore the one and indivisible Republic of Costaguana must be made to part with its western province. Fortunately it happens to be also a sound policy. (Conrad, 1986, p.200)

This might be taken merely as evidence of the levity of Decoud's intentions – of his view of the country as consisting of 'an atmosphere of opéra bouffe in which all the comic business of stage statesmen, brigands, etc., etc., all their farcical stealing, intriguing, and stabbing is done in dead earnest. It is screamingly funny, the blood flows all the time, and the actors believe themselves to be influencing the fate of the universe' (Conrad, 1986, p.152). In an 'epistemological' reading of this kind we might see Decoud as representing fatalism, Holroyd as materialism, and Mrs. Gould as idealism. This seems to ignore certain other aspects of Decoud's position, however. His decision to divide the country rather than part with Antonia is couched in terms of wilful paradox – but it is, nevertheless, a perfectly reasonable reading of the nature of countries and the world. For Decoud, nothing must seem to be being taken seriously – even his love for Antonia – but the idea that a person can mean more to one than a country is not a particularly surprising one. Decoud is not a solipsist – he is a realist ('I like a clearly defined situation'). He knows that the countries could be divided, and sees a number of reasons why they should. The fact that his prescription is fulfilled is, again, evidence of the strength of this idea. Nor is the suggestion that the country's 'essence' or 'real identity' remains untouched by such manoeuvring a valid one. Costaguana can change; that is, for Decoud, sufficient reason why it should.

A more mystic view of the country's nature is embodied in Mrs. Gould:

Mrs Gould, with each day's journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience. (Conrad, 1986, p.102)

No-one, surely, is naive enough to suggest that the Holroyds of this world act with the motive of making the countries they exploit prosperous – nor would it be easy to believe that political division of the type represented by Decoud effects any essential change (except perhaps for the worse) in the state of the 'suffering and mute' masses. Mrs. Gould's insight, therefore, is into a different aspect of the country – but one that, by its very gravity, asserts its preeminent importance. Holroyd, Decoud, and Mrs. Gould do not refute one another, but they do demand that one make a choice between these different models – emphasizing that one's vision of the country cannot be held in suspension from ideological commitment.

Just such aloofness is attempted by Dr. Monygham, who sums up his view by saying:

There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is 'founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. Mrs Gould, the time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people, as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back. (Conrad, 1986, p.423)

Edward Garnett, acting on the suggestion of Cunninghame Graham, proposed that this should stand as the book's epigraph – since it seemed to him to contain its entire message (Watts, 1969, p.159). Again, however, while this statement effectively removes the mask from the sophistries of other positions, it proposes no alternative attitude towards the problem – contenting itself with a half-hearted invocation of 'moral principle'. Perhaps the best answer to Monygham's perplexity is to contrast it with that of Charles Gould, the very symbol of 'material interests'.

It is no longer a Paradise of snakes. We have brought mankind into it, and we cannot turn our backs upon them to go and begin a new life elsewhere. (Conrad, 1986, p.195)

The burden of this discussion has been to point out that, while none of these views could be said to be entirely adequate to the complexity of the novel, there is something more involved in them than simply a series of failures to come up to the 'reality' of Costaguana. Each one is, in fact, a reality already – a coherent microcosm, with a consciousness at the centre and the universe stretching around. The fact that Conrad's view, too (as expressed in his preface), can be interpreted as just another 'version' of the country serves to emphasize that, in the final analysis, any attempt to separate the mapping of Costaguana and its inhabitants from the aesthetic constraints of the novel in which they are contained is futile. The country's complexities are not simply echoed by, but in fact are the complexities of the novel. The two aspects are not contradictory, however: the ontological and epistemological readings are simply the longitudinal and transverse arms of the same graph. In other words, for any given incident in the novel one must look at both the historical and literary constraints on Conrad himself, and the structural effect of this feature in context – the two together going to make up this 'world' which even Conrad seems to regard as a reality to be contemplated. rather than an artefact to be accounted for.

This point applies also to our earlier analyses of prototypical Romances, but the distinctiveness of Nostromo lies in the fact that this graph of the metaphorical and metonymic 'arms' of representation applies within its narrative structure, as well as without. In, for example, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, we see each incident as evidence of a particular attitude or predilection on the part of the author, but also as a 'metonymic' feature of the book's internal world. In Nostromo, on the other hand, while this paradigm still applies, we have – in the 'world-views' identified with the names Holroyd, Decoud, Mrs. Gould and Dr. Monygham – an alternative set of personalities shaping the choice of incidents, and an alternative set of features building up into coherent worlds. Each character thus becomes a little author, and each world – Holroyd's, Mrs. Gould's and Dr. Monygham's - a miniature of Nostromo itself. John Buchan attempted a facetious version of it in 'Archie's' peroration on the nature of Olifa, but there is no substitute for the 'tremendous disclosure of this interior'; so comprehensively imagined a version of South America that it is 'unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast'.

[John Box: Sketch for David Lean's Nostromo (1986-91)]

1. As Jakobson puts it, 'Speech implies a selection of certain linguistic entities and their combination into linguistic units of a higher degree of complexity.' - quoted by David Lodge (1979, p.79), where he compares 'combination' with the laws of fashion, and 'selection' with the choice of specific garments from subsets like footwear, tops, dresses, etc.

2. The reference to Poe is to an implied debt to 'The Gold Bug' (Stevenson, 1924, p.xxvii).

3. Except for a brief sketch-map drawn for the author's own use, and not included in the published text (Hay, 1963, p.173).

4. This, too, brings problems in its train. How, for example, does one define the distinction (important at this date) between a 'novel' and a 'Romance'? And, if the intrigue of a book hinges on its alternation of action and inaction – or its avoidance of one expected plot-twist in favour of another – which can be said to be 'dominant' in the narrative? For the purposes of our argument, I will have to simplify my response to these knotty Questions. To the first, I would reply that the distinction is simply a matter of degree – that Romance has a tendency towards exotic settings and wish-fulfilment, while the novel engages with concerns which are more intractably Quotidian – but that one is seldom safe in classifying a particular example as one or the other, unless its author has given a lead. Similarly, in response to the second question, I have purposely confined myself to talking about the 'atmosphere' conveyed by the works under discussion – since this, though a somewhat subjective term, at least allows discussion of the complicated alternations and contradictions of mood from which such a feeling is made up.

5. 'it was Africa ... that got cleared of the dull imaginary wonders of the dark ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper. Regions unknown' My imagination could depict to itself there worthy, adventurous and devoted men, nibbling at the edges, attacking from north and south and east and west, conquering a bit of truth here and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling.' (Conrad, 1972, pp.13-14).

6. As in W. J. Turner's poem 'Romance':

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.
(Gardner, 1985, p.898).

7. As in the passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude quoted in my introduction, where Aureliano Buendía's father-in-law explains to him the difference between Liberals and Conservatives:

Since Aureliano at that time had very confused notions about the difference between Conservatives and Liberals. his father-in-law gave him some schematic lessons. The Liberals, he said, were Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests. to institute civil marriage and divorce ... The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God. proposed the establishment of public order and family morality. (García Márquez, 1980, p.84).

8. See A. C. Bradley's book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904, pp.423-29), where he discusses the doctrine of 'Double Time, Short and Long', which is attributed to a certain 'Christopher North' (p.426).

9. See my Appendices One and Two for a listing of 'imaginary' and 'real' settings in fictions of South America.

10. Examples of both of these solutions are to be found in Appendix One.

[John Box: Sketch for David Lean's Nostromo (1986-91)]

Works Cited:

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras completas. 9 vols. Buenos Aires, 1965.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. A Universal History of lnfamy. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  • Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London, 1904.

  • Buchan, John. The Courts of the Morning. London and Edinburgh: Collins, 1949.

  • Conrad, Joseph. Youth: A Narrative; Heart of Darkness; The End of the Tether. 1902. Everyman's Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1967.

  • Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  • Conrad, Joseph. Tales of Hearsay and Last Essays. London, 1972.

  • Conrad, Joseph, & Ford Madox Hueffer. Romance. London and Edinburgh: Collins, n.d.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad. Ed. Joaquin Marco. Madrid, 1985.

  • García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. London, 1980.

  • Gardner, Helen, ed. The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

  • Hay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad. Chicago, 1963.

  • Hepburn, James, ed. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. London, 1981.

  • Jakobson, Roman. 'The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles'. In Fundamentals of Language, by Roman Jakobson & Morris Halle. The Hague, 1956. 76-82.

  • Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, A Biography. London, 1979.

  • Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature. London, 1979.

  • McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

  • Sherry, Norman, ed. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. London, 1973.

  • Sherry, Norman. Conrad's Western World. Cambridge, 1971.

  • Stang, Sondra J., ed. The Ford Madox Ford Reader. London, 1987.

  • Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Tusitala edition. London: William Heinemann, [1924].

  • Tillyard, E. M. W. The Epic Strain in the English Novel. London, 1958.

  • Watt, lan. Joseph Conrad: Nostromo. Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge, 1988.

  • Watts, C. T. ed. Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

  • Wilder, Thornton Niven. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. London, 1947.

[John Masefield: Sard Harker (1924)]

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