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Nostromo (1904)

by Joseph Conrad

Plot: Sulaco is the wealthy province of Conrad's fictional South American republic, Costaguana. The money springs from the San Tome silver mines, property of Charles Gould, an idealist paradoxically dedicated to "material interests".

Costaguana vibrates with civil unrest. Backed by the US, the legal government clings onto Sulaco: it is opposed by the populist demagogue Montero who wants to seize the province and its silver. Gould entrusts six months' silver production to Italian shop-steward Nostromo and the anti-Montero journalist Decoud. Nostromo is consumed by pride, Decoud by scepticism.

This pair escape at night in a lighter laden with treasure; crash into a troopship; reach a small island; bury the loot. Nostromo returns to Sulaco convinced that he has been exploited by his superiors; Decoud remains on the island and drowns himself using a couple of silver bars.

Nostromo helps to defeat the rebels but nothing ameliorates his bitterness. Courting the daughter of the island's lighthouse keeper, he gradually unearths the silver which the world believes lost. He grows rich ounce by ounce. One night he is mistaken for a thief; the lighthouse keeper shoots him. Gould continues to nurse the San Tome mine, blindly unaware that his devotion brings destruction.

Theme: "There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice." Capitalism corrodes moral principle by promoting the myth of progress.

Revolutions are a sham: Costaguana is controlled by the mine, not the people. Individuals who seek redemption in heroism are merely flirting with a flattering illusion.

Style: The narrative is unimaginably oblique. Flashbacks and digressions show history stupidly repeating itself. The prose is dry and sardonic with a thread of malice.

Chief strengths: The only English novel to compete in range and scale with War and Peace. Conrad demonstrates how intellectual, political and economic forces distort individuals and nations. He audaciously combines the sweep of 19th-century fiction with the impresionistic techniques of modernism.

Chief weaknesses: Conrad is prone to acute bouts of sentimentality, especially when female characters lurch into view; the control of dialogue is erratic because his colloquialisms sound manufactured.

What they thought of it then: Unsurprisingly, Nostromo failed to top the bestseller charts. In later years, Conrad recalled that, "with the public", the novel provoked "the blackest possible frost." Nonetheless, Arnold Bennett thought it the finest novel of his generation: "peerless, and there's no more to be said".

What we think of it now: Nostromo has just about survived Leavis's massive endorsement, remaining Conrad's masterpiece. Even so, it is admired rather than read. Conrad's grim asperity discourages the formation of a fan club.

Responsible for: Paul Scott squeezing Forster's Passage to India through the Conradian mincer to produce the Raj Quartet; the new tele-serial, which should be able to borrow costume cast-offs from Rhodes.