Joseph Conrad

Finished on 05.08.2021

My thoughts

Introduction, setting, characters: Set among and the islands of Indonesia towards the tail end of Colonialism, this epic story takes the reader from dingy hotel bars, to hostile jungles, one foot on land the other in some rusty junker. All is shot through with a sense of foreboding, malice and longing. Even the seemingly picturesque island of Samburan, thick with lush vegetation and surrounded by clear sky and endless ocean can quickly turn into a nightmarish place of loneliness and isolation. The location, much like in Under the Volcano, is a key character. We are always reminded, whether consciously or not, of its relentless, unbiased presence.

Feeling/style: To me this is a book about the ability to change, the protagonist at first seems very sure of his life choices, until circumstances force him to reassess. Each time he thinks he's found the formula, fate intervenes. The book is written in an unhurried yet accurate style, not overly elaborate but with moments of vivid description. Inner thoughts and emotions are beautifully realised making all human interactions gripping. A notable factor is the choice to shift perspectives and tenses. Initially the tale is being recalled by a mystery narrator from a first person perspective, who seems to be investigating events that have passed. Then the book switches to the present and into third person, before switching back again at the end. This would perhaps in less skillful hands prove to be jarring but Conrad makes the transition seamlessly. When compared to “The Heart of Darkness” this book has an optimistic outlook. Overall the prose is honest and heartfelt, with moments of genuine feeling being handled with a subtle grace and honesty.

Characters:  Our hero throughout this book is Axel Heyst, the son of a nihilist and a wandering soul in search of peace. Heyst is first and foremost a gentleman, at first in the typical style, polite, aluf yet courteous with a hidden strength brought born from privilege, these characteristics however become distorted and evolve to produce a very empathetic and tragic character. If Heyst represents one side of the “Gentleman” coin, Mr Jones is the other. He, a gentleman also, has been shunned by his kind, this has left him full of hurt pride, and filled with a potent mixture of anger and boredom. An enigma of sorts showing the worst of what a “civilised” society can produce. The meeting of Heyst and Mr. Jones is one of the highlights of the book, the former shines ever brighter while the latter, in contrast, plummets further into depravity. Other great characters such as the weak and disgusting Hotelier Schomberg, or the ruthless Ricardo are balanced with the convivial and neive Morrison or the eager and devoted Davidson. Each has their own depth and role. Unfortunately this detail does not spread to the Female characters, of whom there are two. The Hoteliers wife, who although playing a crucial role is never given any real dialogue and is mainly spoken about in degrading terms, (although this does play into her hands at times). The other is Lena, a damsel of sorts, who gets tangled up in Heyst’s life. She is more developed but again she is often reduced to a beautiful naive mirrored surface in which the male protagonist can be reflected. Towards the end of the book Lena is somewhat redeemed and is perhaps part of the most gripping scenes in the story. Her character is shown to have hidden depth and strength, easily enough to match the likes of Heyst and Mr. Jones.

Summary:  At first Glance this book may appear to be a familiar story about a colonial gentleman searching for adventure in the tropics. The reverse is in fact true, saturated in an unnerving atmosphere of one being where one shouldn’t be, the lush tropical setting quickly turns hostile. This book dissects the civilised world, its preconceptions, arrogance and its inability to process emotion. The portrayal of women is lacking, and the view of “native” or “savage” people can be jarring, however these opinions are set firmly into the mouths of the characters and as such reflect them and their thoughts rather than being the subject of the book. The protagonist Heyst is reserved and disillusioned but with an ember of hope calmly smouldering inside him, much like the distant volcano seen on the horizon from his little island.

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