Conrad as Prophet
“Conrad’s Latin America” by Mark Falcoff, in The New Criterion (Jan. 2005), 900 Broadway, Ste. 602, New York, N.Y. 10003.
Although Latin American literature is full of novels dealing with the region’s chronic political disorder, it was left to a Ukrainian-born Pole to write (in English) “the best political—the most enduring—novel ever written about Latin America.” That book, says Falcoff, a Latin American specialist and former scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was published just over 100 years ago: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904).
The San Tomé silver mine in the fictional country of Costaguana is “in some ways the principal character of the novel.” Both the mine and the country have languished for decades under the rule of a brutal dictator, but now, under civilian rule, Costaguana looks abroad for the money and manpower it needs to rebuild itself. Charles Gould, a high-minded Costaguana-born Englishman, corrals money, partners, and technology from abroad to revitalize the mine and, he hopes, the country. “The entire society can ‘work’ only because its key figures are not Costaguanan at all, but rather Europeans (assisted, to be sure, by a handful of locals with intimate European connections),” writes Falcoff. As San Tomé once more becomes productive, prosperity and peace return to the region.
Enter General Montero, a “backwoods fighter” who rose to minister of war after backing the winning side at just the right moment in a civil war, and his brother Pedrito. They cynically exploit the rhetoric of race, class, and anti-imperialism to incite a rebellion, with the real goal of gaining control of San Tomé’s wealth. Their scheme fails only after a long series of adventures, and the book ends with the mining town’s secession, ratified by the presence of a U.S. warship.
General Montero “foreshadows a whole host of counterfeit social revolutionaries in uniform,” writes Falcoff, including Venezuela’s current leader, Hugo Chávez. Other characters, such as Father Corbelán, the left-wing cleric with connections on both sides of the law, and Nostromo, the skilled foreign worker and compromised figure from whom the novel takes its name, also have contemporaries in modern Latin America. “With stunning prescience,” Conrad saw that “whatever the sins of colonialism, what was bound to follow could conceivably be worse. Nostromo is a supreme work of art which is also a prophecy, one which more often than not has been amply fulfilled.”