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Joseph Conrad

The Nigger of the "Narcissus"

Category: Fiction | Published: 1897 | Review Added: 25-05-2014

Rating: 4 - A top read

Joseph Conrad was that rare type, a man of action with the sensibility of a poet. The Nigger of the "Narcsissus" was the first fictional work based on his experience in the Merchant Navy, and it is a remarkable piece of writing: a gripping adventure story that is also a profound meditation on the human condition.

The plot is simple and linear: a merchant ship sets sail from Bombay to London, encounters atrocious weather conditions that test both its own construction and its crew's nerves to the limit, is witness to a near-mutiny instigated by a disgruntled crew member, and finally lies becalmed in the mid-Atlantic with food supplies, and its crew's morale, running dangerously low. All the while, James Wait, a West Indian sailor, lies in bed ill, suspected by most of his shipmates of malingering, and regarded by them with a mixture of pity, suspicion and contempt.

There is the implication that Wait is a jinx on the ship, the rest of the crew secretly blaming him for the voyage's bad fortune and the mounting internal strife that threatens to turn adversity to disaster. Yet there is another, more overtly malign influence at work in the shape of Donkin, a lazy, disreputable cockney consumed by self-pity and spite, ever willing to fan the flames of discord, and possessing a fearlessly belligerent contempt for authority.

What the novella conveys so successfully is the fragile nature of collective human endeavour when it meets the limits of individual endurance. Most of the men on board the "Narcissus" are neither good nor bad, seeming rather to be beasts forced by enlightened self-interest not to surrender to their lower instincts. There are some shows of compassion, particularly on the part of Belfast, a soft-hearted Irishman - the only crew member genuinely fond of the ailing James Wait. And there is a touching moment when the crew discovers that the ship's cat has, miraculously, survived the terrifying storm that held the ship almost horizontal for days.

But over and above its naturalistic portrayal of the coarse and precarious life on board a sailing ship, the work's greatest strength is its descriptive power. Conrad's prose has a unique flavour, characterised by a kind of vivid oddness of expression that derives in large part from his writing in a foreign language. Unfamiliar with English cliché, Conrad never risks falling victim to it: he says precisely what he means. On the other hand, his prose has a natural rhythm and feel for the sound of words, so that his quite frequent uses of unidiomatic language go largely unnoticed. Conrad is a kind of "Action Man" incarnation of Thomas Hardy, his strengths vivid description and pithy philosophical insight. Take this cryptic but brilliant summary of his tale's meaning, from the aftermath of the near-mutiny:

Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear.

Conrad does a brilliant job of welding metaphor to realism in such a way as to suggest that metaphor is inherent in nature, not merely an artifice of fiction. This is a superb work, short enough to sustain interest but long enough to be involving.

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