Why Costaguana Matters
By Ibsen Martinez
It was written by professor Malcolm Deas in an essay originally written in Spanish and titled “Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.”1
Mr. Deas, a distinguished British historian is also a well respected specialist in Colombian history who in 1964 helped to found the Latin American Center (LAC) at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He thinks that Nostromo, first published in 1904, is still one of the few novels ever written that has successfully dealt with all the ambiguities of late 19th century’s imperial politics, possibly the most knotty subject matter for a work of imagination to broach.
Indeed, Nostromo is a remarkable achievement. It has been long recognized that it is, by far, a vivid and, above all, a most credible literary re-creation of a newly-formed South American nation—the Republic of Costaguana.
Any unaware reader of Nostromo might surmise that Conrad actually resided for a long time in some Caribbean Spanish-speaking country during the second half of the 19th century. Yet Nostromo was written by a man whose essential Latin American direct experience was, by his own admission, just a glance, a remote memory of Caribbean scenery and of various people he came across with in his youth.
As any good novelist would do, Conrad did not refrain from transmuting people he met elsewhere and later, not necessarily in South America, into lively characters of his Costaguana story.
The indisputable fact is that Conrad only visited the Caribbean area quite briefly. “I just had a glimpse 25 years ago, a short glance”, he once told his friend Robert Cunninghame-Graham; “That is not enough pour bâtir un roman dessus [to construct a novel upon.”2 Unlike the way his remembrances fueled most of his novels, while writing Nostromo Conrad rummaged through a wide assortment of travel books, diplomat’s memories, private letters and biographies.
It is not difficult to trace what books Conrad read to nurture his fictional South American republic because almost all his sources are thoroughly surveyed in Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Western World (Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1971). One of them, written by Sir Edward B. Eastwick, a special British envoy, deals with the intricacies of Venezuela’s domestic politics during the early 1860s. Another one is George F. Masterman’s Seven Eventful Years in Paraguay (London, 1869).
There are plenty of cultural elements drawn from republics located on the River Plate banks, such as Argentina and Uruguay. But Costaguana’s geography is unmistakably Venezuelan, Colombian and Panamanian. Yet, speaking in hindsight, long after Nostromo was published, Conrad adamantly insisted that Costaguana meant any South American nation. Hence the outlandish mixture of costumes and Spanish idioms that so fascinatingly baffle Latin American readers to whom Costaguana brings to their minds a world at once familiar and alien.
To be sure, Costaguana is diametrically opposed to Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Marquez’s fictional locus: Macondo, the God forsaken and haunted town. There is no “magic realism” in Nostromo. Costaguana feels utterly real and, unlike García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,Nostromo does not read as a founding myth or a parable full of tricky allusions.
Just as significant as the bibliographical sources of Nostromo are the Latin American events that undeniably influenced its plot as it was being written, especially the secession of Panama from Colombia and the growing international tensions caused by a multinational English and Germany naval blockade against Venezuela. General Cipriano Castro, the Venezuelan dictator at the time, had declared his country in default with its foreign creditors.
Perhaps this portrayal of an epoch of American imperial power in the making has led many modern and post-modern critics astray when they came to ponder the true motives Conrad could have had to write a novel so at variance with the mass of his work.
“Like all of Conrad’s most memorable writing, Nostromo ]—wrote the late Edward W. Said in 1988—derives its perspectives, characters, and themes from the experience of European imperialism, then at its apogee. To read Nostromo again today, as the United States tries clumsily and often brutally to impose its “narrative”—its authorship, plots and themes—on Latin America (and elsewhere) is to come upon a truly unique earlier text in which one of the explicit subjects is the futility of attempting to control a Latin American country from beyond its borders.
Yet it would be incomplete to read Nostromo, which Conrad finished in 1904,simply as a portent of what we have been seen happening in our time in Latin America, with its United Fruit companies, despotic colonels, liberation forces and American-financed mercenaries. For Nostromo also foreshadows a gaze—a way of looking at and mediating the Third World. Conrad is the precursor of novelists such as Graham Greene, V.S.Naipaul, and Robert Stone; theoreticians of imperialism as Hannah Arendt; and of the assorted travel writers and filmmakers whose specialty is bringing home the Third World for analysis, for judgment, or simply for the entertainment of European and North American audiences, with their taste for the ‘exotic.’ ”3
To brand Hanna Arendt as a “theoretician of imperialism” sounds absolutely preposterous to me, to say the least. On the other hand, while it does not seem fair to accuse Mr. Conrad with extolling nascent American imperialism in the region, it is true that he has seemingly bestowed upon a distinguished handful of modern novelists and travel-writers his own kind of approach and gaze on the Third World’s grim realities.
Most recent criticism, however, of the kind voiced by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, dismisses Conrad’s literary mastery as just a pretense of courteous detachment concealing “white supremacism.” This kind of rejection is currently been challenged and reversed by a surge of Latin American awareness on the importance of Conrad’s Nostromo to many Latin American young fiction and non-fiction writers, as well as to social scientists and, yes, economic historians reflecting on our failed societies.
For a biography of Joseph Conrad, see The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad by John Stape, available at amazon.com.
Conrad was born 150 years ago and his birth is being commemorated throughout the region by a growing number of Latin American intellectuals with essays, articles and even with a bestselling novel (Historia Secreta de Costaguana: A Secret History of Costaguana by Colombian young writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez). They all concur in declaring Nostromo, a novel set in the second half of the 1th century, as a key bequeathed to us by a British writer of Polish aristocratic origins, to a best understanding of Latin America’s present.
The epic scale of Nostromo and its thematic orchestration is subtle and complex.”Conrad questioned what lesser writers would take for granted—writes Cedric Waits, one of his best commentators—; and his questioning was so intelligent that even now, so long after [Nostromo’s] first appearance, the novel generally rings true.”
According to Mr. Deas, Conrad was a skeptical fellow who wrote a political novel precisely to underscore the limitations of politics. By means of his novel’s material—a revolution in a colorful South American country, hidden treasures, spying, perilous escapades, betrayal and passionate love—, Nostromo still offers a perceptive account of the Latin American economic and political processes of his time and an amazing foreshadowing of what has evolved from them during the last one hundred years of failure, poverty and civil strife.
Deas, Malcolm, Del Poder y la Gramática y otros ensayos sobre historia, política y literatura colombianas ( On Power and Grammar And Some Other Essays on Colombian History, Politics and Literature), Tercer Mundo Editores, Bogotá, Colombia, 1993. p. 279 et passim.
Joseph Conrad‘s Letters to R.B. Cunninghame Graham, ed, C.T. Watts (London: Cambridge University Press), p.159.
Edward W. Said, Through Gringo Eyes, With Conrad in Latin America, Harper’s Magazine. (April 1988), vol. 276, No. 1665.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.