Nostromo: The Lighthouse – And Final Thoughts

Cape Romain 1827 Lighthouse

Previously:

The situation has reached a boiling point: General Montero’s rebel forces have dismantled the government and are sweeping over Costaguana, while the traitor Sotillo, invading Sulaco by steamship, comes to establish a reign of terror.  The citizens flee to the countryside, seeking protection by the once-feared bandit Hernandez.  Everyone believes Nostromo and Martin to be dead, and Dr Monygham fears for the safety of Emilia Gould, who, half-abandoned by her workaholic husband, still remains in the town.  He realizes he must take action to save her, while the rebels and the elusive silver begin to take a corrupting hold over everybody else.

There is much, much more that happens in this third part, but I can’t give it away.  It’s as well Part III takes up nearly half of the book, because the initially slow plot here picks up with gusto, taking all the world-building from the first two parts and launching an all-out political/Western drama on a grand scale.  I was so invested in the story, it gave me an awful nightmare (yes, it was the torture scene), which I don’t think has ever happened to me before.  It’s moving, haunting, depressing, and, above all, thought provoking.

Conrad has a great deal to say about imperialism and the double-edged sword that was the British-American investment in South America.  We see Charles Gould as a Gaskellian John Thornton, bringing stable jobs and industrialism to an unstable region, but we also see him as a conqueror and self-centered tycoon, sacrificing his own wife’s happiness for his ambitions.  Conrad’s dual perspective is also directed to President Ribiera and General Montero, neither side effective in governing the country and both entities too strongly influenced by foreign powers, in spite of the ideals of the one and the brute force of the other.  Nostromo, as human as any of them, represents the common man, only one who is half-heartedly a key player in major historical events.  He has his own vices and virtues which are not immune to the proximity of immense fortune.  Conrad leaves no one without a weakness, whether they are white or Latino, rich or poor.

The female characters are well portrayed and surprisingly modern in some ways.  Emilia Gould, though a devoted wife, is well aware of her husband’s flaws and exerts her own charisma and character to help others.  Antonia, the liberated belle of Sulaco, takes after her father Don Jose in her desire to see a better government for the nation.  Linda starts out the daughter of an innkeeper and ends up running the lighthouse on her own.  There are others, and they all stand on their own feet (except perhaps the tragic Giselle, who, in spite of her shallowness, still got my sympathy).

For a more detailed character analysis, definitely check out Brian’s review on Babbling Books.  He describes the core personalities and tensions really well.

I also want to mention two literary devices Conrad uses.  One is a long letter written by Martin to his sister, which goes over some of the main events of the conflict.  The second is a flashback told in the form of a guided tour by Captain Mitchell, as he recalls past events to a visitor to Sulaco.  Both of these devices slow the book down, but on the plus side, I thought they were creative.  Again, patience does pay off, just be prepared!

In all, I feel The Lighthouse made up for the tortoise pace of the first two parts, and I give the book an overall 4 stars.  It is not Conrad’s best writing, and I probably would not have ploughed through it if I weren’t a Conrad fan.  On the other hand, I don’t know of any other English language novel of the 19th century that covers this history (albeit in a fictional setting), and the plot and characters are so strong, I am very glad I stuck with it.  It is just like revisiting my Latin American history college course, except in novel form – so many tragic iterations of military coups, bloodshed, uprisings, and misdeeds or abuse by colonial powers.  This book, for the most part, has aged well, because its moral is still relevant, and unfortunately history has repeated itself in other places and with other people to this day.

Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph Over a Police State

Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - P.M. Peres Welcomes Sharansky
Prime Minister Shimon Peres (left) welcomes released Prisoner of Zion Antatoly Sharansky as he steps off the Westwind plane arriving from Frankfurt at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Government Press Office (Israel) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

For many of us the scientific-technological revolution arrived at precisely the right time, with the world of science as a kind of castle where you could protect yourself from the shifting winds of official ideology. (p. xii)

This single sentence from Natan Sharansky’s memoir Fear No Evil really grabbed me.  Here is someone I could immediately relate to in a unique way.  I’m not brilliant at chess, math, or computer science like Sharanksy, but I understand him.  In a world where politics and ideology are constantly in our face, some of us cling to science and technology – constants of logic and scientific process – as a way to feel safe and find commonality.

But what happens when not even science can protect you?

This break-down of “the castle” is what happened to Sharansky.  He talks about how he came to explore and embrace his Jewish heritage, in part through his friendship and eventual engagement with a Jewish activist, Avital.  During the 1970s when this all occurred, the USSR was preventing many Jews from emigrating to Israel, so those who were denied visas became known as refuseniks.  Sharanksy, a refusenik himself, began to campaign for refuseniks’ rights, becoming almost a minor celebrity through his interactions with the Western press.

Barely a day married to Natan, Avital was finally allowed to leave Russia and compelled to leave immediately before it was too late.  Natan, however, was still denied his own visa and continued to be followed by his “tails” who were assigned to watch him.  Three years later in 1977, he was arrested, accused of being a spy for the U.S.

The rest of the memoir follows his intense and truly stunning determination to survive his prison sentence and demand justice.  Logically minded, Sharansky immediately came up with a mind map, outlining his method of dealing with the authorities and maintaining his dignity.  A major piece of this was his decision to have no association with the KGB – no bargaining, no deals – even when tempted or tortured.

As I read this, I was having flashbacks to Kafka’s The Trial.  Since Sharanksy was well known outside of Russia, he was treated somewhat better (relatively speaking) than more obscure prisoners.  Nonetheless, the authorities intended to destroy his integrity, chiefly by means of monologues and monotony, trying to manipulate him by withholding visits with his worried mother.  They really took several pages out of Kafka, and the sheer, maddening tedium of it all would be enough to drive most people into cooperation.

Sharansky, however, managed to not only not cooperate but to come out ahead.  He took advantage of his position as a well-known activist to call out the authorities when they were not following their own rules.  He used his empathy to network with other zeks (prisoners) and try to stay on good terms with his fellow inmates.  He used hunger strikes strategically and stuck to them.  Finally, he focused on his spiritual life, through his Psalm book, his pictures of family members, and his prayers.

One small part of the book that also stood out to me was the role of literature.  Sharansky credits Sherlock Holmes as being a major influence in his pursuit of logic, which was to help him in his trial.  He also relates a moving scene in which he and two others, locked in punishment cells (solitary confinement with low rations), passed the time by debating about authors and their books.

Thanks to Stephen for sharing his review of the book (which is how I found out about it!).

The Code of the Woosters – A Novel for New Year’s Resolutions

Already feeling the post-holiday blues?  Sometimes you just need a good British comedy to help get you back into the festive spirit.  And for good British comedy, you simply can’t go wrong with P. G. Wodehouse.

The Code of the Woosters (1938) is book #7 in his Jeeves and Wooster series but, as with many of the adventures of this duo, it can be read on its own. The scene opens with Bertie Wooster, an idle man-about-town, shunning the opportunity of a Round-the-World cruise, against the counsel of his smarter but dutiful servant, Jeeves.  Wooster’s boredom disappears when his beloved Aunt Dahlia shows up, demanding he steal a silver cow creamer from collector Sir Watkyn Bassett, who, she believes, wrongfully acquired what was rightfully her husband’s.  The trouble is, Bassett is the same magistrate who Wooster had a run-in with before, not to mention the father of his dreaded sometime fiancee, Madeline Bassett.  Wooster’s friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Stiffy Byng complicate matters with love triangles and altercations of their own, and Wooster feels bound by his family Code to help them out – “Never let a pal down.”

This was my first Wodehouse novel, though I was already familiar with the series from reading some of the short stories, as well as watching the 90s TV series.  (Apart from one or two episodes, I highly recommend that show – Hugh Laurie plays an utterly charming, if completely goofy, Bertie Wooster.)  The Code of the Woosters was therefore a plot I already recognized, but with its vibrant cast of characters, I still enjoyed reading it.

The most colorful of these characters is Roderick Spode, the amateur Dictator and leader of the Black Shorts, a fascist club. Spode, as it would happen, is secretly in love with Madeline Bassett himself, giving him further cause to despise Wooster, whose behavior he watches like a hawk.  Spode was inspired by real-life activist Oswald Mosley and poses an entertaining foil to the apolitial Wooster.

Which brings me to my list of resolutions or “life lessons” from The Code of the Woosters:

  • Set personal boundaries, or you may be called upon to steal a cow creamer.
  • Beware of ugly mustaches.  They may thinly conceal an amateur Dictator.
  • Listen to your butler.  He knows when to leave the country on a Round-the-World cruise.

"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Fields Hawthorne Ticknor ca1863 byJWBlack
Portrait of James Thomas Fields (1817-1881),
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864),
and William Davis Ticknor (1810-1864).

Over on Instagram, I’d mentioned I’ve been getting into Hawthorne’s short stories again.  He’s a favorite author of mine, and when I read the collection Twice Told Tales (already five years ago, wow!), I was blown away by the craft of his shorter works.  I finally broke down and bought the complete Tales and Sketches, and for my first reading chose “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one of the more famous ones.

The story is set up simply enough: a young man and clergyman’s son, Robin, sets out one day to seek his fortune.  More specifically, he leaves the countryside and arrives in Boston in order to get in touch with Major Molineux, a relative who had once offered to help him get started in life.

It’s a dark, gloomy night in Boston.  Robin goes from door to door, inquiring for his kinsman.  Everyone laughs at him, while he wanders through the streets looking for at least one towns-person who will listen to him seriously.  Finally, he meets a man who tells him to wait by the church, because Major Molineux will soon arrive.  Shortly after, Robin hears the voices of a crowd in the next street.  When they at last turn the corner, he is unprepared for what he sees.

For such a simple, subtle buildup, this story ends with a punchline I was not expecting.  I’ve left out the ending to avoid spoilers, but in short, it was disturbing.  At the same time, this twist opens up the story to a larger realm of questions, just as it closes this peek into Robin’s life.  This is what makes Hawthorne’s style so powerful, even as it seems fairly conventional on the surface.

Have you read any of Hawthorne’s short stories, and if so, what are your favorites?

Elie Wiesel’s Open Heart, and Thoughts on Christian Suffering

In his memoir Open Heart, Elie Wiesel takes us through his experiences surrounding his 2011 open heart surgery.  Wiesel is famous for his Night trilogy, and here some of the same themes come back in short, fleeting chapters – the dark memories of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as the perennial question: why does God allow His children to suffer evil?  What should a Jewish person’s response be in times of persecution or pain?  Question marks abound in this short work, underlining the great despair we may sometimes feel when evil touches our lives.

One reason I picked up this book was to understand something of what a patient experiences during this medical procedure.  My grandma has faced a myriad of health issues, including two heart surgeries; she endured them with grace even while she was in terrible pain.  What could she have been feeling?  I have never asked her, choosing instead (as with other personal questions) to seek another avenue of understanding in Wiesel’s book.

Of course, it is not an exact parallel.  For one thing, Wiesel’s perceptions or imaginings of the afterlife are not identical to Christian beliefs on the same.  He describes his picture of hell as “ruled by cruel, pitiless angels” and full of physical tortures.  In this book, he does not seek to systematically explain his beliefs, offer a treatise on death, or even describe the surgery in detail.  Instead, Wiesel presents his thoughts and reactions moving from one scene to the next – a surreal, metaphysical, and ultimately personal exploration.

I’ve mentioned before Shūsaku Endō’s book The Silence, one I’ve been actively avoiding (yet will ultimately read).  In Open Heart, Wiesel touches on the same theme – the apparent silence of God.

…Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also – and most of all – a theological scandal.  For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.  But then how is one to understand His silence?

For Christians, too, this question is not irrelevant.  Many of my family members in Christ are enduring persecution as I write.  Barnabas Aid is a charity I support, and every day their prayer focus features a story of the horrifying, often government-sanctioned brutalization of Christians in other parts of the world.  The Armenian Genocide – which Wiesel worked to bring awareness to – is a historic example. On a personal level, each of us has suffered his or her own tragedy, be it a physical disease, a mental health struggle, the death or loss of a loved one, or something else which we may never tell another human being. 

Wiesel’s answer, in part, is as simple as the question: “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.”  There is certainly wisdom in acknowledging mystery.  Humanity itself involves mystery, from questions such as the Creation of the world and the beginning of a human’s soul, to those about the origin of evil and enduring hatred.

To add to this, it is no coincidence much of the New Testament covers the existence of persecution.  I’ve personally found comfort in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks to His disciples directly on this subject, with empathy:

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  (John 15:18–19, NKJV)

I wish there were words to adequately describe John 17 – epic or poetic seem trite.  But here, too, in His last prayers before death, Jesus speaks of His followers:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20–23, NKJV)

Suffering remains something of a mystery to me.  Through my own experiences, though – which, while personally crushing, were minute compared to those of others – I can affirm God was never absent.  If even small struggles matter to Him, how much more so the greater ones.