19 June 2006

10. Victory: An Island Tale by Joseph Conrad

First let me quote about what Jack London said about the book: "I am glad I am alive, if, for no other reason, because of the joy of reading this book."

And in my estimation, this is an understatement. This is a fine fine book and will be read again.

The book, finished in 1914 and is set in the 1890s, is divided into four parts.

In the first we see our hero Axel Heyst, a Swedish baron and drifter-gentleman drifting through the South Pacific. Soon he meets up with an English trader (remember we are in the era of imperialism) who was come on hard times. Morrison's brig has been impounded in Delli, a city in East Timor, by some shady Portuguese customs officials and unless he can pay the fines, Morrison is going to lose his ship. The fine is ridiculously small, and the Portuguese are just trying to get his boat for cheap. Everyone knows Morrison is broke because he trades with the natives for credit, always vowing to squeeze the native villages "next time." Morrison, all hang-dog, meets up with Heyst and Heyst, in a decision he doesn't even reflect on, offers to loan Morrison the money. Heyst realizes that he isn't going to see any money back, and Morrison is so thankful for Heyst's miracle act of salvation that he acts with super/hyper gratefulness to Heyst. They have quite a scene on board the ship and in order to get Morrison to stop crying, and to get the relationship a little more balanced, Heyst and Morrison decide to team up on a coal mining operation on the island of Samburan. They find backers, set up operations, and even manage to get a little coal out of the island. Morrison goes home to England to get some more backers, but while he is there catches a bad cold and dies. The news gets back to Sourabaya, the headquarters for the white traders in the book, and the hotel manager, this German named Schomberg, begins gossiping about Heyst and how he managed to get Morrison's money and send him back to England to die. All he does all day is work on Heyst and how the Swede manipulated Morrison, etc. He's a bully.

In Book 2 Heyst appears at Schomberg's hotel. Since Morrison died the coal mining operation has been liquidated and Heyst has been living on Samburan by himself, which everyone in Sourabaya thinks is weird, especially Schomberg, of course. Schomberg hates Heyst for some reason, and has got himself into the habit of turning every tidbit about Heyst into something terrible and revealing Heyst as a devil/user/manipulator/etc. Most of the traders staying at the hotel are content to leave the business in the past, but Schomberg keeps the Heyst/Morrison scandal in everyone's ear.

As entertainment, Schomberg has hired the Zangiacomo Ladies Orchestra. Heyst comes in and is basically swept away by one of the girls, Alma. Of course the girl is also Schomberg's favorite, too. She is a lost soul, and grew up poor in England. When her father was put in the invalid home she shipped off with the music tour. She has no idea where on the globe she is and has basically died inside. Until she meets Heyst, who decides to "steal" her from the orchestra. Unfortunately for Heyst, the girl is Schomberg's new toy - he hasn't tried anything yet, but the pressure has been building, and the time for Schomberg to make his move is nigh. And, unfortunately for Schomberg, he is married to a woman who Conrad's narrator describes as, "the most unattractive object in existence - miserable, insignificant, faded, crushed, old." And this is one of the flattering descriptions of her. So when Heyst steals her, Schomberg doesn't even have a good case for being usurped. Heyst and Alma get away to Samburan, Heyst's old coal mining headquarters.

In Book 3, two strangers show up at Schomberg's hotel. Almost immediately they get hold of Schomberg and set up a illegal gambling operation in the dance hall where the Ladies Orchestra used to play. Schomberg is beside himself with misery: a terrible wife, would-be girlfriend stolen (by the abominable Heyst no less!), and these two hooligans bullying him and running his hotel. And no end in sight to any of his misery.

Book 4 is set up when Schomberg gets the ear of one of the bandits and describes the riches that Heyst must have hidden on his island hideaway. I'm not even going to speak about the conclusion. Even the back cover gives too much away.

Critics, or so says the editor's introduction, consider Victory to be Conrad's worst book. It was the first book he wrote after his first big commercial success, the novel Chance, and they feel like it was a bit too commercial for an artist like Conrad. But even the editor confesses that the major critics admit that Victory has "great aesthetic and intellectual value."

Bob Dylan so loved the book he put a picture of Joseph Conrad on the back of the album cover for Desire and wrote a song titled Black Diamond Bay which is the name of the bay on Samburan where Morrison and Heyst planned to have their coal operation. The lyrics have nothing to do with the book, so don't try to glean anything from the song.

The book was awesome! The scene when Heyst saves Morrison is described so well and so cleanly I feel lucky to be alive to have read it. The scene when Heyst and Alma meet is described so well and so cleanly I feel lucky to be alive to have read it. The ruffians who take over Schomberg's hotel are described so well and so cleanly I feel lucky to be alive to have read about them (it's a study in creating NPCs). And the conclusion of the novel is plotted and described so well and so cleanly I feel lucky to be alive to have read it. I'm not kidding.

No comments: