Monday, 4 June 2018

Victory: An Island Tale by Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s favourite theory of morality is privative. The being of the good attracts the forces of nihilism who will eliminate and void it. Despite the grand guignol, the horror, the horror and the spatter of purple prose he can portray genuine evil and psychopathology. Ordinary people of good character, living on the moral inheritance of decency will be as chaff before a storm. Axel Heyst is the son of a philosopher and a Swedish baron and a drifter amongst the islands which ‘enchant’ him. This is a tale of those islands, Borneo, Timor, Sumatra, Java, The Celebes: Lord Jim country. Axel is drifting and aloof from the colonial world of merchant trading and exploitation. In philosophical terms he alternates between being ‘Enchanted’ Heyst and ‘Hard Facts’ Heyst, the Continental and the Analytic as it were. This changes when he rescues Captain Morrison from the clutches of Portugee customs men who have impounded his boat on the pretext of unpaid fees. He pays the fee, the boat is released and in return Morrison brings Heyst with him on his trading trips which are not very profitable due to his kind foregiving of debts. Together they form a plan to set up a series of coaling stations on islands with mines. We are at the point in shipping history when sail is being supplanted. Naturally this good plan fails and Heyst now has withdrawn to Samburan with his father’s books and favourite furniture that had been in storage for 14 years.

From the first he had selected Samburan, or Round Island, for the central station. Some copies of the prospectus issued in Europe, having found their way out East, were passed from hand to hand. We greatly admired the map which accompanied them for the edification of the shareholders. On it Samburan was represented as the central spot of the Eastern Hemisphere with its name engraved in enormous capitals. Heavy lines radiated from it in all directions through the tropics, figuring a mysterious and effective star—lines of influence or lines of distance, or something of that sort. Company promoters have an imagination of their own. There's no more romantic temperament on earth than the temperament of a company promoter. Engineers came out, coolies were imported, bungalows were put up on Samburan, a gallery driven into the hillside, and actually some coal got out.

On one of his trips away from Samburan to Sourabaya he rescues Lena from Schomberg a hotel keeper who wants to make her his mistress. She is a young member of a travelling ladies orchestra on a tour of the East Indies. He brings her back to Samburan to live with him in the company bungalow in a clearing in the jungle. They are attended by Wang a Chinese coolie who has settled down with a native woman. He acts as butler, houseboy, general yard man and insclutable music hall turn:

Wang immediately appeared in front, and, squatting on his heels, began to potter mysteriously about some plants at the foot of the veranda. When Heyst and the girl came out again, the Chinaman had gone in his peculiar manner, which suggested vanishing out of existence rather than out of sight, a process of evaporation rather than of movement. They descended the steps, looking at each other, and started off smartly across the cleared ground; but they were not ten yards away when, without perceptible stir or sound, Wang materialized inside the empty room. The Chinaman stood still with roaming eyes, examining the walls as if for signs, for inscriptions; exploring the floor as if for pitfalls, for dropped coins. Then he cocked his head slightly at the profile of Heyst's father, pen in hand above a white sheet of paper on a crimson tablecloth; and, moving forward noiselessly, began to clear away the breakfast things.
Though he proceeded without haste, the unerring precision of his movements, the absolute soundlessness of the operation, gave it something of the quality of a conjuring trick. And, the trick having been performed, Wang vanished from the scene, to materialize presently in front of the house. He materialized walking away from it, with no visible or guessable intention; but at the end of some ten paces he stopped, made a half turn, and put his hand up to shade his eyes. The sun had topped the grey ridge of Samburan. The great morning shadow was gone; and far away in the devouring sunshine Wang was in time to see Number One and the woman, two remote white specks against the sombre line of the forest. In a moment they vanished. With the smallest display of action, Wang also vanished from the sunlight of the clearing.

Schomberg is furious and continues to spread vile gossip about Heyst. At this point the evil trio of Jones, Ricardo and Pedro enter and take up residence at the hotel. Their chief occupation there is gambling, cardsharping, and rooking the Dutchmen. They are also up for a little light murder and theft. Schomberg fears them and the trouble for his business so he sets them on Heyst and the supposed riches that he has on the island. He gives them a sail boat and sets them off supplied. Ricardo is an experienced sailor.

Heyst, his moral sense and active response enervated by perspective may not be the man for that trio. He is after all the son of a philosopher. By the way don’t read the author’s note at the start of the book unless you want judgements foisted on you. Read the book, it is much more than an exotic yarn.

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