Monday, 31 March 2014

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

A while ago I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Although I enjoyed the writing I did not like the story. Living in Belgium means that the Congo pops up regularly. I read an excellent account of the times there in King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. I must admit that Heart of Darkness I found rather confusing. Having read Lord Jim, which I loved, I might have to re-read Heart of Darkness. I will possibly see it in another light now.

The book is narrated by captain Marlow who was also the narrator and traveller to Congo in Heart of Darkness. Jim is a very conscience person and in the beginning of the book he looses his honour as a sea officer. Together with the rest of the crew, who are more or less on the downward run in life, he leaves the boat (more or less on the command of the captain) with 800 pilgrims aboard. Jim was set to try to save the people but the fear makes him paralysed. When the crew finally make it back to harbour a trial is awaiting them. All except Jim disappears so he is alone to face the judges. The boat with the pilgrims is miraculously saved, but that does not make the action of the crew less forgiven. In connection with the trial he meets Marlow and they relate to each other and Jim tells him what actually happened. Marlow somehow likes him and try to help him find another job since he can not work as a crew after the incident. The story follows Jim through Marlow. They run into each other here and there but Jim seems never to come over what has happened. As soon as somebody finds out who he is he travels on.

Finally, he gets a job deep inside the jungle on an island. There are local tribes fighting each other. He is seen almost as a magic person and he manages to end the wars so they can all live in peace. This is far away from anywhere, but Jim feels that he has finally found a place where he can stay, keep his demons at bay and do something good for the people there. This is not a book with a 'live happily forever after' ending. There is always a snake in Paradise!  I will not reveal the ending. Conrad, as usual in his writing, is interested in the rights and wrongs of this world, and the fact that we should get to know ourselves. Why do we act as we do? Could we have done in another way? What can we do and still live with ourselves? These questions are analysed in the talks between Marlow and Jim.

The reason why I started this TBR book now is that in my present reading, non-fiction book, Spice, I ran into a reference to Lord Jim. In the story about the quest for spice in the 15th and 16th centuries the Portuguese went in search of the Moluccas. The expedition of three vessels found the Bandas, where they managed to fill the ships with nutmeg and mace. There was however, no room for cloves so one of the ships were left behind to carry on the search. It was lead by a Francisco Serrao who after various problems made it to Ternate in 1512. He formed an alliance with the local sultan and assisted him in their long, ongoing conflict with neighbouring Tidore. The writer Jack Turner refers to this man as the original Lord Jim. He married a local woman, built himself a small fort and trading post (it still stands it seems) and from there he regularly sent cloves back to Portugal. He remained there for the rest of his life.

However, if you turn to Wikipedia they have two other possible inspirations for Conrad. One Chief Mate of the Jeddah (ship) 'Austin' Podmore Williams whose ship had a similar accident as Jim's. He created a new life for himself, returning to Singapore and becoming a successful ship's chandler. His life is similar to the first part of Lord Jim's life. The second person which might have inspired the later part of Jim's life is James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak. He was an indian-born English adventurer who in the 1840s managed to gain power and create an independent state in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Some critics, however, think that the fictional Patusan would be situated in Sumatra rather than Borneo.

Maybe now it is time to go on to another Conrad novel?

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