Tuesday, 24 February 2004

An outcast of the islands

Listening to:

Andrew March, Marine—à travers les arbres. Winner of the Masterprize 1998 competition.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, An outcast of the islands.

This is Conrad’s second novel, and a prequel to his first, Almayer’s folly. It tells the story of the downfall of Willems, a Dutch clerk in the South-East Asian town of Macassar. Willems fancies himself quite rotten, but is actually without any real virtues. Given the chance to redeem himself, he always takes some other option. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that this is going to be the case, so the novel is really about watching how his gradual descent messes up the lives of the people around him. Standard Conradian good cheer, then.

The setting for most of the novel is the same as the setting for Almayer’s folly, an obscure Malaysian village, on an isolated river. Willems ends up there after his downfall begins in the colonial world of Macassar. He is supposed to be sitting things out before his benefactor and patron, Lingard, sorts things out for him. Unfortunately, Lingard’s return is delayed, and Willems goes a bit haywire. He is getting on badly with Lingard’s agent in the village, Almayer, and is exploited by a disaffected faction within the Malay political structure. All sorts of disruptive change ensues.

I liked the political intrigue side of things, and the lush writing about the jungle and its oppressiveness is also very effective. The love interest is reasonably sympathetic, but the woman’s character is not entirely believable. The love affair at the heart of Almayer’s folly, is more believable, more engaging, and more important to the overall plot. Here it’s just another opportunity for Willems to mess up someone else’s life.

Not top drawer Conrad, but flashes of great writing, and a reasonably engaging story.