Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Book review: the Nigger of the 'Narcissus'

Ze Nigger of zer 'Narcissus', das ist ein Novella von Józef "Heart of Darkness" Konrad. And that's quite enough cod German, since he was born of Polish parents in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. As the wiki article says, Because of its quality compared to earlier works, some have described it as marking the start of Conrad's major, or middle, period; others have placed it as the best work of his early, or first, period or some such. I feel inclined to disagree; compared to HoD it is slight. Admittedly, so is almost everything else.

We begin in an Eastern port, Calcutta, a merchant ship finishing her crew and about to leave; two men in particular come to our attention: Donkin, a good-for-nothing sea-lawyer, and James Wait, an apparently hearty black, the eponymous Nigger of the title. Wiki makes much of the problems of the N-word; I'm somewhat curious as to how it would have been regarded when the book was written, in 1897. Wiki offers In the United States, the novel was first published under the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence by the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word "nigger" in its title, not because the word was deemed offensive, but because a book about a black man would not sell. Which is an interesting take. What I rather wondered, as I read slowly through JC's rather prolix prose, was "when would it become important that he was a nigger"? And the answer is: not at all. He could have been the Dago of the Dolphin or the Squarehead of the Sea Breeze to much the same effect. He is just a human being. Maybe that's the point?

So what happens is that Jimmy falls increasingly sick, and is eventually put in a deckhouse to recuperate. Wiki says he has tuberculosis, and this may be so, but in the book it is not made clear if he is really sick or just malingering; at least, not until he dies of it near the end. And much of the book is taken up with the seamen's reacting to this; and descriptions of what they think; and so on. Which I didn't find very interesting.

Alternatively, the book is a record of a passage from India to London, with a ship-on-her-beam-ends in a storm off the Cape thrown in; but somehow this bit isn't told very well; it is all too static. As a sea-tale it falls a little flat to me. Maybe I'm spoilt by Patrick O'Brien.

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