Keith Otis Edwards
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle
Is this a racist novel? I am inclined to believe that it is, but not specifically because of the title.
With the obvious exception of Ayn Rand, whose books are not so much novels as they are polemics, almost all celebrated modern novelists seem to be of the leftist persuasion. From Émile Zola to Leo Tolstoy to Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis; and obviously George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos writing in sympathy with the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War; and just as obviously John Steinbeck's novel about refugees from the Dust Bowl; Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Saul Bellow; Dashiell Hammett was imprisoned for refusing to name communist sympathizers; James Baldwin, Philip Roth — the list could go on for pages, and I'm straining to come up with even a few right-wing authors: Willa Cather wrote a perfectly awful jingoistic novel about the glory and fulfillment of dying in battle for one's fatherland, but now we must stoop to the lower shelves for conservative authors: Robert Heinlein was a libertarian who coined the maxim "An armed society is a polite society"; James T. Farrell denounced those who protested against the war in Vietnam; then there's Tom Clancy, and do you want to go as low as Mickey Spillane?
I mention this because in the books I've read by Joseph Conrad, especially this one, he is not particularly sympathetic to the worker bees, the proletariate. The seamen depicted in this novel are uniformly ignorant, deceitful and greedy. The title character reveals himself to be a malingerer, and he privately confesses that on a previous voyage on another ship, he succeeded in getting paid for the voyage without doing any work. This character, named James Wait, is pointedly portrayed as a native of the West Indies, a culture then noted for its indolence. (In his autobiography the late prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, remarked of his tour of Jamaica, "Theirs was a relaxed culture. The people were full of song and dance, spoke eloquently, danced vigorously, and drank copiously. Hard work they had left behind with the whip.") Conrad chooses this character as a sort of avatar for shirking and getting something for nothing. No wonder the crew is atypically attracted to this man of color. They show scant camaraderie to one another; they despise the captain to the brink of mutiny, but they go to great lengths to nurse and feed Jimmy Wait (who has his own secret cache of biscuits). Their one show of bravery is to rescue him from a flooded cabin when the ship begins to founder during a gale.
The ship's command are given smaller roles, but the contrast could not be more obvious. The captain and his subordinates are depicted as fair and tolerant, except for the case of Jimmy Wait, whom they immediately recognize as being a malingerer. They confine him to a cabin, and because they don't plan on paying him, and they refuse his services when he suddenly proclaims himself fit enough to work.
I read novels by Conrad in my youth, because I enjoyed the harrowing tales of adventure on the high seas, but I did not grasp the social aspect of his work. The real drama of this story is, Who is right? The command or the crew? Is Jimmy Wait shamming his disease or is he genuinely ill? (No spoilers here!)
This novel was written during a surge in populism, simultaneous to when William Jennings Bryan made his celebrated speech, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." But unlike the other celebrated authors named above, Conrad did not conform to the zeitgeist. He would later deal with radicalism (anarchism) in The Secret Agent, but this story is a microcosm — the ship is a petri dish for us to examine. It's obvious that the seamen are incapable of fending for themselves, and after the gale, the captain takes charge and saves the ship. In return, the men show no gratitude. The captain is attacked in a cowardly manner.
What exactly do the men want? Well, what do the populists of today want? Yes, they want more, but the grievance of today, as in Conrad's time, is not so much privation as envy. It wouldn't be so bad that "the people" aren't getting enough, if only Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros had less. That would be justice.
Am I reading too much into this tale of the high seas? Well, don't take my word for it; here is how Conrad ends the novel after one of the crew leaves the ship:
And Donkin, who never did a decent day's work in his life, no doubt earns his living
by discoursing with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live.