Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first – I couldn’t quite work out the chronology at the start, and I’m not entirely sure that’s intentional. Also, this does have the appearance of being two books stapled together, which I think is alluded to in the epilogue. Finally, something that Conrad admits himself in the author’s note at the end – it does rather strain belief that the whole story is related in one evening after dinner. But it is fiction, so we’ll let that pass.
That out of the way, this is a really good book, dealing on the surface with the tribulations of Jim, a young English gentleman gone off with the merchant navy to seek his fortune and somewhat let down by a lack of intestinal fortitude in the middle of the Indian ocean, who then goes off to find redemption in the ports of the far east, fails, and then acheives something special on a tiny island somewhere, only to run into another spot of terminal bother. It delves into Jim’s psyche as he swings between the highs and lows and highlights the contrast between his own self-image (he believes he can deal with pretty much anything that’s likely to befall) and his actions (leaving a shipful of pilgrims in the hold to sink when their ship is crippled – an action that it takes forever to reveal, frustratingly). Who hasn’t done something they’re ashamed of and then rationalised their behaviour afterwards, after all.
It’s narrated by Marlow (who also plays Martin Sheen in Heart of Darkness, I discovered recently), although he only turns up a few chapters in, which is a bit confusing, but there we go. Quite how he understands so clearly what’s in Jim’s head isn’t explained, but he has spent a lot of time around young seamen (stop sniggering) so maybe that’s it.
But also, perhaps more, it’s a meditation on the weakness in the heart of the colonial project. Jim represents the British themselves, who will let down the people they are trying to improve, feel a bit guilty about it, do some good things and then let everyone down again. Until they get scragged by the natives. At which stage, end of project, although I don’t think Conrad quite predicts that. The book does get to what I think was the heart of colonialism, which was not exclusively about exploiting the material richness of the less advanced (and better-tanned) peoples of the world, but genuinely did want to improve their lot, and bring them up to the standard of a well-regarded underservant, or favourite horse. It’s shocking to see the accepted level of racism from only 108 years ago. It makes you wonder what the world might be like in another 108 years.
Most impressive for me, though, is an aspect of the writing which makes Conrad stand out from a lot of so-called classic authors – his capture of voice and character. Every person in the novel has their own voice, accent, phrases and interests. Together they weave together to provide a fully-rounded picture of the late 19th century far east company world.
Flashman in the Great Game – also deals with colonialism and uppity natives. Although Flashy escapes with his kin more or less intact.
Crime and Punishment – also deals with the effects of guilt on the mind of someone who believes himself to be something rather special.