Lord Jim

by Joseph Conrad

The first of Conrad’s books that I’ve read.  I was discussing this author with Pat Ranson recently, because The Secret Agent had been on TV.  I caught up with it on iPlayer after this conversation.  Pat told me that she had specialised, in the final year of her university English course, on late Victorian authors.  I asked her which ones and she said Conrad, and others whom I’m afraid I had only vaguely heard of and have since forgotten.  I confessed that I had never read anything by Conrad, and asked her where I should start.  I expected her to mention the novella, Heart of Darkness.  But she immediately suggested Lord Jim.

Well – it’s a long book, with a lot of description and speculation about characters’ motivation and mental states, particularly those of Jim himself.  The action is told by various third parties, in particular one Marlow, who, I understand, narrates other Conrad novels.  The later stages of the story are told to Marlow by eye witnesses, and relayed by Marlow to a member of the audience to whom he had told the earlier part of the story, apparently in one sitting.

Despite the fact that the story is told by different characters, there is really only one voice throughout the narration – that of Marlow.  He seems to be trying, all along, to understand Jim’s character, and to get to the bottom of the deep sense of shame that compels Jim to withdraw from ‘white’ society and start a new life with ‘native’ people in the fictional town of Patusan.  Patusan is generally understood to be somewhere in the Malaysian / Indonesian archipelago, and the people there are generally described as Malays or Bugis.

The early part of the action takes place on board the Patna, whose officers abandon the ship and its 800 pilgrim passengers to their fate.  Jim is first mate, and reluctantly and inexplicably (and, we are led to believe, against his character) jumps with the others into a lifeboat.  The five are rescued, and so, we discover, are the ship’s sailors and passengers – so that there is a huge number of witnesses to the event.  Jim stands trial while the other four manage to disappear.  He loses his certificate, and subsequently finds – through the agency of Marlow – a series of  white-collar jobs connected to sea-farina and trading, but at each one his past catches up with him, and he moves on.  His honest personality enable him to find willing sponsors at each stage of his career, and Marlow suspects that it is his own sense of honour that holds him back from making a successful career for himself.

I was gripped by the first part of the story, dealing as it does with seafaring, and in particular I was struck by how similar it seems to be to that life today.  True, the ships these days are diesel-powered, and not driven by steam or sail.  But the different roles on board, how they are performed and who by (officers all white; seamen all dark-skinned), and the code of conduct, seem very close to what I have gleaned from my son Simon’s experiences as a deck officer.

The middle part of the book describes Jim’s various job moves and his eventual adoption as the leader of the Patusan society, having quelled the infighting among the tribes and fallen in love with a young woman there.  I found this harder to get through.  The last three chapters (out of 45) are riveting and full of action.  Jim’s eventual fate has already been hinted at, and the last few chapters are gleaned from the accounts of survivors and witnesses of his tragic end: his lover Jewel and his loyal servant Tamb Itam.

I am glad that I stuck with the novel, but also quite glad I have come to its end.  I will read more by Conrad, and maybe go for a shorter book next time!  Having just read about the twenty-first century Congo in George Alagiah’s A Passage to Africa, I will probably move on to Heart of Darkness next.