Thursday, July 23, 2015

Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

A great author’s mediocre debut
Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was originally published in 1895. The title character, Kaspar Almayer, is a Dutchman who ventures into Borneo as the representative of a trading company. For many years he is the only white man residing at Sambir, a village on the eastern coast of the island. Almayer dreams of discovering a rich gold mine, but all his expeditions toward this end prove fruitless. His mentor, Captain Lingard, adopted a young native girl, the daughter of Malay pirates who were killed in a sea battle. In a business arrangement, Lingard offers the girl to young Almayer as a bride, establishing his new son-in-law as heir to all his enterprises. The Almayers’ marriage is a loveless one. Mrs. Almayer despises her husband for his failures and distrusts his white man’s ways. The one good thing to come from this union is a daughter, Nina, who turns out to be the one thing, other than his dreams of gold, that Almayer truly loves. As the half-caste girl matures into a beautiful young woman, her two parents battle over her future. The father wishes to make a European lady out of her, while the mother wants to raise her according to the Malay traditions of her ancestors.

Almayer’s Folly is a difficult story to get into. The main characters are engaging enough, but Conrad throws in a disorienting supporting cast. There’s a lot of scheming going on, and it’s difficult to keep track of who’s working for whom and what each party is after. Also adding to the difficulty is the fact that Conrad seems to value description over storytelling. His work in general, and this novel in particular, is an odd hybrid of the exotic locales and island adventures one might find in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson with the more sensitive, impressionistic realism of a Henry James. Much like Rudyard Kipling, Conrad goes to great lengths to establish the atmosphere of his exotic settings, incorporating lots of local color, foreign-language terms, and native slang. Rather than involving the reader in the story, however, all this ambience only manages to obscure the narrative and prevent the reader from caring about the characters. The details presented here of East Indies history and politics, however authentic they may be, are more confusing than interesting. Meanwhile, Conrad’s lengthy descriptions of facial expressions or clouds in the sky become tedious and only serve to distract the reader from the fundamental human drama of Almayer’s relationship with his daughter. There are some truly memorable moments in Almayer’s Folly, but one feels like he has to slog through too much unnecessary and forgettable verbiage in order to find them.

This is the first work in what is known as Conrad’s “Malay trilogy,” with An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue being the second and third books, respectively. I’m not sure how closely related those other two books are to this one, but reading Almayer’s Folly doesn’t make me want to follow through and find out. Thankfully, Conrad was a prolific author, and he certainly has better works in his catalog than this. Unless you’re a true Conrad aficionado, stick with his greatest hits—Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Victory—and steer clear of this inauspicious debut.
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