Monday, August 20, 2012

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Promises more than it delivers
Victory is a novel by Joseph Conrad, first published in 1915, that takes place among the islands of Indonesia. Though subtitled “An Island Tale,’ the tropical setting is largely irrelevant, only serving to provide a remote island location for the action to take place, where danger is magnified by isolation. Axel Heyst, a failed businessman turned mysterious hermit, lives a solitary existence on a remote isle, amid the ruins of his defunct mining company. On a business trip to Surabaya, he meets Lena, a young musician in a women’s orchestra performing at his hotel. Lena’s position in the orchestra amounts to little more than indentured servitude, and her virtue is threatened by the amorous intentions of the hotel keeper, who already harbors a strong but unfounded dislike for Heyst. Heyst rescues Lena from her oppressive situation and whisks her off to his island where they fall in love. But when three dangerous criminals show up on the island, their idyll is violated, their lives are threatened, and their love for one another is tested.

At the heart of Victory is a thrilling tale of romance and adventure. Unfortunately, the story is undermined by Conrad’s stylistic choices in the telling of it. Conrad switches narrative voice from first to third person, changes perspective from one character to another, and jumps around chronologically, jumbling the sequence of events. All this literary gymnastics seems an unnecessary attempt to add structural complexity to an otherwise simple and straightforward plot. Psychological complexity, on the other hand, is where Conrad truly excels. The characters are vividly drawn and quite memorable, with realistic motivations. Heyst seeks to withdraw himself from human concerns and resign himself to fate, but ultimately love forces him to reclaim his humanity and challenge his destiny. With the coming of the intruders, Lena, having had little control over her mostly unfortunate life, finds herself for the first time in a position to take some command over her own fate, a position she finds liberating despite the danger. The three desperadoes who seek to prey upon the lovers are deliciously creepy characters. In Conrad’s day they must have been quite shocking, and even now, almost a hundred years later, they are as chilling as any of the villains in today”s movies. There are some moments of gripping suspense in this novel that rival any of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Overall, however, Conrad’s constant examination in minutiae of each character’s every movement, thought, and feeling greatly hinders the momentum of what could have been a taut thriller. The story would have been better served by more action and dialogue, with fewer interior monologues and soliloquies. Ultimately the psycho-philosophical novel and the noir thriller both contained within these pages compete with one another and cancel each other out. The book ends up amounting to a long, drawn-out buildup to a brief and far from satisfying ending. Despite its keen insights into human nature, Victory leaves the reader feeling he has invested his time in a mediocre work by an exceptional author.

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