Terrorist bombings, culture clash, the immigrant experience, Russian interference in domestic affairs.
These topics, seemingly pulled from today’s headlines, were also the focus of a writer who got his start more than 120 years ago.
Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski — better known to the world as Joseph Conrad — spent two decades of his adulthood as an itinerant mariner before he became a professional writer. Born to Polish parents in Russian-controlled Ukraine in 1857, he grew up with a nationalist sense of pride but no country to call his own. (Poland ceased existing as a sovereign nation in 1795 and didn’t reappear on the map until after World War I.) His parents, devoted to the Polish nationalist cause, suffered political persecutions that destroyed their health. Both were dead by the time Conrad was 12.
By age 20, after several years at sea, Conrad joined the British merchant marine and began to ply trade routes between locales that would turn up in his fiction. Most notable was the Malay Archipelago, the setting for half a dozen major Conrad works, including “Lord Jim.”
As historian Maya Jasanoff vividly shows in her new book, “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World,” Conrad was alert to the brutal side of imperialism, the Western exploitation of Third World resources, and the quixotic nature of Europeans who abandoned their own societies to reinvent themselves in backwaters thousands of miles from home.
“From the deck of a ship,” Jasanoff says, “Conrad watched the emergence of the globally interrelated world.”
“The Dawn Watch” delivers only minimal detail on Conrad’s literary friendships and writing career. Instead, it takes a deep look at the way his unsettled childhood and maritime travels shaped four of his masterpieces: “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord Jim,” “Nostromo,” and “The Secret Agent.” Jasanoff acknowledges that some aspects of Conrad’s writing haven’t weathered well, including an over-reliance on racial/ethnic stereotypes and a shortage of “plausible female characters” (perhaps no surprise in a man who lived so much in male company).
“Often enough,” she admits, “I’ve questioned my own attachment to this dead white man, perpetually depressed, incorrigibly cynical, alarmingly prejudiced by the standards of today.”
Still, she finds him an essential cultural touchstone: “Whether I agreed with Conrad or not, I always found his company worthwhile. He brought to the page a more international and multiethnic assortment of voices than any other writer of his day that I knew. . . . He was unafraid to reject truisms and call out exploitation, tyranny, and cant where he saw them.”
Moreover, many of the issues his fiction addressed have striking resonance today. Sometimes the parallels between his world and ours can seem uncanny.
“The Secret Agent,” published in 1907 but set in the 1880s, is a case in point. As Jasanoff notes, Britain in the mid-19th century was a political-asylum nation with “no restrictions on who could come into the country: no passports or visas required, no need to prove that you had means of support.”
That began to change after a wave of “dynamite outrages” perpetrated by Irish nationalists targeted military barracks, the London Underground, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, the House of Commons, and the offices of The Times. Anarchist publications applauded the attacks and anti-immigration activists, fearing an “alien invasion” of the city, soon wanted to restrict refugees — particularly Jewish émigrés from the Russian empire — from entering Britain. “They claimed (contrary to statistics) that immigrants lowered wages, raised rents, and introduced vice and crime.” The parallels to present-day immigration debates couldn’t feel more direct.
Jasanoff also reminds us that the bomb-plot coordinator in “The Secret Agent” is an agent provocateur taking his orders from the Russian embassy. This may not be cyber warfare — but it’s still an autocratic foreign power attempting to destabilize a democracy.
Jasanoff takes some fiction-like liberties with her scene-setting, although she carefully sources the basis for these colorful touches. Her summaries of the four novels can be awkward, too — especially when, with “Heart of Darkness,” she alternates between the facts of what Conrad experienced in the Congo and the fiction that resulted, using past-tense narration for both. A differentiation in tenses — past for fact, present for plot summary — would have been clearer.
That said, Jasanoff’s prose can be splendidly agile, as in this turn-on-a-dime summary of the workings of Conrad’s mind: “[T]he sense that force will crush ideals — and that ideals have victims — recurred throughout his writing.”
She’s just as sharp seeing through the racial bias sometimes attributed to Conrad: “The issue for Conrad wasn’t that ‘savages’ were inhuman. It was that any human could be a savage.”
Above all, she renders Conrad as a proto-citizen of our time, ever alert to the spirit of violation that’s inherent to so many cross-cultural contacts and clashes.
“Conrad wouldn’t have known the word ‘globalization,’ ” she notes, “but with his journey from the provinces of Imperial Russia across the high seas to the British home counties, he embodied it.”
THE DAWN WATCH:
Joseph Conrad in a Global World
By Maya Jasanoff
Penguin Press, 400 pp., $30Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.