Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"An Outpost of Progress" (1897)

Read story by Joseph Conrad online.

Joseph Conrad has typically been tough for me to read. He can be ponderous, and in many ways, perhaps, this story shows the problems. The first paragraph alone covers most of the first two pages. But the story is on the long side for a short story, nearly 30 pages, which allows space to set a narrative rhythm that slowly but surely becomes riveting. It's set in colonial Africa, where two white European men, Kayerts and Carlier, have just been delivered to the outpost of progress in the title, an isolated fortification on a river, in a jungle, 300 miles away from the nearest office of the company that has installed them there. Though the story stays close to these two men at the outpost, the omniscient narrator occasionally shifts away to provide helpful information. Kayerts and Carlier are there for the sake of their careers and have little interest in Africa or the natives beyond what they need to minimally meet their duties. They don't do much. They talk to one another a lot. They discover literature. A third company official, described by Conrad in his blunt and dated manner as "a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price," is more the one running things there. Late in the story, after Kayerts and Carlier have been there five months and are expecting to see again soon their company official superior, who originally accompanied them there, things take a dark turn. Armed revolutionaries show up and stalk around the camp. Price—whose real name is Makola—meets with them and keeps Kayerts and Carlier out of the talks. From there, things begin to go wrong in bad ways quickly. It's a story we've known for some time, which is that little good comes of powerful white Europeans put in charge of natives in foreign lands. Conrad's story takes time to get up to full speed, but its power becomes immense. It goes in many directions at once, like a bomb exploding, and with shrapnel too. It's remarkable. Conrad's universe is a uniquely bleak place, and this story (which he considered his best) is a clinic in how he does it, starting with those long, long paragraphs that transport you inexorably to the interior.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

No comments:

Post a Comment