A review copy of Joseph Conrad: The Dover Reader arrived before I finished Before the Party by W. Somerset Maugham. The Maugham short story describes the afternoon of a British family as they prepare to attend a garden party during which the chinese missions are to be discussed. Maugham contrasts some of the realities of colonialism with the very mannered preparations for the party, and so the mood was set to dip into the book which offers quite a bit of Conrad:
The Congo Diary
An Outpost of Progress
Heart of Darkness
Youth: A Narrative
An Anarchist: A Desperate Tale
The Secret Agent
The Secret Sharer
The Congo Diary is just a few pages and is basically just a sketchy outline of travel with a few details of the journey. That brought me to Almayer’s Folly for a reread.
Almayer’s Folly is Conrad’s first novel, so it’s fitting that it’s included in this anthology. It’s a flawed novel–certainly not perfect, but for Conrad fans, it’s well worth reading if only to fit the novel in the context of Conrad’s later, better work. In its conception, for this reader, the plot is perfect, but the execution is flawed. More of that later.
You can’t read books about colonialism without coming to the conclusion that it’s bad for everyone involved. Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, for example, set in the Belgian Congo, shows how the soldiers and officers in the jungle run amok with the natives. While the women are kidnapped, caged and raped, the soldiers have shed whatever humanity they possessed and become bestial. Colonialism says a lot about human nature, exploitation and what we become when removed from our society with its rules of behaviour. Almayer’s Folly, a tale of identity, displacement and greed, goes in a slightly different direction as the novel portrays a blend of cultures and the unfortunate outcome.
Almayer, born and raised in Java, is the son of Dutch parents. His father was a “subordinate official” and his mother “from the depths of her long easy-chair bewailed the lost glories of Amsterdam, where she had been brought up, and of her position as the daughter of a cigar dealer there.” As a young man with a good head for arithmetic, Almayer is employed in a trading warehouse in Macassar when he meets Tom Lingard, the so-called “King of the Sea,” a wealthy man whose bold adventures include tangles with pirates and the capture of a young girl found on a pirate vessel. Lingard adopted the girl, the pride of his existence, and shipped her off for a convent education in Java.
It’s rumoured that Lingard has discovered a river and that he uses this route in his business ventures, and this rumour, together with the fact that he adopted the child, have contributed to the myth and mystery that surround Lingard. Lingard employs Almayer as a captain’s clerk, but as it turns out, his real purpose in employing Almayer is to persuade him to marry his adopted daughter:
“And don’t you kick because you’re white!” he shouted, suddenly, not giving the surprised young man the time to say a word. “None of that with me! Nobody will see the colour of your wife’s skin. The dollars are too thick for that, I tell you! And mind you, they will be thicker yet before I die. There will be millions, Kaspar! Millions I say! And all for her–and for you, if you do what you are told.”
Startled by the unexpected proposal, Almayer hesitated, and remained silent for a minute. He was gifted with a strong and active imagination, and in that short space of time he saw, as in a flash of dazzling light, great piles of shining guilders, and realized all the possibilities of an opulent existence.
Almayer, thinking that “old Lingard would not live for ever,” agrees to marry to Malay girl.
in the far future gleamed like a fairy palace the big mansion in Amsterdam, that earthly paradise of his dreams, where, made king amongst men by old Lingard’s money, he would pass the evening of his days in inexpressible splendor. As to the other side of the picture–the companionship for life of a Malay girl, that legacy of a boatful of pirates–there was only within him a confused consciousness of shame that he a white man–Still, a convent education of four years!–and then she may mercifully die. He was always lucky, and money is powerful! Go through it. Why not? He had a vague idea of shutting her up somewhere, anywhere, out of his gorgeous future. Easy enough to dispose of a Malay woman, a slave, after all, to his Eastern mind, convent or no convent, ceremony or no ceremony.
This passage shows Almayer’s thought processes as he contemplates the wealth of Lingard weighed against a lifetime with Lingard’s adopted daughter. The dreams of wealth cloud his decision, so we don’t feel too sorry for Almayer when we fast forward and Almayer is very unhappily married to a wife who hates him.
The title Almayer’s Folly could refer to Almayer’s decision to base his life on an elusive future fortune, but it also refers quite literally to his dilapidated, unfinished house built on the Pantai River in expectation of the “big trade Almayer was going to develop,” while his father-in-law Lingard goes on a succession of expeditions, an “exploring craze,” to discover gold and diamonds in the interior.
Moving to the present, Almayer is a broken man whose hopes of fortune are almost entirely extinguished. He’s terrified of his wife but loves his daughter, Nina. Nina was brought up in a Dutch household in Singapore, but she returns home when her race poses a problem for her caretaker. Circumstances reawaken Almayer’s ambition, but now he focuses on Nina’s future.
Almayer is a fascinating, well-drawn character. Born from Dutch parents, he identifies with a country he’s never visited, and yet even in this displacement, he dreams of returning to a country he does not know. Amsterdam assumes mythical stature in his head, but at the same time, having a Malay wife and a daughter of that marriage presents social problems which Almayer never tackles. Almayer’s wife, shipped off to a convent for four years came away only with superstition, a hatred of whites , and a sense of her rights, but it’s in the portrayal of Nina that some jarring, patronizing statements occur:
Her young mind having been unskillfully permitted to glance at better things, and then thrown back again into the hopeless quagmire of barbarism, full of strong and uncontrolled passions, had lost the power to discriminate. It seemed to Nina that there was no change and no difference. Whether they traded in brick godowns or on the muddy river band; whether they made love under the shadows of the great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on the Singapore promenade; whether they plotted for their own ends under the protection of laws and according to the rules of Christian conduct, or whether they sought gratification of their desires with the savage cunning and the unrestrained fierceness of natures as innocent of culture as their own immense and gloomy forests, Nina saw only the same manifestations of love and hate and of sordid greed chasing the uncertain dollar in all its manifestations and vanishing shapes. To her resolute nature, however after all these years, the savage and uncompromising sincerity of purpose shown by her Malay kinsmen seemed at last preferable to the sleek hypocrisy , to the polite disguise, to the virtuous pretences of such white people as she had had the misfortune to come in contact with.
Another problem with the novel is that there are many secondary characters who are mentioned but who never really take shape. Additionally the writing is occasionally sludgy and slow to plough through.
The novel offers a portrait of a displaced man with a skewed sense of identity who pins his life on the promise of an elusive fortune; he’s yet another man whose dreams and ambitions cause him to be swallowed up by the jungle. While Almayer’s life is a failure, his daughter, Nina, a product of two vastly different cultures, and rejected by white culture, claims her own destiny.
There’s a Chantal Ackerman film version of this. I tried it–couldn’t finish it.