The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 22 January 2018


by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad spent over nineteen years as a sailor and merchant mariner, years that spawned a lifetime of adventure stories. In this novella, we join the crew of the SS Nan-Shan a small steamer working the Far East trade in the opening years of the 20th century. It's captain MacWhirr is a dry Scotsman with a very literal turn of personality. Metaphor and stories are a bit outside his scope of understanding. He prefers straight talk and personal experience, so much so that when confronted by signs of an approaching hurricane, he refuses to steer the ship out of its path, claiming that nobody can know how bad a storm can be if you don't sail through it to begin with. The rest of the crew think Captain MacWhirr is pretty stupid, but he yet demonstrates a kind of Solomonic wisdom by the end of this tale.

MacWhirr, based on one of Conrad's real-life fellow sailors, is an interesting enough character, dry and laconic, but the story is seen mostly through the eyes of the first mate, Jukes. He is bemused, puzzled and resigned to his captain, and to the fate that faces the ship as it approaches the storm. Aboard is a small cargo, but mainly they're hauling a couple hundred Chinese laborers (coolies, as the old term goes) who are returning home from work abroad, ready to relax and count the dollars they've earned. This is an era of cultural elitism, of course, and the Chinese aren't treated as equal members of humanity. At first, they're sprawled on deck, roasting in the sun. Later, they're bound below, fighting over the spilled chests of earnings and panicking in the storm. MacWhirr consults his sailing manuals, having never faced a typhoon of this power. The long dark night that follows is given over to impossibly high waves, stalwart and panicked crew, and the battle of steam engine against ocean. It is dramatic, adventuresome and punctuated by moments of dry humor and observant wit. It is the women left behind, and faraway correspondents, with whom we look back on the story, once the typhoon has passed. It is a short, action-packed adventure in the Chinese seas.

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Also by Conrad: [Lord Jim] [The Secret Agent]

See Also: [The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger]