THE DAWN WATCH
Joseph Conrad in a Global World
By Maya Jasanoff
Illustrated. 375 pp. Penguin Press. $30.
In her fascinating book, “The Dawn Watch,” the Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff offers detailed background on the evolution of Conrad’s books, describing how each was a sort of reckoning with Western conquest and advancing globalization. We learn, for example, that “Nostromo” was written as Conrad delved into the oral and written sources about the “liberation” of Latin America that often ended in Western-backed dictatorship. As he was writing, he was taking in news of the crisis over the Panama Canal, an episode of political and military manipulation in which America emerged as a new, wily imperial power. In other words, Conrad and García Márquez were drawing from the same well of post-colonial Latin American history.
The Conrad who was able to imagine Kurtz in this way is often obscured by Marlow, Conrad’s literary alter ego. In “The Dawn Watch,” Jasanoff goes behind the mask and, like Stanley in search of Livingstone, or Marlow in search of Kurtz, sets out to find the elusive Conrad by tracing the physical, historical, biographical and literary footsteps of the writer. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in a Poland then under the thumb of czarist Russia and to parents engrossed in the struggle for independence, he later becomes a homeless traveler of the oceans, and eventually ended up as Joseph Conrad, an English-speaking citizen of the most global of the European capitalist empires of the time. Jasanoff returns Conrad to all of these contexts, understanding what impact they had on his novels.
In the process, she becomes a detective piecing together the incidents big and small that formed classics like “Lord Jim,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Under Western Eyes” and “Nostromo.” She helps us make sense of the seeming contradictory decision on Conrad’s part to write about the effect of empire but never set his novels in any of the colonial possessions of his adopted homeland, Britain, letting their actions unfold in mostly Dutch, Belgian and Spanish colonies.
And yet he remains one of us, a literary brother to Achebe. As Jasanoff reminds us, Conrad and his family were victims of the Russian Empire. Achebe and his people were victims of a Western empire. Both writers embraced English; Achebe talks of it as a gift which he intended to use. Jasanoff describes an incident in which Conrad, after delivering the manuscript of “Under Western Eyes,” broke down, becoming delirious and mumbling to himself in Polish for weeks. It wasn’t the manuscript that triggered this collapse but rather a heated exchange with his agent in which, as Conrad later reminded him, ”You told me that ‘I did not speak English’ to you.”
This Conrad may have looked at imperialism through the eyes of both a deracinated Polish nationalist and of a grateful member of the British Empire. His art, which he defined as the capacity to make readers hear, feel and see, was able to capture the contradictions within empires and the resistance to them.
This is the Conrad who comes alive in Jasanoff’s masterful study. “The Dawn Watch” will become a creative companion to all students of his work. It has made me want to re-establish connections with the Conrad whose written sentences once inspired in me the same joy as a musical phrase.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of “Birth of a Dream Weaver.”