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Victory: An Island Tale- Joseph Conrad



Posted August 14, 2016 by

Victory: An Island Tale – Joseph Conrad – 1915


Reviewed by: Dave         Date: 5 December 2001

 This is an exquisite novel. The bulk of the story takes place on the near-deserted Indonesian island of Samburan, where Axel Heyst, the reclusive Swede, has chosen to make his hermitage. In an important vignette about midway through the novel Conrad lets us in on the origin of Heyst’s cynical and disillusioned attitude toward life. Here, as his father lies dying, Heyst asks for some final guidance, some final advice about life. His father tells him that all people are pitiful, and “you… if you are anything, are as pitiful as the rest.” “What is one to do then?” asks Heyst. “Look on – make no sound” were his father’s last words to him. This profoundly affected Heyst, and stayed with him, and a fortnight later he started on his travels – “to look on and never make a sound”.


He leads a wandering life and avoids contact with others. Intimacy is foreign to him, but he has a truly magnanimous, altruistic heart, and one day on the island of Timor, he impulsively pays the fines for the captain of a trading ship (Morrison) and bails him out of certain financial ruin. As a result, Heyst is offered employment in a coal company, and when Morrison dies, Heyst becomes the owner. The company goes bankrupt, but rather than leave for greener… islands, Heyst decides to stay there with his servant, the “Chinaman” Wang.

On a neighboring island, a hotel keeper by the name of Schomburg begins to circulate rumors about “the Swede”, rumors that include blaming Heyst for the untimely death of Morrison. Heyst, (completely unaware of Schomburg’s malicious hatred) makes a rare visit to the hotel, and while staying there, he is again moved to action by his sensitivity and altruism. This time, he becomes involved in the troubled life of one of the showgirls, a violinist by the name of Alma (Heyst changes her name later to Lena). He rescues her from the loathsome Schomburg’s amorous intentions, and carries her off to his island. This infuriates the already hateful hotel keeper, and soon a wandering trio of deperadoes provide the perfect means for murderous revenge. Under the unfounded pretense that Heyst has hidden vast stores of loot on his island, Schomburg convinces these three thugs to invade Samburan, capture their due reward, and return the girl to Schomburg. What follows is an intense psychological/physical battle of wits and bodies. The scoundrels are armed and accustomed to shedding blood, while Heyst and Lena are completely unarmed and defenceless. When Lena is alone and suddenly confronted by one of the villains, she feigns sympathy for their plan, and begins to work a duplicity that even Heyst is unaware of. She takes it upon herself to divest the villainous Ricardo of his weapon. She becomes the sacrificial heroine… working a very, VERY bittersweet “victory”. To say more is to say too much… I’m sure Conrad would visibly cringe to find that modern readers knew about the last chapter before reading the first.

In many ways Victory ends up being a love story. A story of a developing love… that was horribly infringed upon, invaded! Brutal as Romeo and Juliet. It is beautiful how the devotion, charm and innocence of Lena was slowly plowing up the fallow ground of Heyst’s long-forgotten heart. The narrator Davidson tells us that one of the last things Heyst had ever said to him were… “Ah Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put its trust in life!” This, from the man who had made it his life’s mission to avoid all such feeling.

I cannot imagine the sense of futility that would palpably descend upon anyone assigned to improve upon one of Conrad’s sentences, or (horrors) tighten up a paragraph. Thankfully, my only self-inflicted assignment is to read more of him.

ReadLit Team


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