Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lord Jim

When I was a teen, I saw the movie (1965 Columbia Pictures), and while at the time I did not get the gist of the story, I remembered enough so that when a used copy of the book fell into my lap, I picked it up with interest.

An immediate aspect of the written story is the complexity of the vocabulary. English was actually Conrad’s third language and he shows off a mastery profoundly more articulate than my peers. While there is little doubt that electronic communications have reduced our society’s articulations to the level of tweets and grunts of the forest, this is still an impressive work if for this reason alone. My vocabulary may be more extensive than most yet I found myself reaching for my dictionary every two or three pages. I was furthermore fascinated with the characters’ conversations, for in marked opposition to contemporary constant shouting competition to shock and awe our colleagues, the meat of their utterances is almost always drowned in delicate, savory sauces to the point where only the most intensive attention can perceive it at all.

Other reviewers make a note that Conrad fractures time as well and tells the tale through the eyes and mouths of several characters at differing occasions. By this artifice no simple, straightforward view of Jim emerges but rather a collage or mural.

Conrad weaves an interesting tale set in the colonial backdrop of the maritime West Indies and old Siam. Basically there are only three or four events to make up the plot and around which to build the character descriptions of the major participants. The central theme of the book is the unveiling of the personality of the central figure, Jim, or Lord Jim.

A quick skim of the predominant critical opinions turns up no mention whatever of what I find to be glaring and fascinating about Jim’s adventures and his approach. Perhaps a recent confrontation with Albert Camus’ scalpel in the hand of the protagonist of “The Fall” affected my point of view. Jim’s abandonment of the pilgrims of the Patna, his heroism and rise to Lordship in the struggle with the hilltop raiders of Patusan, and his final act of contrition, reminded me overmuch of the story of Jesus. It strikes me now as pertinent that both stories are told from a variety of voices, times and points of view.

As Camus abjectly points out, Jesus must have known that He was the sole survivor among his peers of Bethlehem, and might reasonably have carried a terrible psychic burden in a sense of responsibility. Conrad goes into exquisite detail in describing Jim’s similar burden after his inexplicable flight from the Patna. Jesus’ sermon on the mount, his subsequent persuading of the crowds to feed each other with their spare provisions and assorted other miracles and wise teachings, parallel Jim’s fabulous success with the ornamental six-pounders and the element of surprise on the mounts over Patusan. And Jim's adamant refusals to defend and rescue himself from narrow, self-serving accusation is exactly similar to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

I come to the end of the book admiring, respecting, honoring, almost loving Jim, notwithstanding all the crowd of deviants, miscreants, and mudfaced maggots who circled about him throughout the book.