'In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco -the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity-had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo.' This is the euphonious opening sentence to Joseph Conrad's Nostromo (its rhythm reminds me of the famous declaration at the start of The Adventures of Augie March “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”)
Conrad spends the whole of the first chapter describing the landscape of Sulaco and the Golfo Placido: scene setting, yes, but also a sign that this novel's ambition includes the creation of a completely believable South American country in all its details. Here, for example, is Conrad's first mention of the Cordillera - mountains which have isolated Sulaco from the effects of Civil War until the turbulent events of the novel:
'On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes. Before them the head of the calm gulf is filled on most days of the year by a great body of motionless and opaque clouds. On the rare clear mornings another shadow is cast upon the sweep of the gulf. The dawn breaks high behind the towering and serrated wall of the Cordillera, a clear-cut vision of dark peaks rearing their steep slopes on a lofty pedestal of forest rising from the very edge of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormous rocks sprinkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow.'
The landscape in this first chapter will impact on the narrative and, literally in the case of the Cordellera, cast a shadow on Nostromo's characters. Conrad describes the political struggle for this territory, the transformation brought about by foreign capital and the coming of the railway, and the exploitation of its natural resources in the form of the increasingly productive silver mine. But like a Turner history painting it also registers the fleeting effects of sunlight and atmosphere: clouds are often described and the novel begins with a quotation from Shakespeare, "So foul a sky clears not without a storm."
At one key point in the novel, the landscape disappears altogether, as Decoud and Nostromo try to spirit away the mine's silver in a small boat in the misty silence of night: 'A great recrudescence of obscurity embraced the boat. The sea in the gulf was as black as the clouds above. Nostromo, after striking a couple of matches to get a glimpse of the boat-compass he had with him in the lighter, steered by the feel of the wind on his cheek. It was a new experience for Decoud, this mysteriousness of the great waters spread out strangely smooth, as if their restlessness had been crushed by the weight of that dense night...'
The novel actually contains a landscape painting - a vision of the country before the mine was developed, captured by the wife of the mine administrator, Charles Gould. 'The waterfall existed no longer. The tree-ferns that had luxuriated in its spray had died around the dried-up pool, and the high ravine was only a big trench half filled up with the refuse of excavations and tailings. The torrent, dammed up above, sent its water rushing along the open flumes of scooped tree trunks striding on trestle-legs to the turbines working the stamps on the lower plateau--the mesa grande of the San Tome mountain. Only the memory of the waterfall, with its amazing fernery, like a hanging garden above the rocks of the gorge, was preserved in Mrs. Gould's water-colour sketch; she had made it hastily one day from a cleared patch in the bushes, sitting in the shade of a roof of straw erected for her on three rough poles under Don Pepe's direction.'
It is like a description of Eden - a comparison made explicit when Mrs Gould looks at the landscape visible now only in this watercolour:
"Ah, if we had left it alone, Charley!"
"No," Charles Gould said, moodily; "it was impossible to leave it alone."
"Perhaps it was impossible," Mrs. Gould admitted, slowly. Her lips quivered a little, but she smiled with an air of dainty bravado. "We have disturbed a good many snakes in that Paradise, Charley, haven't we?"