21 November 2012
In this novella Captain McWhirr, from Belfast, is stolid, reliable, and almost terminally unimaginative. He’s risen to his current position precisely because of his stolid reliability, and his lack of imagination has never been an issue so far. In fact, as one or other of his crew-members says, it’s the passionate or driven captains who cause strife. Aboard McWhirr’s stolid, reliable steamer all is peace and harmony. His reliance entirely on facts and the evidence of whatever he can see before his eyes means there’s never any need to argue.
This is all established in Chapter 1, and we know where Conrad is going with it. Here, or early in Chapter 2, we discover his attitude to ‘dirty weather’ – and that he has never encountered any conditions that a reliable ship cannot simply sail through. As far as he is concerned, mariners’ talk of how cleverly they avoided a gale or a hurricane is just that, talk. How do they know it was bad if they avoided it? The fall in barometric pressure he’s noticed can’t possibly be a sign of anything worse than usual, because it never has been in the past. The unease of Jukes, the first mate, is something that McWhirr can live with. He doesn’t know he’s in a book called Typhoon.
But the reader does, and is constantly on the lookout for clues as to what’s likely to happen next. The ship is carrying over 100 Chinese migrant workers on their way back to China with all their earnings in boxes they keep beside them in their berths – not really berths at all, just floor-space – in the hold. The British crew-members are secure in their racial superiority over these ‘coolies’. Conrad uses this exact phrase in connection with Jukes, a perfectly capable seaman except for his total inability to relate in any way to foreigners: his mangling – Conrad uses the word – even of pidgin English is one of the story’s moments of bleak humour. Later, McWhirr is mystified when Jukes refers to them as ‘passengers’ in a failed attempt to make him take the threatening weather more seriously. I’m wondering whether the typhoon – it’s a Chinese word, after all – might be something that these ‘yellow-skinned’ and ‘almond-eyed’ men might cope with more successfully than the white men.
Long before the end of Chapter 2 we’ve had an other-worldly description of how awesome the coming storm really is in Jukes’ eyes:
‘The far-off blackness ahead of the ship was like another night, seen through the starry night of the earth, the starless night of the immensities beyond the created universe revealed in its appalling stillness through a low fissure in the glittering sphere of which the earth is the kernel.’
Even McWhirr is ruffled, although he shows no sign of it to Jukes. After the edge of the storm hits, however, when Jukes goes to rouse the captain in his cabin – where there’s an unprecedented rocking and lurching – he finds him studying a book of how to deal with storms. McWhirr has already scoffed at Jukes’ idea of turning into the swell heralding the storm – it would take them ’50 points’ off their course – and now he scoffs at the writer’s advice to point the ship directly away, to outrun it. He speaks of the ‘fantasy’ he is reading, continues justifying his own decision to ignore any warnings. Jukes realises he has never heard McWhirr stringing so many sentences together in a single speech. What he doesn’t realise, Conrad tells us, is that what he has really been listening to is McWhirr’s ‘confession’. Oh dear.
I’m loving this, although I seem to be wrong about Conrad’s anti-racist intentions: the ‘coolies’ – routinely referred to as such by all the characters – have come adrift on their lower deck, along with their chests of silver dollars that have burst open. Now they are in the midst of what the senior members of the crew hope will not be a fight to the death.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Early in Chapter 3 the storm is worse than any of them expected, and Jukes remarks that ‘We must have got the worst of it at once, sir.’ As if. A paragraph later ‘the real thing came at last’ – and it’s ‘formidable and swift like the sudden smashing of a vial of wrath.’ But I can’t just string a load of quotations together or you might as well go and read the whole book. What we get is a long series of assorted and often deliberately disjointed similes to express how entirely disorientating the onset of the real storm feels. Conrad always describes it in terms of what it does to the men, not only physically – as when Jukes thinks he has been washed overboard – but psychologically. Early on it’s the storm’s ability to isolate every man from everyone else, and how it feels to each one of them, that makes it feel like a personal and vindictive assault.
And it’s as though Conrad wants to disorientate the reader as much as the crew members. Before anything much happens in terms of plot, the men’s experience is described almost in terms of their individual existential crises. Conrad focuses on Jukes, whose most coherent thought after being tossed about for a while consists of ‘My God! My God! My God! My God!’ He finds the captain, and each struggles against what seems like a malevolent force. Meanwhile, Conrad’s descriptions of the way the ship is tossed about are some of the most vivid I’ve ever read, contributing to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of callous nature.
Things do begin to happen on board. Jukes and McWhirr communicate, just, but the captain’s words are not comforting. His response to the loss of two lifeboats is ‘Can’t be helped…. What – can expect – when –’ and so on. Jukes is pretty soon convinced that the ship is doomed, and is surprised that he is able to remain calm at the prospect. Conrad, more seasoned than Jukes, who is a young man, knows that this is a classic case of the ‘numbness’ following such a great shock at sea. The captain puts his faith in Solomon Rout the engineer. Jukes misses most of what he says, but it’s as though he’s chanting articles of faith: ‘Keep on hammering … builders … good men…. And chance it … engines…. Rout … good man.’ There is never anywhere else for McWhirr to go but to the safe territory of his faith in what has always worked in the past.
Another man joins them, the boatswain. He’s the one who tells them about what has happened to the Chinese passengers. McWhirr, for no reason that anyone can fathom, tells Jukes to check on them, and he goes down. On the way, wedged into an alley in the dark, are most of the crew. On the lower deck the Chinese are being thrown back and forth like a loose cargo. Each man is determined to fight for whatever money he thinks is his from the open chests. Whichever of them started it, now everyone seems to be fighting and Jukes can’t see how it can possibly stop now. It’s another circle of hell.
McWhirr also wants him to check on the engine-room. It’s another, deeper circle of hell – I can’t remember if Conrad is explicit about the metaphor, or if I’ve made it up – and a bubble of Victorian industrial ingenuity at the same time. Rout and the other men do their best to keep the furnaces hot, against the violence of the storm that seems about to turn everything upside-down. On deck, the wheel-house seems to be in danger of being washed away; the second mate is a broken man, and McWhirr justifies his own rejection of the man’s doom-laden talk by telling the others that he isn’t on duty. It’s another of those darkly comic moments – but none of the men would be surprised if the ship went down with everyone on boanrd. We already know what’s happened to the lifeboats.
Chapters 5-6 – to the end
A huge wave, followed by an unimaginably deep hollow, tosses the ship around like ‘a log’…. Is this before or after Captain McWhirr gives Jukes another of his absurd-seeming orders – to gather up all the Chinese passengers’ money? Jukes is almost speechless, but manages to do it with the other crew members, who seem too passive to resist. The Chinese are deeply suspicious, but the white men manage not only to follow their orders but to rig up some ropes to prevent them from being tossed around so badly. The Chinese are no more use than a cargo of animals would be, and all the thanks Jukes gets are ‘incomprehensible guttural hooting sounds, that did not seem to belong to a human language.’ And to think that I’d hoped for an anti-racist message when I first started reading. Conrad’s point isn’t to do with the mutual incomprehensibility of two cultures, but the superiority of one over another. I’ll come back to that.
After the wave that seems almost to sink them comes a short period of calm. McWhirr grudgingly tells Jukes that according to ‘the books’ there’ll be worse to come. He goes into the chart-room that has always been his refuge on board, and the chaos in there disturbs him as much as anything that has happened so far: for a man like him, if things aren’t where they should be there’s anarchy in the world. He seeks out the barometer, reaches for the matches always kept in a safe corner – and they are there beneath his fingers…. Perhaps things will be all right after all. Or perhaps not. He is so transfixed by the shockingly low barometer reading that he lets the match burn his fingers. He hopes it’s wrong, and he uses another match to read the back-up aneroid barometer. The first one was right. ‘The experience of the last six hours had enlarged his conception of what heavy weather could be like’, and now he is convinced by ‘matter’ – the inanimate instruments – having tried to ignore ‘the wisdom of men’. That’s McWhirr.
All the men are convinced that the ship couldn’t survive another assault like the last one. McWhirr tells Jukes they must somehow bring her round to face the onslaught – which is, I suspect, what he should have done from the start. Chapter 5 ends with them about to face the ‘renewed wrath of winds’, and Jukes just manages to catch the Captain’s words as he is ‘moved to declare, in a tone of vexation, as it were: “I wouldn’t like to lose her.”’
In fact, that’s not where the chapter ends, because there is another five-word paragraph: ‘He was spared that annoyance.’ And, if Chapters 2-5 have wrenched us away from the world of the familiar, the last chapter takes us back there. Even the form it takes is entirely different from what we have encountered at sea: instead of the thrashed and pummelled points of view of, mainly, Jukes and McWhirr we are on the dock-side as the ship sails into harbour. Onlookers are amazed at the state of it, as though half-destroyed by ‘the second batteries of a cruiser’. Men who are unknown to the onlookers – but not to us – emerge. We hear the self-serving complaints of the useless second mate, see the tall man we know to be Solomon Rout….
We never get inside the points of view of the two main characters in this final chapter. Instead Conrad conveys us to the other side of the world, as McWhirr’s wife yawns her way through her husband’s letter. She skims over parts of it as she thinks about her next shopping trip, missing entirely that ‘between 4 and 6 A. M. on December 25th, Captain MacWhirr did actually think that his ship could not possibly live another hour in such a sea.’ (I can’t begin to guess the significance of the date, which Conrad hasn’t mentioned before – unless it’s to show that Nature has no respect for dates.) Rout’s letter, read aloud by his wife to his mother, makes no more of an impression…. I’m reminded of those accounts from the First World War, not many years after this story was written, in which soldiers are so appalled by the lack of understanding shown by those in England that they soon stop trying to explain any of it.
We get a fuller account of Jukes’ letter, but Conrad focuses not on any account of the severity of the storm. Instead we get his description of how the fastidious, methodical McWhirr explained to the Chinese through their interpreter that all of them were to receive an equal share of the money his men had retrieved from the hold. The ship sails under a Siamese flag – did I mention that? – and therefore McWhirr could expect no consular help. In doing it his way he avoids any interference by corrupt Chinese officials who would probably end up pocketing all the money anyway. The Chinese know this as well as he does, and accept the white man’s can-do pragmatism. I don’t know whether this is Conrad’s satirical swipe at the arbitrary way things work in the British Empire, or whether it’s a swipe at the inadequacies of the demonstrably inferior cultures its lieutenants have to deal with. Both, I suspect. Whatever, the story ends with Jukes’ dismissive judgment on McWhirr: ‘I think that he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.’
It would seem so.