One of the things I love about reading groups is that they force you to at least try books outside your usual comfort zone. I’ve just finished reading Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad with my 19th century group. I’ve never been a fan of Conrad. I read Heart of Darkness at school & two of his other novels, The Secret Agent & Under Western Eyes, with this group & none of them engaged me. When I saw Almayer’s Folly in the list of books I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. Conrad again & set in Borneo, oh dear. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Almayer’s Folly very much.
Kaspar Almayer is a disappointed man. He feels European, although he was born in the East & has never visited Europe. He had great ambitions as a young man when he was apprenticed as a clerk to a trader in Macassar. After a year’s clerking, he joins the service of Lingard, a charismatic merchant who is said to have a map showing the whereabouts of a great treasure in the interior of the country. Almayer becomes a surrogate son to Lingard & eventually marries Lingard’s adopted daughter. He hopes to inherit Lingard’s fortune & discover the secret of the treasure. This girl (we never know her name) was rescued by Lingard after a battle with some Malay pirates. Lingard sends her to a convent school to be brought up as a European but he has no idea of her inner thoughts. She had expected to become the old man’s concubine, maybe his wife, & she is pragmatically resigned to that role. Instead, Lingard sends her to the convent & then marries her off to a clerk.
But her destiny in the rough hands of the old sea-dog, acting under unreasonable impulses of the heart, took a strange and to her a terrible shape. She bore it all – the restraint and the teaching and the new faith – with calm submission, concealing her hate and contempt for all that new life…And dressed in the hateful finery of Europe, the centre of an interested circle of Batavian society, the young convert stood before the altar with an unknown and sulky-looking white man. For Almayer was uneasy, a little disgusted, and greatly inclined to run away.
Such a marriage with two such unwilling partners was destined for failure. Twenty years later, they are still miserably together. Almayer’s business has dwindled to almost nothing. His father-in-law disappeared up the river one day, having used all his money on his futile treasure hunts. The trading business has been taken over by the Arabs. Almayer’s boast that he’s the only white man on the river, as though this were an advantage, seems increasingly hollow. Almayer & his wife have nothing but contempt for each other. Almayer has never loved or respected his wife. He is ashamed of having married a native woman & she is contemptuous of his lack of success in business. She spends her days chewing betel nuts, making sarongs for the servants out of the curtains & breaking up the furniture to feed the kitchen fire, growing more and more resentful & bitter.
Almayer’s only consolation is his daughter, Nina. He sends Nina to school under the protection of a trader’s wife but Nina learns the subtle discrimination of white, colonial society towards those of mixed race. Beautiful & proud, Nina returns home where she increasingly comes under the influence of her mother, who tells her stories of her Malay pirate forebears. Almayer still dreams of making a fortune & taking Nina to Amsterdam. He imagines they will be admitted to the best society & Nina will be feted for her beauty & charm. He decides to try to find Lingard’s treasure one more time & enlists the help of a Balinese prince, Dain Maroola. Dain & Nina fall in love, encouraged in their secret meetings by Mrs Almayer.
(Nina) had little belief and no sympathy for her father’s dreams; but the savage ravings of her mother chanced to strike a responsive chord, deep down somewhere in her despairing heart; and she dreamed dreams of her own with the persistent absorption of a captive thinking of liberty within the walls of his prison cell. With the coming of Dain she found the road to freedom by obeying the voice of the new-born impulses, and with surprised joy she thought she could read in his eyes the answer to all the questionings of her heart.
Dain falls foul of the Dutch rulers of the province when he buys gunpowder from Almayer & kills two Dutch sailors during a fight. He’s now on the run & refuses to leave without Nina. He pays Mrs Almayer a rich dowry & she comes up with a plan that will allow the lovers to escape & thwart all her husband’s plans at the same time. Almayer is devastated when he discovers that Nina loves Dain. He has deluded himself that, because he is of European blood, he & his daughter are superior to the native population. All the assumptions of colonisers throughout history are embodied in Almayer’s prejudices against his wife, his servants, the Arab traders & the Malay inhabitants of the country.
The title of the book has many meanings. Almayer’s folly could be his high opinion of himself, his love for his daughter that turns to disappointment & bitterness, the grand house he builds that he never lives in or his assumption of equality with the Dutch authorities who despise him.
For many years he had listened to the passionless and soothing murmur that sometimes was the song of hope, at times the song of triumph, of encouragement; more often the whisper of consolation that spoke of better days to come. For so many years! So many years! And now to the accompaniment of that murmur he listened to the slow and painful beating of his heart. He listened attentively, wondering at the regularity of its beats… No heart could suffer so and beat so steadily for long. Those regular strokes as of a muffled hammer that rang in his ears must stop soon. Still beating unceasing and cruel…How much longer? O God! How much longer?
Almayer’s Folly is an absorbing look at one man’s path through life from hope to disappointment, never realising that his own pride & narrow-mindedness are the causes of his lost ambitions.