Joseph Conrad should be an emblematic figure for the twentieth-first century. He was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who wrote about terrorism, the destructiveness of colonialism (and racism) and a bleakly uncertain moral universe where the best that can be achieved is to “be loyal to the nightmare of my choice”. 2017 was the 160th anniversary of his birth, and he still seems a contemporary figure, Conrad would have intimately understood both sides in the Brexit debate. This imaginatively conceived anthology pays tribute to Conrad in bringing together Polish writers, both in translation and one who writes (like Conrad) in English, alongside, mainly, British writers with Giles Foden, Kamila Shamsie and Paul Theroux as the most famous names.
It is as an introduction to Polish writers, and their differing reactions to Conrad, that is the centre of this anthology. Conrad was the son of a Polish patriot who did not live to see the existence of a Polish state, but Conrad himself was born in the Ukraine. Jan Krasnowolski’s moving memoir of his grandfather, ‘Guided By Conrad’, is a fascinating glimpse into the Polish perception of one of their greatest writers (though he never wrote in Polish). Krasnowolski’s grandfather was part of the generation, born in the 1920s, who would fight as partisans against Germany in World War Two and for whom Conrad “became a moral compass.” That partisan grandfather recognised the belief, in Conrad’s writing, of a code, loyalty to a value to live by.
In ‘Conrad Street’, Wojciech Orlinski depicts a future where a virus has wiped out the Caucasians in Europe. This post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe is dominated by the “de facto occupying army” of the Catholic Church. As in much of Conrad’s fiction there is little point in fighting against the building of this new world; all that can be achieved is for the individual to make his choice: “I preferred to perish with the Middle Ages.”
Paul Theroux’s ‘Navigational Hazard’ is set in the Conradian location of the Far East, in Singapore, and studies a sailor who learns that “loyalty is earned through righteousness.” It is a pleasingly entertaining story but has more in common with Roald Dahl’s stories of the unexpected than Conrad’s short stories. Sarah Schofield’s ‘Expectant Management’ gives an unsettling contemporary resonance to Conrad’s theme of ‘the secret sharer’, and with ‘Conrad Street’ is the most satisfying story (for anyone who reads this anthology alongside Conrad’s work).
Any Cop?: Conrad’s work was firmly embodied in twentieth-century culture, as much for being the basis for Apocalypse Now as for its impact on readers, and Conradology should be praised for bringing it into the literature, and politics, of the twenty-first century.